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Jika-tabi (地下足袋, "tabi that contact the ground") is a type of outdoor footwear worn in Japan. It was invented in the early 20th century. An ingenious accession to practicality, jika-tabi is more reflective of the underlying structure of the human foot.
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Also known (outside Japan) as "tabi boots", they are modelled on tabi, traditional split-toe Japanese socks. Like other tabi, jika-tabi have a divided toe area so that they can in theory be worn with slip-on thonged footwear, but they are heavy-duty, and resemble boots.
Being made of heavy, tough material and often having rubber soles, jika-tabi are often used by construction workers, farmers and gardeners, rickshaw-pullers, and other workmen.
Though slowly being replaced by steel-toed, rigid-sole shoes in some industries, many workers prefer them for the softness of their soles. This gives wearers tactile contact with the ground, and the concomitant gripping ability lets them use their feet more agilely than rigid-soled shoes allow. This is useful for workers who traverse girders on construction sites and need to be sure what is under their feet. Carpenters and gardeners wearing these boots can, if they wish, use their feet as an extra pair of hands, for example to hold objects in place. There is also a line of knee-high all-rubber jika-tabi that is used by workers in rice fields and/or wet and muddy environments.
In more recent years, jika-tabi manufacturers, like Marugo and Rikio have introduced the "steel toe" and "hard resin" versions which are approved by the Japan Occupational Safety and Health Resource Center (JOSHRC).
A variation on the jika-tabi, called the matsuri tabi, is so called because it is most commonly worn during festivals. It differs from the regular jika-tabi in having extra cushioning for the sole.
In other countries
Outside Japan, where they are available from online and martial-arts shops, jika-tabi are appreciated by practitioners of the martial art of Bujinkan budo taijutsu, especially when training outdoors. Other people also like wearing them for certain kinds of exercise, specifically trail-running, walking, and climbing.
World War II
During the 1942 Battle of Milne Bay in Papua (now part of Papua New Guinea), the Allies of World War II first saw Japanese Kaigun Tokubetsu Rikusentai (Special Naval Landing Forces) in action. The distinctive boot tread pattern of the jika-tabi shoes used by the Japanese special forces was helpful to the Allies (mostly Australian troops with some American units) during the rout and mopping up operation, as it was easy to identify and follow through the muddy forests. Examples of the boots are held by the Australian War Memorial.
- WWII Japanese 'otherworldly' jika-tabi boots on display at Australian War Memorial, Louise Maher, ABC News Online, 2017-09-26
- What Are Ninja Shoes? (liveshoes.com.ua, in Russian, archived link)