Traditional Japanese footwear is not seen that often these days as is usually only worn with other traditional clothing. Zori are sandals made from rice straw or lacquered wood and are worn with a kimono for formal occasions. Geta are raised wooden clogs that are worn with the informal yukata. Geta are most often seen these days on the feet of sumo wrestlers. You will most likely hear them before you see them as they make a distinctive clacking noise as the wearer walks. This is sometimes mentioned as one of the sounds that older Japanese miss most in modern life.
You may see the occasional buddhist monk wearing wearing waraji, sandals made from straw rope that in the past were the standard footwear of the common people. All three designs allow for free circulation of air around the feet, a feature that probably came about because of Japan's humid climate.
Traditional Japanese footwear. From left to right: Geta, waraji and zori.
As in many other areas of life, the fashion of the early Japanese nobility was greatly influenced by Chinese culture and so they wore shoes or boots. Geta and zori originated in the Heian Period (794-1192) a time which saw the evolution of a more "native" culture. Geta are made from a flat piece of wood on two slats (called ha, or teeth) that raise the sole part 4-5cm off the ground. This is enough to keep a kimono from getting dirty, though ashida (rain shoes) have slats about 10cm high. Some sushi chefs even wear geta with ha that are up to 17cm high. These "platform" shoes were reincarnated in a brief late-90s fashion trend, where young girls could be seen staggering around on atsuzoku (thick heels).
Both geta and zori are held on the feet by a hanao (thong), which is usually black for men and red for women. Zori are usually worn with white, split-toe cotton socks called tabi. Tabi are the footwear of choice for people taking part in the many matsuri (festivals) across Japan. Construction workers, who can be seen in brightly colored overalls with very baggy trousers, often wear jika tabi, cotton tabi shoes or boots with rubber soles. This form of footwear is not only distinctive but extremely comfortable, lightweight and practical. The durability and unique design of jika tabi has made them a popular export and one of the most popular items in our Japan Store.
Rikio Air Tabi Fit jikatabi boots
Soukaido I-78 Steel-toed Jikatabi Workboots
Young girls (kogyaru) are Japan's true trend-setters these days, though their taste is often very questionable. Platform heels (atsuzoku) were one of the must-have items of the late 90s.
While traditional Japanese dress has been largely replaced with western clothing, some of its customs still survive intact. The most common is the practice of removing one's shoes when entering someone's home. The custom is a combination of cleanliness and the fact that traditional flooring is made from tatami, straw matting that is easily damaged by footwear. There is a story of the first American consul to Japan, Townsend Harris getting off to a bad start with his hosts by walking straight into the shogun's presence in Edo Castle without removing his shoes.
While geta have become pretty rare, the shoe cupboard in every home's genkan (entrance hallway) is still called a getabako (geta box). When you enter the genkan, you must remove your shoes and the formal etiquette is to leave them neatly aligned and to the side, facing inwards. The host turns them around and puts them in the center before you leave. Younger people tend not to worry about these finer details anymore. But when entering shrine or temple buildings and many Japanese-style restaurants, you will be expected to remove your shoes. Many restaurants and homes provide slippers for guests, though these should be removed when entering a room with tatami mat flooring. Also, there will be a separate pair of slippers to be changed into in the toilet.
The Japanese have a very deep-rooted though largely unspoken understanding of the difference between spaces. The genkan is a kind of border post post between the outside world and the inner sanctum of the home. Delivery men may quite casually step into your genkan but that's as far as they'll go without you inviting them in. There is almost always a step up into the home and the Japanese word for entering a home is literally to "step up". Even when entering your own home (uchi, meaning inside), the act of removing your shoes is symbolic of casting off the worries and troubles as well as the dirt of the outside world (soto). "Dosoku de agarikomu" (literally, go inside with soiled feet) is a metaphor for meddling thoughtlessly in someone else's affairs.