Japanese Shoe Etiquette- Business Setting
June 11, 2017 8:36 AM   Subscribe

My company is sending me to Tokyo to present at our conference in November. I have never been to Japan before and need help with the business etiquette of shoes.

I am a 5'9" cis American woman and have read that high heels are frowned upon, doubly so if you are taller. So I am researching flats/low heeled professional shoes because literally every pair of professional shoes I own are at least 3 inch heels. Will I be expected to take my shoes off at the conference? Will knee high stockings suffice as socks? Should I purchase shoes that are meant to be worn with socks instead? I read that slippers are provided when you remove your shoes at some places - is it appropriate to expect this at a business conference? Do you have examples of what kind of shoes/style of shoes Japanese women wear to work? I am at a bit of a loss here and need all the help I can get!

This will be the first in a series of many questions about this trip/Japanese culture & etiquette/etc - so please stick to business shoe advice for this question.

I promise I will ask a thousand more about clothing/demeanor/makeup/presentation etiquette/restaurants/activities etc.

Thank you!
posted by Suffocating Kitty to Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion (10 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Japanese people get that Westerners don't know their shoes on/shoes off etiquette and generally provide explanations, so I wouldn't sweat it too hard. That said, at a conference venue, shoes would most likely stay on. You would take them off if you're sitting in the section of a restaurant or bar that has tatami mats and low Japanese seating, or if you're visiting a colleague at home (which you probably won't if this is in Tokyo; Tokyoites don't entertain at home much because their apartments are so tiny). In the section of a restaurant that has Western seating, or if it's all Western seating, shoes generally stay on.

The only really serious shoe-related faux pas you need to remember are, never wear shoes on a tatami mat, and if you're somewhere that's shoes-off and slippers-on and you go to the toilet, there are separate restroom slippers you need to switch to, and you never, ever wear the regular slippers into the restroom or the restroom slippers outside of it.
posted by strangely stunted trees at 9:05 AM on June 11 [5 favorites]

If you are at a conference centre, generally you stay in your shoes. If you are at a company where people change shoes, there will be an area near the door to change shoes and the boxes for guest shoes will have slippers in them. If your feet are larger than US 9, you might not fit in the slippers. I used to carry my own indoor flats with me because even though I could wear the slippers, I'm far too clumsy to go up and down stairs in them. Japanese women wear nylons as part of professional dress, not socks. They wear them even when the weather is humid and disgusting.
posted by betweenthebars at 9:22 AM on June 11 [2 favorites]

Congratulations on your trip! I think you'll have a fantastic time. :D

If you're 5'9" and in three-inch heels, you definitely will be taller than most of the people around you. The question of whether heels are frowned upon is orthogonal to you—as a non-Japanese person (particularly one who doesn't speak Japanese and is generally unfamiliar with the culture) you will not be held to those standards. You should wear what you feel comfortable and professional in.

You won't have to worry about taking your shoes off in the conference center itself. Also, whenever you do need to remove your shoes (e.g., a home, certain restaurants, public baths), it will be extremely obvious; there will be a place to put your footwear, and guest slippers for you to wear in place of your shoes if you're going to be walking around in the no-shoes space.

I very much understand and empathize with your anxiety, but trust me when I say this is less of a big deal than you may be imagining, simply because your hosts won't expect you to know everything already, and will always make it very clear what the right thing to do is.
posted by Sokka shot first at 9:32 AM on June 11 [5 favorites]

I agree with the above posters that as a Westerner, you won't be expected to conform to local standards as to which shoes you wear outside.

The women I saw in Tokyo dressed in professional attire were typically wearing shoes like these - 1-2" heels that are plain and chunky by American standards and more practical for walking long distances, similar to what I often see flight attendants wear in the States. There didn't seem to be as many ballet flats, booties, and brogues as I see women wear here.
posted by asphericalcow at 9:57 AM on June 11

Shoes on and off does not apply to the office/conferences, so don't worry about it. If you're going over for work, you may have to take off your shoes when being seated at your table at a restaurant (if it's a low table and you have a big group) but you'll be seated.

