It's important because etiquette governs about every area of Japanese life, from personal interactions (polite) to bathing in public bathhouses (nude).
For instance, there is a whole system of bowing, depending on age, social status and just how bad your sciatica is. I won't learn that in my lifetime. But I know that some type of bow or nod will suffice in most every situation, even if you have no idea what that situation is. I find myself in that predicament often whenever I'm in public, answering hai, or "yes" to just about any utterance, whether it's "would you like that sushi-flavored corn dog heated up," or "where are you from?"
(And I must say that I'm relieved to know that at those rare times when a handshake takes the place of a bow, it's a straightforward grasp, not a time-consuming piece of fist-bumping performance art.)
There are correct ways of eating -- expressing gratitude for a meal you've been served by voicing a a heartfelt itadakamasu before you dig in, using chopsticks dexterously and slurping your noodles like a Hoover vacuum cleaner. When you pay for stuff, you do not hand your yen directly to the cashier, but instead, place it on a plastic tray and slide it over. You receive your change the same way. This could explain why the incidence of robberies in Japan is so low. It would take too long.
There is a time-honored custom of giving gifts that makes Santa Claus look like a piker. Gifts are not only for relatives and lovers, but for co-workers, hosts and business associates and there doesn't need to be a special occasion. However, you do need to know the fine points as to not inadvertently offend the receiver by giving them something inappropriate or just plain wrong, like a set of four AC/DC beer mugs (nothing wrong with the band, but the word for "four" also signifies the word for "death" in Japanese) or a gift certificate for a lap dance (the lap dance would signify that that Americans are really crass.)
The myriad of etiquette rules and their exceptions could cause you some agita. I have a big issue about screwing up, whatever it is, and the more I worry about doing it right, the less I enjoy the custom. But when I remind myself that the customs here are grounded in civility, kindness and respect -- and the people are forgiving -- I don't worry so much. In Japan, screwing up just means you get a mulligan.
One of the new customs I'm quickly adapting to is the removal of shoes in the doorway before entering a home.
As I understand it, the nature-loving Japanese believe that dirt is fine while it's outside, but no tramping it into the place where you live. Plus, shoes are hard on the woven tatami mats that cover the floors of most Japanese residences. I think it's a sane and sanitary idea.
But as my friend Vickie points out, it's also a nice metaphor for Busting Loose.
(I know you're thinking, how does he always manage to come up with these tortured connections to Busting Loose? It's a gift, what can I say.)
Let's say "outside" is what Robert Scheinfeld calls Phase 1.
Over the years, as we journey through life, our shoes pick up a lot of potentially nasty stuff to help convince us that we're anything but the totally abundant beings we were born as. Mud cakes on our Gucci loafers. Chewing gum adheres to the soles of our Birkenstocks. We step in some unseemly stuff while jogging past the dog park in our Nikes. Substitute mud, chewing gum and dogshit for false and self-defeating patterns, beliefs and stories, and you get the idea.
In that context then, taking off your shoes upon entering a home can be construed as a sign of respect and appreciation for the place you or others live.
The home, of course, represents Phase 2 and the Truth about yourself. By casting off the gnarly footwear and entering a place of expansion in clean socks, you are honoring yourself, appreciating your power, leaving behind judgments and loving yourself unconditionally.
Who knew there was so much power in a pair of Payless specials? Maybe Imelda Marcos was onto something.