Stepping out of line in the East
The fact that it was an honest mistake which caused me to lose face in Japan did little to ease my discomfort. Interestingly, it was my determination to lend a helping hand which led to my embarrassment.
I was handing out chairs to our Japanese host to set up for our meeting at the community centre where we would receive an update on the status of the temporary housing programme for residents who were dislocated during the 2016 earthquakes which devastated Mashiki. In my attempt to hasten our progress, I stepped up on to the elevated floor to hand him the chair when I was stopped in my tracks by the urgency of the shout.
“Take off your shoes!”
Immediately, I knew I had erred and proceeded to shuck my shoes. The voice was that of Megumi Araki, the director/secretary general of the Association for Promotion of International Cooperation (APIC).
APIC was sponsoring the Japan Journalism Fellowship in cooperation with the Tokyo-based Foreign Press Centre Japan.
The reprimand was delivered with a sense of urgency but no anger, and for that I was grateful.
I had heard that shoes were not allowed in Japanese homes but this was a community centre and, therefore, excluded, I thought, until our presenter explained that it was in essence “a home for all the people”.
Properly chastened, I took my place among the other participants when the peace was broken for the second time in a few minutes. Ironically, André Huie, a Jamaica-born senior journalist, CEO and co-founder of SKN Newsline out of St Kitts, who was out of the room when I was chastised, also committed the cardinal sin.
As the tour of the Tempo Temporary Housing compound progressed, we were shown one of the model houses and, again, had to take off our shoes, despite the fact that no one was resident.
During a break, one of our coordinators, Mayuko Fukasawa, explained: “In office buildings, yes, we wear shoes. Like if I go to the office, yes. For my house, we take off our shoes at the entrance and inside house we do not wear shoes, never.
“We call it Genkan. It’s sorta like a small space between the entrance and the floor.”
The primary purpose of the Genkan is for the removal of shoes before entering the main house or building.
“If you are not comfortable barefooted inside the house, then you wear slippers or socks,” Mayuko continued.
“That is why one of the first things I tell people when they come to Japan is to make sure their socks don’t have holes in them,” Programme Coordinator Floyd Takeuchi said with a smile.