Japan has a history of peculiar shoes, all of which have one thing in common: they all wear like a flip-flop! While Westerners consider flip-flops to be the most casual shoe possible, in Japan, a thong between the toes holds on even the most Traditional Japanese Shoes, and you would be not at all out of place wearing such a shoe to a wedding or dinner party. Why did Japan remain with the thonged sandal in a world where most shoes moved toward laces and buckles? What happens in rain, snow, or dirt? The answers are simple but unconventional.
Just as the basic kimono branched out into several similarly structured clothes, the basic sandal has become many different shoes over time.
Geta: Traditional Japanese Shoes
Geta are all-purpose traditional Japanese shoes with various sub-designs that allow them to be worn in almost any weather. At their core, they are wooden-soled sandals with two “ha,” or teeth, supporting them. The wearer inserts their foot into the thong with their heel protruding slightly over the sole’s back. Like flip-flops, geta snap to the heel with a soft sound, and their teeth click on the ground, forming a rhythmic percussion that older Japanese often find nostalgic. Because they are held on purely by a sandal thong, they induce a sort of shuffling motion in the wearer instead of a heel-toe long stride when walking.
While geta are not good running shoes, they may seem difficult to wear and without practical applications. They were the most common shoe in Japan for much of its history. As their teeth raise them above the ground, they keep hakama and kimono hemlines out of the dirt, rain, and snow of the streets, and taller geta can even lift workers above detritus in their workspace. Butchers, cooks, and fishermen would throw scraps onto the ground, letting their geta keep them clean above the mess. Some specialized geta have slender teeth that splash less when walking through water, and some are higher or lower. Even others have spikes or metal soles on the teeth’ underside to make walking through snow and other difficult terrains easier.
For cold weather, geta with toe covers exist that cover the foot’s front and are lined with soft materials like fleece to provide warmth. Some women’s geta are artistically made to resemble Western high heels, some are lacquered and painted, and children’s geta often have teeth in the shape of animal prints or other cute designs. Men’s geta are more square than women’s and the trend toward the practical rather than artistic. There is a set of geta for everyone and every purpose, and they are still worn today!
Even though zori takes fewer materials than the large wooden geta, they were once considered formal shoes. They look like simple flip-flops, flat and low to the ground with a thong between the first two toes. Traditionally, their soles were woven from straw, but many are made of vinyl or other synthetics for a softer feel and cheaper manufacturing in modern times. Some are covered with fabric, such as beaded or brocade-covered zori, to be worn to formal events.
Over time, especially because zori is easier to wear than geta for many people. These sandals became less formal and more all-purpose. Like rain geta, shigure zori has toe covers to protect against the elements.
Waraji is perhaps the simplest traditional shoes. Unlike the other shoe types, waraji do not have a thong but lace up around the foot and ankle. They are flexible and simple, but they wear out quickly. Today Buddhist monks mostly wear these. In the past, different vocations tied their waraji in different ways; for example, a monk would tie differently than a farmer, who would tie differently than a soldier.
The one version of waraji sandals worn by most people is tatami sandals, which are indoor-only shoes. Because outdoor shoes are taken off at the entrance to a house, hosts have sandals to wear around like slippers.
For deep snow, there are traditional Japanese shoe snow boots. No longer produced, Western snow boots have replaced them. Historically, these boots were made of tightly woven reeds and stuffed with a warm lining.