Ta Bi 足袋
When I told local Japanese that foreigners called tabi "ninja socks", most of them grinned and asked, "Really? Why Ninjas? We all wear tabi."
I have no idea, perhaps it was attributed to movies, anime or the tourist souvenir shops in Asakusa selling tabi socks alongside with Ninja costumes and toys) ;-D
TA-BI literally translates as "foot bag". And not only on special occasions when tabi goes with formal kimonos. Tabi socks are worn daily by some, including my chiropractor, my ceramics sensei, and many others such as construction workers and craftspersons where standing and moving around are their daily norm.
Japanese Traditional Tabi
Tabi socks existed in Japan since mid 700 A.D. as a foot-garment worn with split-toe clogs called geta. Tabi was available only to the elite and samurais then. And were worn only on special occasions with permission.
It was not until the 1600s, tabi became available to commoners where specialists Tabi-shi 足袋師 set up shops making and selling them. There are 13 tailoring steps in making tabi-socks, from trimming to sewing. It remained a slow-craft even when the production was industrialized in the late 1800s. However, in Post-war Japan, western-style fashion (and socks) became popular and took over the market.
Tabi remains indispensable. Though there are few remaining Tabi specialty shops in Japan still producing these hand-sewn socks. These non-stretchable traditional tabis are worn in formal occasions like tea ceremonies or traditional festivals.
Photo courtesy: Japan National Diet library. Merchants and Livelihood of Edo Period. Volume 6 (1690).
Tabi remains indispensable not only because of kimono and traditional rituals, but because of its benefits.
It is commonly believed that tabi socks encourages blood circulation, reduces stress on the back and improve posture.
Tactility, down there.
The ability for the toe to feel and naturally grasp the ground better keeps you in good balance and reduces fatigue. No wonder why ninjas and construction guys love them as they probably climb and walk the roof often! Runners and hikers are fans of tabi, too.
Frustrated over socks that become loose after a few washes and keep sliding off? Tabi doesn't go any where.
Traditional tabi is made in non-stretchable cotton, fastened with ties or metal cleats.