Japanese zori (草履) and tabi (足袋) socks

Back in February when I wrote about the Japanese geta (wooden clog), there was some interest also in Japanese socks called tabi. These are socks with a toe separator between the big toe and other toes. I mentioned zori in my last post as an inspiration behind Japanese slippers like Havaianas. So this month, I thought I would focus on the zori and tabi.

Women wearing Japanese kimono. The kimono sash or obi can be tied in many different ways. Here, the drum bow (taiko musubi ) and butterfly bow (cho cho musubi) is shown. The proper footwear when wearing kimono is geta or zori with tabi socks

The proper footwear when wearing a kimono is geta or zori with tabi socks. White tabi socks are most common and white tabi socks are worn in formal situations. Since I have written about the geta in February, I will write about zori in this post. Zori are traditional Japanese footwear originally made from straw. Like the geta, zori came about during the Heian period (794 – 1185). These days, zori can be made from all kinds of material, not just straw. Zori can be made from wood, leather, rubber, plastic or cloth. While the zori looks similar to the casual footwear it inspired, such as Havaianas, zori can be formal footwear. Zori vary in formality. Straw zori and straw imitation zori, where the surface resemble tatami mats are not formal. They are not worn with the formal kimono. In terms of formality, plastic zori are considered formal footwear, but are less formal than zori made from fabric or brocade. Similar to the geta and Chinese clogs, zori does not have a left or right side. They can be worn interchangeably on either foot.

Assorted zori with varying degrees of formality. The straw-imitation one in the middle is informal while the other pairs are formal footwear

White tabi socks should be worn with the formal zori. Japanese people have been wearing tabi socks since the 16th century. The peak in wearing tabi socks was in the Edo period (1600 – 1868). Tabi socks are also worn in some Japanese martial arts, like kendo, aikido and ninjutsu. This has earned tabi socks the nickname of ninja socks.

I found the informal zori, the ones that resemble tatami mats, to be very comfortable because they are flat with no heel and wide enough for my feet. However, I found the formal zori less comfortable. This type of zori has a slight heel, but that’s not what makes it uncomfortable. The formal zori seem to taper in size, becoming gradually smaller and narrower in the front. When I wear this kind of zori, my fourth toe and little toe hang off the edge of the zori. Maybe I just have big feet.

A Japanese woman wearing a formal kimono with zori and white tabi socks

Wearing Japanese thonged footwear like the zori and geta are said to be good for health because they improve blood circulation and chi / ki (or life energy). It is also claimed that this kind of footwear stimulates pressure points and aids foot development in children. With tabi socks, shiatsu theory claims that wearing these socks can be good for the back, spine and digestion because they stimulate acupuncture meridians located between the toes. I am sceptical of these health claims, but since Japanese people have been wearing this type of footwear and socks for thousands of years, I guess they can’t be bad for you.