Footwear

  • Peter Barakan

    Host

    Born in London in 1951, Peter earned a degree in Japanese from the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). An expert on diverse forms of popular music, Peter is also a well-known TV and radio presenter. He has lived in Japan for 40 years and has a deep understanding of the language and culture.

  • Matt Alt

    Reporter

    Born in Washington D.C. in 1973, Matt's interest in Japan was kindled by robot toys in his childhood. He worked as a translator for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office before co-founding a company that produces English versions of Japanese comics and video games. He also writes extensively about cultural trends including yokai, ninja, emoji, and more.

  • Kyoko Ichida

    Main guest

    Born in 1948, shoe-researcher Ichida spent 1983–2015 as curator of the Footwear Museum in Matsunaga, Hiroshima Prefecture, a town famed for the manufacture of geta. Her research into Japanese footwear has included numerous excursions to archaeological sites, and she is also well versed in the historical background of European shoes.

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May 19, 2016

Footwear

*You will leave the NHK website.

This edition of Japanology Plus is yet another opportunity to consider two quintessential characteristics of Japanese culture: kaleidoscopic manifestations of any social phenomenon that is perceived to have value, and a passionate attention to detail when one becomes strongly attached to any specific aspect of that phenomenon.

The social phenomenon in this case is what we wear on our feet, and Peter Barakan visits a museum that showcases footwear from Japan and the world. Obviously footwear has taken many different forms in many different cultures, but somehow Japan seems to have come up with more variety than most: buckets to step into, planks to strap on, weighted "stilts" for gathering seaweed. Through the centuries, cleverly catering to existing or anticipated requirements, Japanese footwear has blossomed exotically into countless different forms, offering countless different functions. A shoe with its own air-conditioning mechanism is a fine modern embodiment of this historical diversity.

Reporter Matt Alt, meanwhile, shows us a great example of that "passionate attention to detail" when he discovers the tender loving care that can be devoted to the simple act of polishing one's shoes.

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Kyoko Ichida is an expert on the history of footwear. 

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Matt learns the intricacies of shoe-polishing.

Although it's not mentioned in the program this time, in Japan shoes can also be a source of useful information. As you will see in the show, and as you probably already know, people take off their shoes when they pass through the genkan, the small lobby inside the front door of a private home. If that home is your own, and if members of your family don't always put their footwear away in the geta-bako (the shoe shelves inside the front door), then as you utter the customary "Tada ima!" ("I'm home!") on your way in, you'll know who is around just by glancing at the shoes. And maybe we should add that those shoes are not always as neatly arranged as the program might lead you to believe.

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In Japanese houses, shoes are left at the entrance.

As soon as you're out of your street shoes, you'll probably put on your very own pair of house slippers. Once again, if members of your family aren't fastidious about putting away their personal slippers, you'll have evidence to work with. One look at the slippers and shoes, Sherlock, and you'll be able to surmise not only that your wife is out and your son is at home, but also that one of his friends has come over -- because you've spotted an unfamiliar pair of boys' shoes.

You absorb all of this information in the briefest of moments, mainly because you're in a tearing hurry to get to the toilet and... Aaagh! Your son's friend is in there! How do you know? Because there on the floor outside the toilet door is a pair of guest slippers. It's common in Japan to take off your nice indoor slippers at the restroom door and don a pair of cheaper slippers (sometimes emblazoned with the word "TOILET" in English) to step inside.

When visiting a Japanese home, should you wish to avoid embarrassment after you answer the call of nature and rejoin your hosts in the sitting room, then remember to take the toilet slippers off again. (But do bear in mind that Japanese hosts are always amused to see a foreign guest make this mistake.)

This rookie error is even easier to make at a Japanese hot spring inn, where standard issue inn slippers and toilet slippers may look confusingly similar.

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For many in Japan, the "clip-clop" of wooden geta on the street is evocative of a stay at a hot spring resort.

But now you're at a hot spring, there's one footwear experience you shouldn't miss. At some resorts, you can don a yukata (cotton kimono) and go walking around the town wearing wooden geta like the ones you see in the program. Not only will you have a chance to think about why Peter Barakan used to love wearing geta in everyday life, you will also immediately notice a unique aspect of their appeal: their wonderful sound. Hear the clip-clop of geta just once, and you may find it becomes an indelible soundtrack to your memory of a hot spring vacation.

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Old-fashioned Japanese-style ice skates. 

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Special footwear used for gathering seaweed in Tokyo Bay.

Also appearing

Yuna Shimaka

An expert polisher, with the technique to buff your shoes to a mirror-like sheen.

 

*You will leave the NHK website.