Tabi: Traditional Japanese Socks

Are you a person who shudders at the sight of someone wearing socks with sandals? Well, I have some bad news for you: That is pretty common in Japan, but it isn’t a new development. Socks have been worn with sandals for hundreds of years, and Japanese socks have been honed and perfected by craftsmen to fit a uniquely Japanese aesthetic. Gyoda, a small city in Saitama, has one of the oldest and last surviving traditional Tabi sock manufactories in Japan.

Tabi Evolution Through Time

To reach tabi, we need to first jump back to leather socks worn by the Japanese back in the 11th century. During the Nara period, there were mentions of “tanhi” (単皮), or “single-skin” footwear, which may be an etymological clue about where tabi come from. However, no definitive conclusions can be made at this time due to a lack of information.

Tabi really started coming into its own after two big shifts. First, the importing of cotton and silk from China. Second, import restrictions on leather and the increasing use of leather in Firefighter coats led to a shortage of raw materials for the old leather-style socks.

Tabi got their unique split-toe in order to accommodate the straps of traditional footwear, such as the geta, which have the straps connected to the shoe between the big and first toe. In 1921, the Jika Tabi was also made: This is a tabi with a rubber sole that became very popular with manual laborers and went on to inspire the tabi boots of the famed designer Martin Margiela.

Tabi History in Gyoda

Now we find ourselves in the fabled Edo period, the Renaissance era of Japan if there ever was one! Gyoda became a hub of tabi manufacturing because it was a suitable place to grow raw materials for tabi and it was along the Nakasendo highway, which was one of the big five highways of the era. The feudal lord of the area encouraged the tabi creation, and many women and low-ranking samurai got in on the production floor.

Frames used for sizing

Once the sewing machine was invented and made its way to Japan, the production of tabi socks skyrocketed. During the Sino-Russian War, factories started to spread like wildfire. At one point, from 1938 to 1939, 80% of the country’s tabi socks were made in Gyoda. After World War II, the popularity of tabi seemed to wane, with people seemingly preferring the traditional Western-style sock that covered all the toes at once. While demand has fallen sharply, you can still find people in Japan (and even around the world!) wearing tabi, making tabi, and swearing by tabi as the superior sock.

Tabi Factory in Gyoda

You can see an honest-to-goodness tabi factory/museum at Tabizomachizukuri Museum.

In this museum, there are two floors. The second floor has the museum bit, complete with old tabi from eras long gone, advertisements, packaging, and tools of every size and shape that were used in the sock-making process for the past 300 years in Gyoda.

The first floor is where the craftsmen are making their tabi. The craftsmen go through a very detailed process of making the tabi, with each step having its own distinct terminology. We saw the finishing stage of the sock production, where the craftsman flipped the sock inside out to check the stitches for strength and quality. He explained a bit to us what he was looking for and what made a good stitch for the sock, but given my limited Japanese (particularly when it comes to clothes-making), I didn’t catch all of what he was saying. We still really appreciated him speaking with us and sharing his skills! It really helped to reinforce the warm and welcoming atmosphere of the workshop.

A freshly turned out tabi!

If you like socks, culture, and out-of-the-way places, Gyoda is a great stop on your future Japan travels!

What do you think? Do you think you’d be comfortable in tabi? Do you wear them an swear by their benefits? Let us know in the comments below!

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