The Japanese home has a plaque at the entrance inscribed with the name of the head of the household. Sometimes it is inscribed with the names of everyone in the family. Open the front door, and one enters the area called the genkan. This is the place to take off and put on one's shoes, overcoat, and other outdoor wear.
The custom of removing one's shoes before entering the house is believed to go back over one thousand years to the pre-historical era of elevated-floor structures. It has continued to the present, even after the westernization of the Japanese home, which began in the Meiji period (1868-1912). The term genkan originally referred to the entranceway to a inner and hallowed place and had religious connotations. Today, it simply refers to the space intervening between the outside and inside of a dwelling. Inside the front door is a small area usually floored with the same stone or tile covering as the outside area leading up to the front door. The wooden or tatami-covered floor of the the house itself is a step up from the entrance area, and one must remove one's footwear before stepping up onto the floor. One thus leaves behind the "dirt" of the outside, literally and figuratively, before entering the home. Guests are ushered into a guest room, but postal and package deliveries and other such quick transactions take place right at the genkan.
Every home, no matter how large or small, will have a built-in shoe closet in the genkan area. This shoe closet is sometimes called a getabako, literally "geta box," after traditional geta (clogs or sandals). Geta are seldom worn today, but the term is still used. Family footwear is stored in the shoe closet, but the shoes of guests remain in the genkan, neatly aligned with the toes pointing out toward the door.
If the genkan is large enough, it may also have an umbrella rack and hooks to hang up coats and jackets. The top of the shoe closet may be used as a space to display an arrangement of flowers, a bonsai, or a decorative piece of pottery. Some households use this place to display photos of family and friends. The genkan is one of the traditional Japanese spaces that has been preserved, even when the rest of the home is thoroughly Western in style.
Schools also have large genkan, lined with lockers where the school children store their outdoor shoes. Inside the school they wear soft, slipper-like shoes called uwabaki. Some schools require special sneakers to be worn on the school grounds and yet another pair of sneakers for use inside the school gym. The indoor uwabaki and gym shoes are generally color-coded for each school. It is not necessary to remove one's shoes in large public facilities like big hospitals, office buildings, and department stores, but at the local clinic and in private homes, it is still customary to remove outdoor shoes at the genkan and put on slippers. Separate indoor wear is also generally required at public gymnasiums and other sports facilities. Temples and shrines generally provide slippers for worshippers, but the slippers are to be removed before stepping into the main sanctuary and before entering tatami-floored areas.
The Japan Forum Newsletter No.8 "A day in The Life" June 1997
Removing Shoes http://www.tjf.or.jp/eng/content/japaneseculture/02kutsu.htm