My Melody ankle socks

I think it’s unfair how when you have a group of characters, one character always becomes more popular than the others. One example is on children’s television show, Sesame Street. Elmo monster, who made his debut in 1985, has become more popular than the other puppets. Personally, I dislike the Elmo character. I don’t like Elmo’s high pitched voice or the way he talks in the third person, and I can’t understand why he is more popular than other (in my opinion, better) characters. I prefer older Sesame Street characters, like Grover and Bert and Ernie, who have been on the show since the start in 1969.

An autographed photo of Grover, Shih Yen’s favourite Sesame Street character.

It’s the same with Sanrio characters. Sanrio is a Japanese company that manufactures lots of cute things, and Sanrio is the company that brought Hello Kitty to the world. Sanrio also has many other characters, not just Hello Kitty. But the other characters are not as popular as Hello Kitty.

I don’t have any problem with Hello Kitty, and I personally own many Hello Kitty products, including shoes. But I think it’s unfair that Hello Kitty should get all the glory. There are other Sanrio characters, which I think are equally as cute as Hello Kitty, and they seem to have faded into history. Hello Kitty made her debut in 1974 on a coin purse. There are other Sanrio characters from that same time period; and when I was young, I liked those characters more than Hello Kitty. These characters are My Melody, a cute rabbit and Little Twin Stars, twin brother and sister Kiki and Lala, who are stars and live in the sky.

Sanrio characters – My Melody, the rabbit with Little Twin Stars, Kiki and Lala.

A friend who knows that I like My Melody gave me a pair of My Melody ankle socks. I love the socks, but when I first saw them, I thought there is no way these socks are going to fit me. These ankle socks are meant for the Japanese market only, and they are probably meant to fit the average Japanese woman. Unfortunately, my feet are not the size of an average Japanese woman. On me, these ankle socks are more like heel socks! I still love the socks, even if they don’t fit.

Shih Yen’s My Melody ankle socks.

Attempting to wear My Melody ankle socks.

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Promotional jandals

My friends and family will tell you that I’m a bit of a sucker for advertising-type promotions. I’ll buy things I don’t need just to get a free gift. There doesn’t even have to be a free gift. Sometimes I’ll buy things just for the chance to win something, or to enter a competition. The most extreme case was when I bought something I didn’t need, to win something that I couldn’t use. Funnily in that case, I actually did win, and I ended up just giving away the prize.

Currently, there is one shop here that has a promotion for V energy drink. Buy any 500ml bottle of V energy drink and get a free pair of jandals. Jandals is a New Zealand term for thonged sandals or flip flops. This term was believed to originate in the 1950s, an amalgamation of the words ‘Japanese’ and ‘sandals’, as the style of these sandals with thongs is similar to traditional Japanese footwear. Personally, I call this type of footwear ‘slippers’, as this is the term that I grew up with. The V promotion kind of made no sense for this time of the year, as it is now winter in the Southern hemisphere, and people will not want to wear jandals in the cold.

The V promotion - Buy any 500ml bottle of V and get a free pair of jandals.

The V promotion – Buy any 500ml bottle of V and get a free pair of jandals.

As I said, I’m a sucker for promotions. So I bought a bottle of V energy drink, even though I don’t even like the drink. Just so I could get a free pair of slippers that I’m not going to wear now in the winter months. I also don’t really like advertising for V energy drink on my footwear. But apart from that, these slippers are quite soft and comfortable. I just have to wait a few more months for warmer weather to be able to wear them.

Modern tabi socks (足袋)

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.

A Japanese bride wears a kimono with formal zori and white tabi socks.

A Japanese bride wears a kimono with formal zori and white tabi 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.

Shih Yen wears pink tabi socks with a cherry blossom motif. This pair of tabi socks is made from nylon and polyurethane.

Shih Yen wears pink tabi socks with a cherry blossom design. This pair of tabi socks is made from nylon and polyurethane.

