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Culture

Your ‘Sole’ Guide to Socks in Japan

Japan has the reputation of being the place to get socks thanks to sprawling choices from the tame tabi to the sultry knee-high.

By 5 min read

Socks in the West have a slightly notorious reputation; an obligatory Christmas gift to please your father or a fashion faux pas when paired with sandals. But in Japan, the deep-rooted reverence for footwear produces a fascinating market filled with a plethora of multi-colored, wonderfully weird and scandalous socks.

For centuries, the Japanese have taken off their shoes indoors, and once they do, they should be wearing good material underneath (10-year-old, socks with holes in the toes won’t cut it and don’t even think about going barefoot.)

There is even a special slang term: zettai ryōiki, meaning ‘absolute territory’, that refers to the scandalous breach between sock and skirt.

It is no wonder that Japan is universally known to produce well-made and durable socks; they are seen more than in other parts of the world. So as the Japanese sock industry continues to skyrocket, why not start off on the right foot and take a look at what’s in store?

Tabi socks

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Traditional tabi socks.

Tabi socks have caressed the feet of nobility, peasants, samurai and geisha since the 1400s. Its split-toe design is intended to pair with traditional thonged sandals, geta and zori, that once dominated the streets of ancient Japan. Then, circa 1922, tire manufacturer Bridgestone took tabi for a walk with the invention of rubber-soled jika-tabi, a boot-sock hybrid that literally translates to “tabi for the ground.”

With the introduction of Western-style shoes, tabi socks have lost some of their necessity, but that doesn’t mean they have fallen into obscurity with the sock-sandal combination still worn throughout sweltering Japanese summers. The modern renditions forgo the classic colors of the past with patterns and styles that lure in the masses (think sumo and sushi), making great souvenirs for tourists to take home.

Five-toed socks

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Gloves for your feet.

The evolution of the forked tabi sock leads us to its quintuple cousin. Five-toed socks may look a little different, but their benefits have worldwide scientific support. These glove-inspired socks ward off runners’ problems like blisters and athlete’s foot by absorbing sweat from the toes.

They are not restrictive and allow your feet to stretch with freedom and help with balance. Moreover, the University of Tsukuba found a positive correlation between five-toed socks and circulation; results suggest they maintain a higher body temperature than regular socks.

Some have ethically combined this design with washi (traditional Japanese paper) to create odorless and long-lasting workout companions that are easy on the environment, with others using sustainable materials such as bamboo, which is breathable, hypoallergenic and anti-bacterial.

Knee-high socks

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A maid in Akihabara.

The risque knee-high sock is something of a youth cultural phenomenon in Japan. Popping up in the ’80s, they were prevalent among teenage girls. To this day, they are still a craze in the Lolita fashion scene and a common way to glamorize school uniforms. They have also found some other fans.

Beloved by otaku everywhere, knee-highs embellish the legs of many anime characters such as virtual pop sensation Hatsune Miku.

There is even a special slang term: zettai ryoiki, meaning “absolute territory,” referring to the scandalous breach between sock and skirt. This term supposedly came from the anime Neon Genesis Evangelion and has since entered the public lexicon in Japan. Some girls even rented out the space for advertisers in 2013.

If that’s not enough, there are two unofficial days dedicated to celebrating this phenomenon: Nov. 28 and Feb. 8. These knee-high, 二―ハイ(ni-hai) days are a clever reference to Japanese numbers two and eight.

Room socks

Fuwa fuwa! (something light and fluffy)

Winters in Japan get pretty chilly, so Japanese women love to wear a cozy barrier between their feet and the cold wooden floors of Japanese apartments.

Like Western carpets, tatami was a typical way Japanese people insulated their homes and kept their toes warm in winter, but a decrease in demand for tatami meant the need for something extra. Enter room socks.

Not only can they be wooly and snug, but they also serve the no-outdoor-shoe rule and are often used as a slipper alternative—without the annoying habit of constantly slipping off.

There is a range of styles and fabrics to choose from, including thick yarn, cat-paw and Daiso fluffy socks, so there’s no chance of your big toe freezing off.

Pop-culture socks

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Osaka is weird.

Why not use socks as an outlet to express who you are: your interests, hobbies, and beliefs? Japan is home to many passionate subculture, and there are socks to represent all of these.

You don’t need to be a fashionista to wear your favorite Demon Slayer character on your foot, but you may want to opt for cute fishnet and cat-eared socks to fit into the kawaii crowd.

Another example of the power of socks comes from the popular convenience store chain Family Mart. In March 2021, they released a pair of socks that made waves on the internet. Their iconic colors: green, blue and white, were proudly worn by supporters answering the age-old question—which convenience store is the best?

Brands to check out

Suppose you’re wondering where to get some of these quirky, sexy and/or traditional looks. Then take a look at this list of high-quality Japanese sock brands and stores:

  • Rototo: Produced in Nara, the sock capital of Japan, their items are made with excellent craftsmanship and materials such as washi and organic cotton.
  • Tabio: Arguably the most well-known sock brand in Japan, they proudly sell homegrown socks with an international reach to the U.K., France, U.S. and China.
  • Kapital: Their socks may fall on the expensive side, but the avant-garde designs and durability make them worth it.
  • Chicstocks: Founded in 2017, this is another Nara sock company. Their inclusive concept is to “make cherishable socks for anyone and everyone to love.”
  • Chup Socks: They specialize in Nordic designs with their low-gauge stocking frame machines only making around 25 pairs a day.

What do you think of Japanese socks? Where do you buy yours? Let us know in the comments!

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