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Saturday, April 5, 2003

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

The hardest adjustment to Japan: a slippery topic


I don't mind putting my foot in my mouth. That's one way to keep it clean.

So here goes . . .

I say the trickiest adjustment to living in Japan is not in learning to successfully miscommunicate in Japanese . . . nor in developing disregard for the probing eyes and elbows of packed urban life . . . nor even in growing accustomed to eating food that sometimes looks like it might have already been eaten once by somebody else.

Nope. The hardest thing has been . . . those gol-durned house slippers.

Now, I do not have a foot fetish. I dwell on my feet no more than I do on my other body parts -- which is not so very often. If you knew my body, you would surely understand.

Yet I admit to being fond of my feet. I have two, and both are svelte cuties compared with the hairy gunboats displayed by foreign friends. These same feet have carried me without a complaint for almost half a century now, and I feel keenly attached to them both.

In fact, the only times I have ever heard them scream in protest was when I inserted them into Japanese house slippers.

The scream goes something like this . . . "CRAMP!"

For no matter how svelte, my feet have either had to put up with the heel of the slipper mashing up into the arch or -- in the rare case of finding a slipper of acceptable size -- of going with no arch support whatsoever. Either way, they soon sing out in prolonged vibrato . . . "CRAMP!"

I am not against the idea of slippers per se. Taking off one's footwear when entering a home seems altogether reasonable and, through the years, I have learned to wear shoes that slip on and off easily -- this unlike some people who always seem to need shoehorns, crowbars, instruction manuals and whatnot.

So I agree with keeping the grime of city streets out of the house. However, I see no problem with tromping about indoors in socks or even barefoot.

Such behavior is natural, comfortable, sensible and economical -- all reasons, I suppose, why the Japanese don't like it.

For I find something about slippers cumbersomely stiff and formal. They remind me of wooden pillows and butterfly-tied kimonos and overcourteous language. They're a bit ceremonial, a bit ostentatious and a bit awkward to use. They only place they seem to fit well -- I feel -- is in the trash can.

So I shun them. So do my kids. In our family the only person who insists on being slippery is thus my Japanese wife.

Just watching her can make my feet hurt. The routine is always the same.

She comes home, removes and neatly arranges her shoes in our "genkan," then tugs on her slippers. Next, she shuffles the 2 meters to her mother's room -- which is tatami.

There she steps from the slippers and enters the room in her stockings. Once she ascertains her bedridden mother is fine, she leaves the room, pushes back into her slippers and takes two strides to our living room, which is carpeted. Here -- again -- she leaves the slippers behind.

In essence, she has changed her footwear three times to travel 3 meters. The mere sound of her donning those slippers and scuffling quickly over the hallway floor -- slap, plop, plop, plop -- can make my own feet curl backward in pain.

"CRAMP!"

Japanese guests typically follow this same slipper suit. When I pull open our front door to find my wife entertaining friends, I am always greeted by a shipyard of slippers lined up before our living room entrance -- each guest having dutifully slap-plopped that short span from one door to the other.

Never, however, have my wife and I argued out the questionable merits of slipper usage. Instead, I have let her slipper away unopposed.

For I feel certain the concepts of "women," "feet" and "logic" will not fit in the same conversation. Any person who would purchase something as painful looking as a pair of high heels -- let alone wear them -- is surely not going to be reasonable when it comes to slippers.

Of course, no survey of slippers would be complete without mentioning the toilet variety. There is an easy explanation why such slippers are usually a stabbing blue or a shocking pink, or at least have the word "TOILET" stamped boldly across the top.

And that is so that when some numskull gets lost in the silly tradeoff of slipper to slipper and accidentally wears the toilet version out to the dinner table or wherever, everyone can then notice quickly and begin to snicker behind that person's back.

This has happened to me so often that whenever I see anyone snickering for whatever reason, I immediately check my feet. Through some twinge of fate, toilet slippers do not give me cramps. That is, not where they should.

My feet feel great. My brain, however, locks up tight.

But this will occur only away from home. For in my own house, I touch slippers for just one purpose -- which seems to be the best reason for having them around.

Nothing, you see, can smash a cockroach quite like a house slipper -- especially if you crank your delivery.

"I'm home!" my wife will call from the entranceway -- to be followed by the sound "slap, plop, squish, plop."

"Something's wrong with one of my slippers!"

"That's funny," I will call back, flexing my wrist.

"A minute ago it worked just fine."

To contact Thomas Dillon, send e-mail to marriedtojapan@yahoo.com


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