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.

mens tabi

A pair of men’s tabi socks featuring a dragon and the kanji word for ‘dragon’ (龍)

tabi back

A dragon on the soles of these tabi socks.

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.

womens tabi

A pair of modern women’s tabi socks. The left and right side don’t even have to match.

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.

Japanese loose socks (ルーズソックス)

Last month I wrote about how I tied my shoelaces in different ways at school as a minor act of rebellion against strict school rules. I am of course not the first, nor will I be the last, to do something like that.

A huge fashion trend in the 1990s originated from Japanese schoolgirls challenging strict school uniform policies. This was the loose socks trend that was massive in Japan in the mid to late 1990s. The trend even caught on outside of Japan, first in other Asian countries and then to countries further afield. Akira Tokita, president of the sockmaker company Browndoll is credited with starting the loose socks phenomenon. At the height of the fad, Akira’s company sold 600 000 pairs of loose socks in 1996 alone. That’s a lot of socks when you consider that this was a trend mainly worn by teenage girls.

Loose socks, as the name suggests, are baggy, slouchy socks. The socks are bigger and wider than normal socks in the ankle and calf area to achieve the slouchy look. When worn by a girl with big calves, these socks give the illusion of thinner legs.

The trend started with Japanese high school girls rebelling against school uniform rules. These schoolgirls started shortening the hem of their school skirts and wearing loose socks with their shortened skirts. Wearing loose socks with short skirts made the girls look taller with longer, thinner legs. Some schools reacted by banning loose socks altogether. Schoolgirls would get around this ban by wearing normal school socks and having their skirt at an appropriate length while at school. But once school was over and they were out of school grounds, these girls would put on loose socks over their normal socks and roll up the waistband of their school skirt to shorten it.

While this trend was started by Japanese highschool girls, it was soon copied by middle school girls seeking to emulate their older schoolmates. It even spread to older young women who had left school. This look (loose socks with a short, pleated skirt) is one that is strongly associated with Japanese schoolgirls. Comic book characters in Japanese manga are commonly depicted wearing this look.

Shih Yen recreates a Japanese schoolgirl look from the 1990s, with loose socks, Mary Jane shoes, short, pleated skirt and a Hello Kitty handbag

The most common colour for loose socks are white, and because of their origins as school socks, they also come in black or navy blue. Loose socks are worn below the knee paired with school shoes like a Mary Jane style.

The loose socks style even spawned something called super loose socks. These were socks that were so big, loose and heavy that they needed a special glue just to keep them up around the calf area.

Just like with all fads and crazes, the loose socks trend has had its day and had disappeared by the early 2000s.

House slippers and the culture of taking shoes off indoors

Last month I wrote about taking part in a biomechanics research study where the researcher complimented my footprints, saying that they were beautiful because all my toes could be clearly seen and were not squashed together. I have my own theory on why my toes have formed in this manner, and my theory is that it’s because I grew up in a country where everyone takes their shoes off when they are inside the house. Growing up, I was always barefooted at home, and I think this allowed my feet to grow freely and naturally. My feet were not crammed into tight shoes. Even at school, especially at lower primary school level, we took our shoes off before entering the classroom. This was probably because there’s a lot of sitting on the floor at primary school.

Taking shoes off indoors is not uncommon. It is the culture in Japan, Korea and all across South East Asia. You know a culture is serious about removing shoes indoors when there’s a special area in a house or building just for taking shoes off. In Japan, it is called ‘genkan’ (玄関) while in South Korea this area is called ‘hyeon gwan’ (현관) It’s a small area just inside the front door where people take their shoes off before entering the house or building. There may also be a shoe box or rack in this area to put shoes in. In Japan, this box is called ‘geta bako’ (下駄箱) which literally translates as geta-box, because in the past it was the traditional Japanese geta that would have been placed inside the box.

