Zōri (草履): thonged Japanese sandals with a distinctive y shaped strap (hanao) attached centrally to the shoe, traditionally worn with specially designed socks (tabi) .
In a society once hidebound by custom and tradition, what the Japanese wore as dress, and on their feet, was determined by the purpose, and tone of the day. Zori sandals (like flip-flops) were for formal dressing and worn inside. Geta sandals (like wooden clogs) were for less formal wear and outdoor activities.
From the rice fields of ancient times to the catwalks of the 21st century, Japanese footwear has been on a fascinating walk;
Roots: To keep their feet from sinking into the mud when transplanting rice seedlings. farmers in Japan wore tageta (Yayoi period 2,000 years ago). Tageta (below) were made of boards larger than the feet and tied on with twine.
Woven straw shoes were introduced from China around the 8th century, and before long they evolved into straw sandals called waraji, which were more suitable for the Japanese climate.
Waraji sandals were made from woven straw. Long straw straps attached to the front pass through loops on the sides and heel, then tied around the ankle to fasten the sole to the foot. Waraji were light, nimble, and cheap to make, and worn by lower ranking soldiers, construction workers, and ordinary people when traveling.
Simple: The straw zori, an improved version of the waraji, became popular during the Heian Period (794-1192). The sandals made from reeds; woven reeds for the sole, twisted reeds for the string hanao or to tie the sole onto the foot, meant almost anyone could make themselves. Later during the Edo period (1603-1867), production became more sophisticated; and zoris shops appeared in urban areas, selling a range from simple to luxurious. Unique Tabi socks were designed to keep feet warm in winter and prevent sores from forming from the strap.
Practical: The Zōri design allows air to circulate around the feet, perfect for humid summers. They are also easy to slip on and off, important in a culture where shoes are constantly removed and put back on. (Shoes are removed for cleanliness and because rush matting is easily damaged). Wafutu (traditional wear) is often complex and kimonos difficult to tie, laceless zori sandals offered decorative but simple shoe-wear.
Healthy: There’s a sentiment in Japan that “footwear is a vase to give flowers life” and “Feet are roots to grow buds, so take good care of them”. Zori sandals are thought to strenghen the foot in two ways. Firstly the hanao strap presses on acupressure points to vitalize the body life force, or qi. And secondly it takes time to perfect the skill of walking well in Zori, by using toe muscles to hold the hanao, the wearer develops the foot arch and bunions are prevented.
Stylish: Japanese designers consider footwear a tool and a decoration. Over time they have used silk, lacquered wood, leather, rubber, and today, synthetic materials in Zori design, to produce more eye-catching, elegant footwear. And unlike geta sandals, zoris are comfortable to wear.
Sensational: Geta sandals are distinctly different to the Zori. These are wooden soled shoes, with either solid platforms or with stilts, called ha (teeth) usually made from paulownia wood. The geta were designed to keep the kimono from becoming dirty or damaged. They may have one, two or three teeth, but mostly it’s two, 4-5cm high. Very high toothed geta were used in winter to keep the kimono off the snow. Ashida (rain shoes) have stilts about 10cm high.
By the beginning of the 18th century, geta were quite the fashion in Edo (present-day Tokyo) becoming more and more ostentatious. Their showiness irked the ruling Shogunate, however, and ladies were banned from wearing lacquered versions. But geta remained the footwear of choice right up until production peaked, in 1955 at 93 million pairs. These “platform” shoes were reincarnated in a brief late-90s fashion trend, where young girls could be seen staggering around on atsuzoku (thick heels). Today they have more of a novelty appeal…
Innovative: Recent times have seen the growing popularity of Jika-tabi (or Tabi boots) in Japan. Worn by construction workers, farmers and other workmen as a replacement for steel-toed, rigid-sole boots; they are much preferred for the softness of their soles. Where industry led, fashion has now been quick to follow.
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