One of the first things the foreign visitor notices in Japan is the immense importance attached to socks - and the vast range of foot coverings available in every shape and form.
Molly Tanahashi, a Japanese American who moved to Tokyo from Honolulu, says the first year spent in her new locale was the year she spent "worrying over socks."
"Everyone knows the Japanese don't wear shoes in the house," Tanahashi said, "but I had no idea there would be so many instances outside the home where I would be asked to take my shoes off."
In restaurants and hair salons, in bars and even trendy boutiques, Tanahashi was made, inadvertently, to expose her feet. Within a week she caught on. "Bare feet are considered unsanitary and impolite, so I was always careful to wear socks but then I worried whether they were socially, culturally or fashionably acceptable. The worst of course, is when after a long day I take off my shoes in a restaurant and there's this big hole around the toe. VERY embarrassing."
Many Japanese will sympathize with Tanahashi - we all know how Bad Socks Days can be. On the other hand, wearing great socks is a good way to boost morale. By great socks the Japanese mean they must be functional, lovingly made, attractive and comfortable.
To the Japanese, the feet are a separate entity from the rest of the body, an appendage with special guest status that must be treated with care and respect: "This is because so many Japanese traditionally suffer from foot trouble," said Masami Domoto, a physical therapist. "Flat feet, for example, are rampant among men. And one in every three women over the age of 20 suffer from some degree or symptom of a condition known as hallux valgus," or bunions, "when the big toe is deformed and is twisted inward."
Domoto works at a reflexology clinic in the Aoyama district and treats many "young women who come in dragging their feet in pain. The combination of high heels and long commutes, plus working 8 to 10 hours a day in air-conditioned offices are murderous on the feet," she said. To combat these ills, she recommends wearing flats instead of heels, soft suede instead of hard leather. And above all, she advocates wearing socks instead of panty hose.
The operative word is circulation. Alert to the fact that good socks enhance blood flow, relieve fatigue and prevent athlete's foot, sock makers throughout the country, from major companies like Fukusuke and Gunze to small but innovative companies like Takeda legwear, have launched one innovative sock after another, with the famed "five-fingered sock" topping the list.
Designed to encase each toe with snug precision and ease the pressure that comes from standing in commuter trains or pounding pavements, the five-fingered sock is a coveted item among men, and among male and female athletes. "I'm out there stomping the streets five or six hours a day and I look upon these things as comrades in arms," said Minoru Uehara, who works as a salesman for Nissei Life Insurance.
A colleague, Hisami Tanaka, said that although she appreciates their "amazing functionality," she tends to go for socks that are more decorative, humorous or just beautiful. "My own comrades are the pumps socks," she said, referring to the socks designed to wear with high heels. These are elegant contraptions that cover the toes and heel and are held together with thin strips of lace or ribbon that make them resemble ballet shoes. "I love them because they're both casual and formal, acceptable for any occasion," said Tanaka. "In my teens I used to wear mules on bare feet and endure the pain but those days are long gone!"
Japanese socks evolved from the "tabi," a sock split at the toe and hooked up in the back, at the Achilles heel, that encased the foot like a soft boot. Functional and beautiful, the tabi went out along with the custom of wearing kimonos, with which they were always worn. But now they're back - albeit in a much trendier mode - thanks to the efforts of a Kyoto-based company called Sou Sou. The brand, headed by Katsuji Wakisaka, updates traditional Japanese kimono-related products like tabi and obi sashes, by combining old functionality with new designs and textiles. From the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s Wakisaka was on the design team of the Finnish textile company Marimekko and the textiles he creates now are bold, clean and unsentimental.
Sou Sou is also renowned for its mix-and-match approach; the company has come out with a collection of quirkily patterned sneakers in collaboration with Le Coq Sportif, while continuing to cater to the tastes of kimono-lovers and classic tabi fans. "Sou Sou products are one of the things that make me glad to be Japanese," said Miwako Okuno, an enthusiastic customer. "This is one company that knows the value of pampering one's feet."