Even now, I feel a kind of psychological barrier at the front door of any house, and if I wear my shoes inside a house, I have to mentally make myself cross that barrier. When my friends from other cultures put their feet up on their bed or other furniture while wearing outdoor shoes, I cringe internally. And picture them stepping on dog poo or something and then smearing it on the bedspread or sofa!

After removing shoes at the door, there are a few options when indoors- going barefoot, wearing socks or wearing house slippers. Traditional Japanese houses have tatami mats on the floor, and these days some Japanese houses may still have a tatami room. Even house slippers are not allowed on tatami mats because they can spoil the mat. So bare feet or socks only when entering a tatami room.

It was the start of ‘chu seok’ (추석) yesterday. This is a Korean harvest festival, kind of like a Korean thanksgiving. It is celebrated at mid-autumn on the 15th day of the 8th month of the lunar calendar. Since it is ‘chu seok’, I thought I would write about Korean house slippers, which are also called ‘sil nae hwa’ (실내화) or literally ‘room indoor shoes’.

Shih Yen wears Korean house slippers

These house slippers were a gift from a South Korean friend and they are made in Korea. They look a bit like short socks, and at first they look way too small for me. But to my surprise, they stretched to fit me. These slippers are comfortable to wear around the house, and house slippers help keep the floor clean.

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.

Japanese inspired footwear

Last month I wrote about traditional Japanese footwear called geta. This month I thought I would write about modern footwear inspired by the Japanese. This casual footwear has many names and sometimes I’m confused as to what to call this footwear. They can be called sandals, flip flops and thongs. I will call them Japanese slippers as that was the term I grew up with.

When my father was growing up in post World War II Malaya, he wanted a pair of Japanese slippers because all his friends had a pair. But my great-grandfather refused to allow my father to buy a pair of Japanese slippers. Such was the hostility towards the Japanese after the war. I have two sets of grandparents, one set who live in West Malaysia (formerly Malaya) and another set in Sarawak, East Malaysia (formerly known as British Borneo). None of my grandparents had anything good to say about the Japanese occupation of Malaya and British Borneo. There are many things that don’t get taught in history books, but let’s focus on the footwear.

Havaianas is a famous Brazilian brand that makes this type of Japanese slipper. The first Havaiana slipper was produced in 1962 in São Paulo, and the inspiration for Havaianas was the zori, a Japanese straw sandal. Nowadays, Japanese slippers are made of rubber or synthetic materials. This type of Japanese slipper is now truly global and can be found everywhere. It is common footwear all throughout South East Asia. 

In New Zealand, it is now late summer, going into autumn, and it is still warm enough to wear sandals. In New Zealand, the Japanese slipper is called jandals. This is a New Zealand word, and is actually a trademark. The word ‘jandal’ is believed to have come about from joining the word ‘Japanese’ and ‘sandal’.

In New Zealand, this time of the year is when students go back to school and university starts. During orientation week at university, many businesses, clubs and organizations promote themselves to students. During this time, it is common to get free stuff from these companies in their efforts to market themselves. Common freebies are things like coupons, chocolates, sweets, calendars, pens and stationery, coffee and soft drinks. Imagine my surprise when this year I received free Japanese slippers from a student organization. I came across these people on campus, one pushing a wheelbarrow full of black and white slippers. How could I resist free footwear? And more importantly, they had slippers in my size. So I filled out their survey and instantly became the owner of a pair of Japanese slippers with promotional wording on the thongs. The words are ‘Start the journey’ on the right foot and ‘Student life’ (the name of the organization) on the left foot. I applaud this extremely creative marketing tool. Why shouldn’t footwear be used as advertising space?

My free footwear, perfect for the beach

I also came across these handcarved New Zealand jandals called Kiwi Soles. These are Japanese slippers with two colours where the colour of the soles is different from the top. Each pair has been handcarved in New Zealand with unique kiwi designs on them. Japanese slippers are perfect for the beach and casual wear.

Jandals with kiwi designs, hand carved in New Zealand