When Shigeki Tanaka, a 19-year-old Japanese man, won the Boston Marathon in 1951, it was a pretty big deal.
Tanaka’s win wasn’t just remarkable because he was the first Japanese person to ever win the Boston Marthon (before the Kenyans came along and started kicking everybody’s asses), and not even because Tanaka was a survivor of the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima.
What’s really remarkable about Tanaka is that he didn’t wear conventional running shoes; instead, Tanaka rocked the tabi (足袋), or split-toe Japanese footwear, to his 2:27:45 victory.
We’ve seen the Japanese technique for walking efficiently (see: our guide to walking like an Edo-era long-distance messenger), are there advantages in Japanese footwear too?
What Are Tabi?
Tabi are pretty simple: they’re just two-toed socks. Why are they two-toed? Do the Japanese have some sort of collective foot deformity?
Not quite. Hundreds of years ago in Japan, lots traditional Japanese footwear like zori have straps that fit in between your toes (just like flip-flops), so it makes sense that tabi are designed the same way.
And while a lot of people associate tabi with ninja, it wasn’t just Japan’s silent assassins who rocked the split-toed footwear. People of all walks of life wore tabi when the occasion called for it.
Over time, tabi evolved froms simple socks to so much more. Today, you can find a different type of tabi for virtually any use, and while tabi aren’t regularly worn by your average Japanese person, some professions and hobbies that still regularly make use of tabi.
Occasionally traditional artisans wear tabi, along with some construction workers (who sport the more sturdy jika-tabi); but there are some uses for tabi in the modern world, too.
After Tanaka won the Boston Marathon, there was an effort by Japanese companies to capitalize on his success. A shoe company named Onitsuka (that later became ASICS) introduced a “marathon tabi” in the early 1950s but it never really took off.
Nowadays though, people are rethinking the best way to run. Some people think that running barefoot or with shoes that replicate being barefoot (like the “five finger” shoes) are best.
Somewhere in that, shoe companies have decided that tabi-style two-toed shoes might be worth re-examining too. You can buy split-toed shoes from a ton of different Western companies, although I can’t really vouch for their fashionability.
Even samurai needed socks; although in the case of the samurai they needed tabi strong enough to deflect (or at least slow down) any threats to their toes. Nothing worse than getting an arrow in the foot.
Some armored tabi were covered in plate armor, some were protected by chainmail, but all of the samurai’s protective footwear were definitely form over function. I wouldn’t imagine that many people would want to wear armored tabi today.
What’s better than tabi? How about tabi in space?! A few years ago, ASICS started working with JAXA, the Japanese space agency, to create specialty footware for Japanese astronauts heading up to the International Space Station.
The shoes featured a lightweight design, a better grip for zero-g situations, and a shape that helps stretch out the wearer’s muscles to fight muscle atrophy.
Are There Advantages to Tabi?
Despite all of these different uses for tabi, I haven’t found anything that supports the idea that the unique, two-toed design of tabi will make you run faster, jump higher, or look more handsome.
Regardless, for some people tabi are the footwear of choice. Some covet its traditionalism, others just think they’re plain comfy, but whatever the reason, tabi will be around for a long time. We’ll see whether or not the Kenyans ever get around to trying them out.
Thanks to Patrick for the article suggestion!