Few boundaries in Japan are as visibly obvious and as important as genkan – a threshold marking an entry into someone’s home, a temple, a school or even traditional business premises.
Located right past the front door, genkan serves both as a kind of porch (or a mudroom) and a doormat. It’s where people remove their shoes before proceeding inside. To maintain order and to make the exit at the end of the visit easier, the shoes are placed with their toes towards the door. If it’s raining or cold, genkan is also where guests put down their umbrellas and take off their coats. Once they make themselves presentable, they will be greeted by the host and led inside.
In traditional buildings, genkan is typically recessed into the floor. The presence of a step, which sometimes can reach as high as a shin or even a knee, helps contain dirt or grime that would be brought from the outside.
The custom goes back to ancient traditions of South-East Asian architecture. In areas frequented by monsoons and typhoons, houses were often raised on stilts; in order to enter, people often had to climb or walk up a ladder. That protected them from water or mud and also led to the development of culture, in which most daily activities – eating, sitting, entertaining or even sleeping – occurred on the floor. It was, therefore, important to keep it clean.
In Japan, the need to maintain cleanliness was further reinforced by the presence of tatami mats. Floors covered with rice straw could easily be soiled or damaged and so, they could not be stepped upon by anyone wearing shoes.
But as important as these pragmatic considerations might have been, genkan in Japan first and foremost serves as a psychological boundary. Crossing the genkan amounts to being let into someone’s intimate space. It is therefore considered a sign of an intimate relationship. In most cases, an invitation or permission to do so is reserved for family members and a few closest friends. Casual visitors – a delivery man, or a friendly neighbor who stops by to say hello – will usually remain at the genkan.
Both the threshold and the custom of removing shoes serve as powerful symbols. They help to separate the outside from the inside and the public from the private. Genkan marks the transition from the sphere where one feels safe and comfortable to open up and reveal their true feelings, from the realm where it’s important to follow conventions, meet expectations and maintain appearances.
Respect for boundaries that separate these two worlds defines Japanese culture in a profound way. Genkan underscores that respect — its presence manifests something that is deeply embedded in the Japanese psyche.