On this exact date in 2012, I wrote a bit about Japanese tabi socks. I feel like revisiting this topic because I have now inexplicably found myself the owner of 3 pairs of tabi socks.
In Western culture it is seen as a major fashion faux pas to wear socks with sandals, but this look is traditional for the Japanese and they have been wearing socks with sandals for centuries. Traditional Japanese socks are called tabi and these are split-toe socks that separate the big toe from other toes. Tabi socks are worn with traditional Japanese thong footwear, such as zori and geta. The split-toe in the socks make it easier to wear thong footwear with socks.
Normally, socks can be worn interchangeably on either the left or right foot. It is the shoes that have a left or right side. It is the other way round with traditional Japanese socks and footwear. Because of the toe separator, tabi socks have a clear left and right side while the traditional footwear – zori and geta – can be worn interchangeable on either foot.
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 can be worn by both men and women. Tabi socks are normally ankle-length and the usual colours for tabi are black or white. White tabi socks are worn in formal situations, with the formal zori. Tabi socks are also worn in some Japanese martial arts, such as kendo and aikido, which have earned them the nickname ninja socks.
Traditionally, tabi socks are made of cotton, but these days they can be made from other materials. I have one pair of tabi socks made of a nylon and polyurethane blend, which makes it feel like swimsuit material. My two other pairs of tabi socks are made from a polyester, cotton and polyurethane blend.
Traditionally, tabi socks were plain and came in monochrome colours like black and white. These days, modern tabi socks are colourful and can have different designs on them. I have a pair of tabi socks meant for men, with a masculine design of a dragon on it, and the kanji word for ‘dragon’ (龍) on it. My other pairs of tabi socks are more feminine with feminine motifs like cherry blossoms on them. With modern tabi socks, the left and right side don’t even have to match, but they still make up a pair.
Finally, if you need further evidence that tabi socks have become modern, none of my 3 pairs of tabi socks are actually made in Japan. All of them are made in China, even the pair that was bought in Japan, a gift from a Japanese friend.