I used to think that the genkan in my house was simply the place to to take off my shoes or, if coming in a bit the worse for wear, the place to fall asleep while attempting to take off my shoes. I have since discovered, however, that it is also a place where postmen and the like think they have free reign to enter whenever they so please. They might offer a courtesy knock and perhaps shout a gomen kudasai to announce their arrival, but oftentimes they will slide open the front door if you do not answer immediately. This would all be fine and dandy were my house not so poorly designed. The architect, you see, decided that the bathroom would be directly opposite my front door, not thinking that the future occupant of the house might on occasion stroll merrily pantless out of his bathroom on his way to the bedroom to get dressed. My, how the Jehovah’s Witnesses got quite the rude surprise when they opened the door a tad too eagerly! Still, they haven’t called back too often, so every cloud and all that.
A British friend of mine had a similar problem with the poorly designed genkan / bathroom door combination. He had not been in Japan long and lived on the third floor of an apartment block in which every flat looked more or less the same. All of the mail boxes were outside the entrance on the ground floor and every morning he would pop down to see if he had any post. On this particular morning he had received a letter from a friend at home and had begun reading it as he climbed the stairs back to his flat. Not concentrating on counting the flights of stairs to his own flat he opened the door of the flat directly below his, on the second floor, much to the alarm of a twenty-something year old topless girl.
My friend spoke barely a word of Japanese and was so shocked that he slammed the door shut and ran upstairs to his own flat. But then he began to worry about what his neighbour would think of the pervy foreign bloke who had just moved in and who had come in to peep at her when she got out of the shower. He began to panic and knowing that Japan was a gift-giving nation went back down the stairs with some snacks of some sort to offer by way of apology. It was a simple peace offering. An ‘I know I looked at your bosoms, but here’s some cake, so are we okay now?’ kind of thing.
He knocked on the door and said that the woman took an age to answer, no doubt trembling as she observed the sweating gaijin through the spy-hole on the front door. My friend had no idea how to explain in Japanese just what his error had been and so, when the woman did eventually answer the door, he simply bowed deeply and handed over the snacks. He attempted to say gomen nasai which he knew meant sorry in Japanese, but his nerves got the better of him and he instead offered, gomi nasai. What this in effect meant was that he walked in on his semi-naked neighbour, ran away without saying anything and then returned with some snacks which he then presented to her by saying, ‘Rubbish!’ He never did see the woman again and believed she moved out shortly afterwards.