Why Bare Feet?
Why do we train barefoot? In many martial arts, especially those of Japanese tradition, training is conducted without footwear. Is it to develop the muscles of the ankle in a more refined way than is possible while training with shoes on? Is it something spiritual? Or is it a totally useless tradition? We are more likely to have to use our techniques in a self-defense situation while wearing footwear, are we not?
There may actually be several reasons for taking off the shoes for training. To start with, let us examine the tradition of taking off the shoes when entering a home in Japan.
Reasons for taking off the shoes at home are prioritized in the minds of most Japanese:
2. Separation of “outside” vs. “inside”
In other cultures where shoes are traditionally removed upon entry into the home, such as China, the priorities may be different. It is my opinion that many Chinese treat cleanliness with less importance on this issue than they do comfort. This is based on my experiences in China and Taiwan, as well as with many homes of Chinese and Chinese-Americans in the USA. The difference in priorities is not necessarily “wrong” or “right” as much as it is simply “different.” This difference may play a part in explaining why many Chinese martial arts are practiced in footwear. It may also have something to do with why the clothing of many Chinese martial artists appears to be so much more comfortable than their Japanese counterparts.
In the Japanese tradition, as I believe it should be other places as well, it is considered quite rude to attempt to enter someone’s house without first removing the shoes, even if told that it is OK to do so. On the other hand, it is considered rude for someone to ask visitors to remove their shoes when the floor is dirty. Even here in the US, if I enter someone’s home and it looks clean, I will assume that I should remove my shoes at the door.
Although training without shoes on may be more comfortable to some people, it seems that comfort must not be a major reason for taking the shoes off for training, even if it is the main reason to remove the shoes at home. A symbolic expression of “outside” vs. “inside” may play a part in this tradition; the student puts aside the garments of the outside world and dons the simple white uniform of his fellow students. But, to me, it is the idea of cleanliness, as well as the related safety factor, is by far the most important reason to train barefoot.
The floor must be as clean as possible during training. I think this idea is generally understood by everyone. Whether wearing something on the feet or not, a small particle of debris on the foot could fly into someone’s eye as a result of a kick. If anything is worn on the feet, it must be cleaned thoroughly before each training session. Would that really be worth the extra time? There may be some people who, due to some condition or injury, must wear footwear during training. Those people must take extra effort to clean their footwear for safety reasons. Of course the training surface must be kept clean regardless of the type of footwear, or lack thereof. But removing footwear upon entering the dojo should help make the cleaning of the floor that much less work. Please see my article on Dojo Etiquette for related points.
The ideas of distance to the target and making contact are also something worth considering. The distance is more difficult to control when the foot is encased in a shoe or even with foam padding. This also relates to the safety aspect, as a lack of control could cause unintended injury. Additionally, the feeling one gets when making contact when kicking with the bare foot during training is better for providing physical feedback. On a related note, we use some different muscles of the foot and ankle when wearing nothing on the feet. These small muscles help control minor adjustments in balance when standing on the floor. To appreciate the role of these small muscles, try standing on one foot for several minutes. You should notice that you make very minor adjustments with your foot/ankle to keep your balance. This is similar to the way a cat uses its tail for balance when walking across a narrow wall.
“Sticking” to the floor may sometimes be a problem when training barefoot on mats. But this is often much more of a problem with shoes on. While the shoe may offer some additional support for the ankle, the added sensitivity in the nerves of the foot while training barefoot may further reduce risk of injury from slipping or sticking.
Those who simply accept the idea of training without shoes on as “tradition” may miss the point. An example of this is when students take off their shoes at the dojo door, then step outside to stretch our or use the restroom, still not wearing anything on their feet. They may then track in dirt, debris or unwanted bacteria to the dojo on their return. This almost completely defeats the purpose of removing shoes when entering the dojo. If someone is coming into the dojo after having been on a dirty floor surface, the feet should be properly cleaned (or, at the very least, brushed off), before stepping back onto the dojo floor.
So, when training outside on dirt or grass, should we wear anything on our feet? In terms of kicking up debris, this may be inevitable; there will be some loose sand, etc., on the ground no matter how well you clean the area. In terms of protection for your feet, though, it may be in our best interest to wear something on the feet while training outside. That being said, when training with footwear, contact when kicking should be limited, or even completely deleted from the training. And, as with training on mats, we must be very careful of not injuring ourselves by letting our feet “stick” when turning. Furthermore, we should be careful when training outside not to kick up any dirt or debris into others. So kicking should be done away from others when possible.
In summary, training barefoot is a good idea for those willing to properly maintain a clean training area, for several reasons. Cleanliness, safety and possibly heightened awareness of body positioning may all be worth considering as reasons to maintain a shoe-free dojo environment. If training for self-defense only, however, perhaps one should practice in a variety of footwear situations, in a variety of training environments. In general, something should be worn on the feet when outside and nothing should be worn on the feet when inside, according to Japanese tradition. A better understanding of this tradition should help us all to benefit more from it.
Copyright © 2022, Jon Keeling (originally published April 2002)