Tabi: A Functional and Uniquely Japanese Sock
Tabi are the socks of Japan, used since antiquity. Anyone who’s come in contact with Japanese culture is sure to know a little of their existence. Have a look at our overview of the rediscovered functional and fashionable nature of tabi, then in the second half read some tips and tricks for when you’re choosing tabi.
What are Tabi?
Worn when donning Japanese-style clothing, tabi function as the indigenous socks of Japan, a kind of “foot underwear.” They’re noted for having special fasteners called kohaze. Because they’re worn when wearing traditional Japanese straw sandals (zori) and wooden clogs (geta), the toes branch into two sections. As an example most people will be familiar with, a ninja’s footwear is a type of tabi.
The History of Tabi
Though the exact time that tabi got their start is uncertain, we know that they were already in use in the Heian era. One thing that’s certain is that they have a long history.
Types of Tabi
There are two types of tabi, generally-speaking. The first type is broken down based on material or color, e.g. white tabi, black tabi, colored tabi, patterned tabi, etc. The second is a category called jika-tabi.
White tabi: necessary for a variety of ceremonies, rites, and celebrations as well as for kabuki actors, noh performers, traditional archers, and those in tea ceremony
Black tabi: colored tabi for everyday use by men, notable for not showing stains
Jika-tabi are a type of tabi with a rubber sole. They aren’t used like socks but are worn outside as-is, acting as a kind of shoe. The construction of jika-tabi makes it easy for the wearer to both feel what they’re stepping on and put power into their step. Because of this, they’re well-suited to carpenters and people who carry the portable shrines at festivals. The ninja footwear we mentioned earlier is actually a type of jika-tabi.
Using the Fastener Count to Choose your Tabi
Regardless of your gender, if you have a chance to put on a kimono, you should know how to choose your tabi. We’re going to let you in on a few little hints for picking them when the time comes. What you should pay attention to are the kohaze, the metal fasteners attached to the tabi. Tabi types include ones with 4 fasteners (4-mai) and ones with 5 (5-mai). Though there aren’t any strict rules, it’s a good idea to choose a fastener count that suits how you’ll wear the tabi. We’ve summarized their features below.
4-mai kohaze (casual): these fit loosely to the ankle, so they’re more comfortable than the 5-mai when sitting seiza (sitting in a kneeling position). They’re often used as everyday or work clothing, e.g. by the landlady of a traditional inn.
5-mai kohaze (formal): these fit tightly to the ankle, so they present a much lovelier curve and form when you stand. These are best used when your calves will be visible, such as during Japanese dances or tea ceremony.
Tabi fashion has grown popular enough to merit its own fashion shows.
Their functionality has been getting attention as well, and many young people across the world have taken to wearing them when they go hiking or in place of shoes.