“Shinto” is a word many people with an interest in Japan are familiar with, most often identifying the beautiful Shinto shrines scattered generously around the country.
Shintoism or “shinto-do” is Japan’s most prolific native religion and hosts an innumerable pantheon of gods due to the belief that spirits and gods are in everything. And Shintoism is old. It first appeared in the 8th century, in the historical Kojiki document, but many scholars place its origins much further back in the country’s history. It has grown alongside Japan as a country and due to the nature of an island nation, it had little chance to spread and be influenced by other cultures. As a result, the line between Japanese cultural practice and Shinto religious practice began to blur and thin and in some cases disappear altogether until it was impossible to have one without the other.
To find an example of this “everyday Shinto” in Japan, look no further than the door to a house. Well, not the door itself, but a little lower. This is the genkan, the entryway for every Japanese house, and most public buildings such as schools, community centers, traditional restaurants, and even the occasional doctor’s office. In the genkan, guests remove their shoes and take a small step up to the official inside of the building.
While this doesn’t seem particularly religious at first glance, identifying the Shinto tenant at work paints a very different picture. “Purity” in the Shinto practice is synonymous with “cleanliness” in all its meanings, both physical, mental, and spiritual. Within these several different aspects, the genkan exists to manage the most tangible. As it clearly defines what is “inside” and “outside” it simultaneously denotes what is “clean” and “unclean”. While this directly relates to the bottom of one’s shoes, it also encompasses the person as a whole and the building under the genkan’s care.
As an American, I often hear the stereotype that Americans wear shoes in their houses. (One young man was insistent that we wore our shoes all the way to bed!) In my experience, wearing shoes in the house is rather uncommon, easily recalling the times I was scolded for tracking dirt all over the rug. However, it seemed to be just a habit of cleanliness; a way to preserve the carpet and floors from the elements brought inside. It was also not uncommon to quickly run inside for a forgotten item fully shod, or to assuage guests “not to worry about it.”
These infractions are unthinkable tresspasses for the genkan. Crawl with your hands and knees if you absolutely must but your shoes must never touch the elevated floor. Once, I had movers bringing up a sofa and already empathetic for the flight of stairs they had climbed, I encouraged them to keep their shoes on. But they politely ignored me and shuffled back and forth under the weight of large furniture to toe off their “dirty” shoes.
Since the genkan serves as a gate to one’s house, it is a common practice to be less strict about the other entrances and exits of the building. This does mean that sometimes, the line between “inside” and “outside” is completely invisible as far as pathways to nearby buildings or external walkways are concerned. But perhaps these small violations of cleanliness and purity are to encourage interaction with nature and one’s environment, another strong tenant of Shintoism.
This well-known Japanese custom is a clear example of how inconspicuous Shinto rituals have assimilated into daily practices.