Wondering what is Genkan? In this blog post, we’ll be discussing the myths and benefits of having Genkan.
Every place has its own set of cultural rules and most have such stark differences from each other, making each place culturally unique.
Genkan speaks about the norms of footwear removal. So, let me ask you a question: do you think one should also wear outdoor footwear inside their houses?
Well, while in countries like India, Germany and Korea outdoor footwear is left outside the house before a person enters their home or the home of another, in most English countries and in the Netherlands, footwear is worn even inside the house as there is no significant practice of footwear removal. So it all boils down to a country’s cultural practices.
Here genkan refers to a cultural practice where footwear is left in the foyer at the entrance of the house during a person’s entry.
But why are Japanese so particular about this practice? What exactly is its cultural significance and history? Well, this article has all the answers to your questions!
What Is Genkan?
What Is Genkan In Japan?
In Japan, every house has a designated area at their entrances which are reserved specifically for shoes to be left and this area is called as “Genkan”.
This genkan is right at the entryway of the house, which is an area that is a step or two lower than the rest of the house. The genkan is located right in front of the main door.
The main purpose of having this genkan is for people to remove their shoes and place them within that area, before entering the main part of the house.
In fact, apart from homes, even public spaces have a genkan. Places like schools, public baths, etc. They even have large cupboards called “Getabako” where they can keep their shoes.
The genkan is a feature made in places to prevent the feet, socks or home slippers from getting dirty while they walk around the main inside area of the place.
Most Japanese remove their outdoor footwear in the genkan and keep their indoor slippers on the step at the entry of the main house, so they can slip their feet into it immediately once they have taken out their shoes.
Therefore, it is essential that people do not step barefoot in the genkan, because the outside dirt will stick to their feet and will carry the mud all over the main house.
Once the person steps into the main house, they can immediately change into “uwabaki” (or home slippers or shoes), that are meant solely for indoor use. It is important to note that these indoor slippers can be worn all around the house, apart from areas that have tatami mats (a type of Japanese flooring).
How Is A Genkan Designed?
The genkan is built like a small vestibule that is made at the level of the floor, right as you enter into the main door of the house or building.
The bigger the house or building, the larger will be the genkan. Therefore, if you see small houses in Japan, they have a very small genkan. It is made to separate the main part of the house from the entry area.
This genkan is the area where house residents or even visitors have to remove their street footwear as they enter and place it in the genkan or in the getabako (shoe cupboard), so that all the dirt and mud brought from the outside gets contained within that area and doesn’t come into the main part of the house.
The main part of the house is built raised, so that it is a step or two higher than the genkan. Usually, the step is built at shin-level or sometimes even higher, at knee-level.
In the present day, since there are many people who own very small apartments, they have a genkan that is built at the same level as the main part of the house, but it is made of a different flooring material so that people can demarcate between the genkan and the main area of the house.
The History Of Genkan
The history of genkan dates way back into Japanese history of over thousands of years ago to the prehistoric era in time.
Originally, the very word “genkan” was used for the entryway of a Zen temple. It used to refer to a gateway to learning profound knowledge, which implied that someone who crossed the genkan or the gateway was stepping into a new life where they could experience Zen training. It was significant because it was a trainee’s first step into their new life, the life of Zen.
Later during the 17th century, the samurai class of people began building vestibules in front of the main entry of their houses and buildings and they called these vestibules as “genkan”.
Features Of Genkan
It is built a step lower
The genkan is most often built a step or two lower than the main part of the house, as stated earlier.
This is because it can easily contain all the dirt within that vestibule, making it easy to trap the dirt and not let it spread to the rest of the house. This is why people sometimes call it as the “mud room”.
Contains dirt and leaves it behind
One of the main reasons the Japanese maintain the genkan at a lower level, while the main house is built slightly elevated is because when the person comes from out, removes their outdoor footwear and take a step up, into the main area of the house, it means that they are leaving the dirt from the outside, where it belongs and do not carry it into the house.
The significance of this is that figuratively, people leave the negativity and unnecessary things in the outside world and enter clean into the inside world.
Most often has a getabako (shoe cupboard)
In homes where the genkan is small, they do not have a getabako or shoe cupboard to place their shoes in. The shoes are simply placed anywhere in the genkan area or towards one side.
But in larger homes and in public buildings and public spaces, the genkan has a getabako. This is because public areas are used by many and the shoes can block the entryway into the main area. Thus, a getabako is provided for the people to place their shoes.
It is also made so that people can maintain neatness and cleanliness in the genkan area.
Outdoor shoes face the door
Most often, when people place their shoes in the genkan, they place them with the toe area of the shoe facing towards the main door.
This symbolizes that the shoes are to be worn while leaving the house and for outdoor purposes. While this is a practice, it is not a compulsion that people must follow it.
Symbol of greeting and being invited
Another traditional significance of having a genkan in Japanese homes is for the purpose of greeting.
This is when visitors are invited over, they often stand in the genkan and wait until the homeowner comes to formally greet them and welcome them into their home or the “Yoritsuki” (the inner vestibule or the main area of the home).
This means that the visitors or guests experience a feeling of being invited and welcomed by the people who have invited them over.
It is a place for brief visits
It is not always that you have visitors who are invited or visit for specific purposes. Some people drop by for a brief visit and some people come for a brief stop for the purpose of work like delivery people.
During this time, as in the Japanese culture, people do not talk or accept deliveries across the threshold of their main door or main entrance of their house or maybe on their porch.
But since they are only there for a brief visit, they enter into the main door and complete the purpose of their visit while standing in the genkan.
After the outdoor footwear is removed at the genkan; can the tabi be worn into the main house?
The tabi are the traditional footwear worn by the Japanese that have a separate section for the big toe. The tabi is worn like a pair of socks and are then worn inside outdoor footwear like geta, zori etc.
Therefore, since the tabi doesn’t touch the ground when outdoors, some people wear it by themselves even inside the house, after removing their outdoor footwear in the genkan area.
Why is the genkan area sometimes decorated?
Well, a lot of people often decorate the genkan area with potted plant, vases, flowers or ornaments. This is because the genkan is considered as an interface between the outside world and the inside part of the home.
Therefore, decorating the genkan is a common practice, to present a good image of a home or building to visitors and people entering.
The Final Takeaway
Culture has such a significant role to play in our lives and in making each community different from the other.
Each and every practice pertaining to a specific culture is a mere reflection of that community. It is following these cultural practices that bring about a sense of unity among the people.
So, if you are someone who loves culture and tradition, then this would have been an interesting read for you! Japan has many such cultural traditions and the genkan is just one among their many unique and interesting traditions.