The conferences I went to in Japan (while I was working in Japan for a Japanese company last year) I was specifically told that I should wear heels, which was a pain since I don't usually wear them let me tell you! Especially since one of them involved a day trip to Osaka and 3+ hours each way of running for trains, standing on trains.

I would say that most professional women wear low/kitten heels, which I think is likely due to the sheer amount of time on your feet. If you can stand for long periods, walk long distances, jog for the train, and possibly do all that drunk in your 3+ inch heels, then I wouldn't worry about your shoes.

I know you said you'll have other asks, but feel free to MeMail me any other questions anyway!
posted by Caravantea at 12:24 PM on June 11

With regard to socks vs stockings, this is entirely a personal comfort thing. Are you fine walking on various (clean) surfaces in stocking feet?

If you want to be 120% prepared and your feet are kind of large, find your local Daiso store or big Asian department store if you're lucky, and look for house shoes or slippers. There are bulkier more shoe-like ones but aim for flat slides that are like more modest flipflops. When shopping bring your big travel purse and make sure they fit in there, and then you will always have inside-only shoes on your trip. My uncle who has way too big feet and lives in Seoul and often travels all over East Asia for business has his own pair of larger house shoes that live in his bag like this. It is an affectation but certainly nothing that would offend anybody and can often be impressive as in "wow this westerner sure is prepared". If you don't have large feet you will definitely be able to wear slippers anywhere that this would be an issue, so only worry about it if you have hygiene concerns (you getting your foot fungus on their communal slippers, not their slippers being gross).
posted by Mizu at 3:19 PM on June 11 [1 favorite]

I agree with everyone else saying that people won't hold you to the same standards they would hold a Japanese woman to, and also that you will know whether to take your shoes off or not somewhere, but a conference center likely isn't one of those places.

I would wear stockings, though, and not too high heels because you might have to stand a lot, and if you're already tall, it might be awkward to tower over everyone else. That said, if you don't, no one will give you beef about it, but I imagine you will get a lot of "you're so tall" comments. (I'm 5 ft. 2, so all I get are "your Japanese is so good!" comments, even after saying nothing but 'konnichiwa'...)

Women wear these kinds of shoes for work:

However, once they're a bit more established at your job, i.e. their job hunt and newbiew phase is over, depending on the workplace, women wear flats, oxfords, sometimes even sandals (with black stockings in them...) and all kinds of shoes, but those aren't exactly safe choices if you don't know the place you'll be going to. White people are kind of seen as fashionable no matter what they wear (which seems really weird to me), so you might spark a new trend with your usual shoes. ;)

If you adhere to every single Japanese rule to perfection, people might actually start expecting you to speak Japanese, and if you can't do that... You might actually garner more favour by adhering to most rules so that people know you really wanted to blend in, but then have one or two cute bloopers to break the ice. I'm not saying you have too, though.
posted by LoonyLovegood at 8:36 PM on June 11

Just going to echo a few other people here. I go to many conferences here in Japan, and I welcome a lot of international visitors from all over to those conferences. Just wear whatever shoes you prefer. Even in flats you are going to be tall, so just go with it. For this kind of visit there are very few places, if any, where you will have to remove them. And, when you have to, people will make it very clear. The most likely scenario is a restaurant, and it will be obvious. The main thing to consider is that sometimes you need to do a fair amount of city street walking. Plan for that and don't worry about the off-on. Enjoy Tokyo!
posted by Gotanda at 3:51 AM on June 12

I forgot to say this: The only thing your shoes absolutely should be (other than business, appropriate, i.e. closed front etc.), is easy to remove. If you end up a restaurant where you have to take your shoes off, you don't want to fumble with them for five minutes to get them off, and then five more minutes to get them back on while everything is ready to leave.
posted by LoonyLovegood at 7:35 PM on June 12

Thank you to all the excellent answers! I ended up buying these shoes and loving them. They are very comfortable and a very small heel. Thanks again for all the great answers!
posted by Suffocating Kitty at 3:49 PM on June 13

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