Although Western shoes are now the main type of footwear worn daily, traditional Japanese footgear is still used on a regular basis. This list includes the most common types of footwear, for both indoor and outdoor use.
Possibly the most iconic in the list, geta is a type of footwear unique to Japan. It is an umbrella name for footwear consisting of a flat wooden board with prongs at the bottom, called ha (歯, literally “teeth”) and a thong on the top, called hanao (鼻緒). Between ten and a few dozen types of footwear can be addressed as geta, depending on what criteria are taken into consideration:
- shape of the wooden board (with rounded bottom, with relatively sharper corners, etc.)
- number of prongs (1–3)
- prong shape (including thickness and position)
- height of the prongs
- finishing (raw or lacquered)
- material used - function (daily use, intended to be worn only at a festival, protective gear below other types of footwear, etc.).
Geta are considered casual footwear, as opposed to zōri (see below) which is considered formal footwear. Traditionally, geta are worn in summer without tabi (see below) and on rainy or snowy days.
• Zōri (草履)
Consisting of a flat base, a sole, and a thong, it is probably the second most known type of Japanese footwear.
Similar to beach sandals or flip flops, they differ only in materials and design. Traditionally, zōri are made of natural materials, such as straw or bulrush, for informal use, and leather for formal occasions. Since they were once worn along with tabi and a kimono, they were the first choice for samurai, geiko, maiko, and all ruling classes. Peasants, travelers, pilgrims, and sometimes monks, wore more austere types of footwear, such as geta or waraji (both on this list).
Natural zōri should not be worn on rainy days. More modern types, made in synthetic materials or featuring a clear plastic shield at the front, are designed to be worn regardless of weather.
Zōri allow the use of many different colors and materials: for example, a zōri sole can be a single thick piece, or made of several thin layers in different colors.
The category includes ashinaka zōri (usually just called ashinaka, 足半), a type of zōri that is only as long as the front half of the foot. Ashinaka were often worn by travelers because, not being able to put their heels on the ground, they moved forward by inertia, and so used less energy on longer travels. It is said that they would have to make an effort to stop the motion. Nowadays, more modern ashinaka designs are available, worn for their beneficial effects on health, improving muscle use and blood circulation.
Setta (雪駄, also 雪踏)
Setta is a variation of zōri, identical in shape, features and use, but made from the outer bark of bamboo, instead of straw or bulrush.
Waraji (草鞋, also 鞋)
A type of footwear very similar to zōri in many aspects: they are for outdoor use, consist of a flat base, and have a thong. Unlike zōri, though, waraji are made entirely of straw rope, they don't have a separately made sole, and they feature long laces which are tied to the ankle.
The Chinese characters used for waraji mean “grass shoes”, underscoring the austere look of this type of footwear.
Waraji are the standard choice for monks and pilgrims.
Tabi is a traditional type of legwear, conceptually similar to socks. Since they are to be worn with footwear that has a thong, they are split-toe (the first toe is separated from the rest of the toes), ensuring comfort also when wearing zōri or geta.
Tabi are not removed when accessing areas where shoes and other footgear are not allowed. They always feature fasteners at the back.
A type of footwear intended for outdoor use, called jikatabi (地下足袋, literally “tabi for contact with the ground”) is a recent invention, resembling split-toe boots with fasteners at the back. A well-known jikatabi manufacturer is Kyoto-based Sou・Sou.
A recent invention, uwabaki (also called uwagutsu, 上靴) is a hybrid between rubber shoes and slippers, and it is used exclusively indoors. It evolved from the type of zōri that was used in some areas of temples.
They are now very common at schools, factories, offices, dance studios, clinics, cram schools, and anywhere the floor needs to be kept clean, but slippers and socks are deemed unhygienic, inappropriate, or less than ideal.