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 even the most formal shoes are held on by a thong between the toes, and you would be not at all out of place wearing such a shoe to a wedding or dinner party. In a world where most shoes moved toward laces and buckles, why did Japan remain with the thonged sandal? What happens in rain, snow, or dirt? The answers are simple but unconventional.
Just as the basic kimono branched out into a number of similarly structured clothes, the basic sandal has become a number of different shoes over time.
Geta are all-purpose shoes with a variety of 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 back of the sole. 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, and at first glance 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 simply 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, and even others have spikes or metal soles on the underside of the teeth to make walking through snow and other difficult terrain easier. For cold weather, geta with toe covers exist that cover the front of the foot 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 trend toward the practical rather than artistic. There is a set of geta for everyone and every purpose, and they are still worn today!
Despite the fact that zori take 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 in modern times many are made of vinyl or other synthetics for a softer feel and cheaper manufacturing. Some are covered with fabric, such as beaded or brocade-covered zori to be worn to formal events.
Over time, especially because zori are easier to wear than geta for many people, these sandals became less formal and more all-purpose. Like rain geta, shigure zori have toe covers to protect against the elements.
Waraji are perhaps the simplest traditional shoes, being a bare woven rice-straw sole with thin cords tying it to the foot. Unlike the other shoe types, waraji do not have a thong, but instead lace up around the foot and ankle. They are flexible and simple, but they wear out quickly. Today, they are mostly worn by Buddhist monks. 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 are tatami sandals, which are indoor-only shoes. Because outdoor shoes are taken off at the entrance to a house, sometimes hosts have tatami sandals to wear around like slippers.
For deep snow, there are traditional Japanese snow boots. No longer produced, they have been replaced by Western snow boots. Historically, these boots were made of tightly woven reeds and stuffed with a warm lining.