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160201-0042 - Geta Shop, 1920s

1920s
Geta and Zori Shop

Artist Nobukuni Enami
Publisher Nobukuni Enami
Medium Glass Slide
Period Taisho
Location Inside
Image No. 160201-0042
Purchase Digital File
Author

A small geta and zori shop. The shopkeeper is working on a geta while a customer is looking on. Shops like these were once everywhere in Japan.

The shop is overflowing with merchandise. The most common geta are front left, while matted geta can be seen on the right. Matted zori (sandals) are hanging from the ceiling. The store also sells bangasa (番傘, oiled paper umbrellas), seen on the right of the shopkeeper.

The roots of geta go back to the Yayoi period (300 BC–300 AD). This long history didn’t automatically translate into popularity though. Well into the Meiji period (1868–1912), a large part of Japan’s population went barefoot, or wore waraji (草鞋, straw sandals).

This was especially the case in the countryside, as can be seen in countless photographs. Something very interesting becomes apparent when one observes these photographs: more men than women seem to wear waraji.

110613-0044 - Japanese Farmers on the Road, 1890s
Three generations of a farmer’s family on the road with farming tools, 1890s. They are barefoot or wearing straw sandals. Nobukuni Enami, hand colored albumen print.
71205-0009 - Japanese farmers clearing rice, 1890s
A barefoot woman is threshing rice stalks with a Senbakoki (threshing machine), while a man wearing straw sandals is carrying straw bags balanced on a pole, 1890s. Kozaburo Tamamura, hand colored albumen print.
120409-0024 - Japanese Farmers on the Road, 1900s
Four Japanese farmers, three of them carrying baskets, on a country road, 1900s. Unattributed, hand colored collotype on postcard stock.
110613-0034 - Japanese Farmers Harvesting Rice, 1900s
Young Japanese farmers carrying home the rice harvest barefoot, ca. 1904. Julian Cochrane, glass slide.

It is no surprise that waraji were so common in the countryside. The straw sandals were especially suited to running, long walks, and any work that required long periods of being on your feet. They had a drawback in wet conditions though, explained Japanese author Jukichi Inouye in Home Life in Tokyo (1910):1

They are worn by coolies and others whose business it is to be constantly on their feet. Unfortunately, they soon become sodden in rain or over a muddy road; but as they are very cheap, they are frequently changed in a long journey. Cast-off straw-sandals are among the commonest sights on the road on a rainy day.

Many people who usually wore waraji, did own geta. But they were mostly worn on special occasions, like matsuri (religious festivals).2

100910-0024 - Geta Shop, 1890s
A woman is looking at geta, Japanese wooden shoe wear, ca. 1890s. Nobukuni Enami, hand colored glass slide.

Meiji Footwear Shift

Starting in the Meiji period, a dramatic footwear shift took place. People who used to go barefoot started to wear waraji, while those who wore waraji changed to geta or even shoes or boots.

Several trends combined to create this shift. One was a great increase in other straw products. Straw ash was increasingly used to make fertilizer, for example. The demand for tatami rice mats also rose significantly, especially in the city. But even in the countryside, more houses started to have tatami rooms. Additionally, the demand for straw to make paper went up, and Japan’s expanding military force required straw to feed its horses.3

There was also an increased focus on sanitation. In 1901 (Meiji 34), the police issued an order that prohibited going barefoot in Tokyo in order to combat disease:4

As a precaution against the plague, it is forbidden to walk barefoot outdoors in the city of Tokyo. Violators of this order will be arrested and punished in accordance with Article Four, Section 426, of the penal code.

The timing of this shift was excellent for geta, which had just come into wider use towards the end of the Edo period (1603–1868). During the Meiji period, geta were produced in increasingly larger numbers. This lead to many more paulownia trees (桐, kiri) being planted in Japan, as this was the best wood for geta.5

An interesting footnote is that, just as the paulownia’s economic importance was rising, so was its symbolic significance. After the Meiji Restoration of 1868 (Meiji 1), paulownia leaves and flowers were incorporated into the official emblem of the Japanese government. You can still find them there today.

Paulownia Seal of the Prime Minister of Japan
The Paulownia Seal, representing the leaves and flowers of the paulownia, was originally the private symbol of the Japanese Imperial Family. Zagyoso, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
Traditional style geta worn with modern split toe socks
Traditional style geta worn with modern split toe socks. Photographed in Harajuku, Tokyo, 2012.

Form and Shape

Geta craftsmen offered a wide variety of geta, depending on the fashion of the time. The most basic style is still in use to this day. It consists of a wooden board known as a dai (台), with a hanao (鼻緒, cloth strap) passing between the big and second toes. Below the dai are two ha (歯, teeth), one under the ball of the foot so it pivots while walking, and the rear one under the heel, the center of gravity.

Geta of better quality were generally sold separately from the hanao. They were fitted while the customer waited. In vintage photographs of geta shops you can usually see countless hanao hanging from the ceiling.

The forward knot of the hanao was protected in a cavity on the bottom of the geta. This was covered by a metal cap, so the knot remained clean, making it easier to replace the hanao.

Men’s hanao were covered with leather, or dark colored silk or hemp cloth, while hanao for women were mainly silk, cotton, or hemp cloth.6

Modern Hanao for Geta
Modern hanao. The white part is strung through the holes in the dai. Keytone, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, via flickr.
140916-0053-PP - Geta Shop, 1890s
A customer is seated on a chair in front of a geta shop, 1890s. Notice the hanao hanging from the ceiling. Unattributed, hand colored albumen print, Pump Park Collection.

The best geta were made of paulownia wood, while cheap geta used cryptomeria and other wood. The dai and ha were usually made from one piece of wood. But if they were made separately, the better ha were made of oak, and the cheaper ones of beech.7 While most geta were unadorned, geta for girls were often painted black, brown, or red. Those for very little girls often contained a tiny bell in a cavity in the bottom.8

Geta varied greatly in height. The higher ones were especially used for rainy weather. They could be as high as 15 centimeters (6 inches). Occasionally, a toe cap was used as mud guard. In the photo below, capped geta can be seen in the top right, and center left. In the top photo, toe caps are lying on the floor between the shopkeeper and the customer.

70614-0011 - Traditional Japanese Footwear
A selection of traditional Japanese footwear ranging from geta to zori (bottom) and waraji bottom right), 1890s. Unattributed, hand colored albumen print.

Because geta were simple, and made from natural products, they were easy to repair. As a result, geta repairmen (下駄直し, geta-naoshi) were a fixture on Japan’s streets. Shouting naoshi, naoshi (直し直し, repair, repair), they carried their tools in baskets or boxes, which were balanced on a large pole.

Their tools were simple, generally a saw (鉈), plane (鉋), hammer (金槌), chisels (鑿), as well as some spare wood and hanao to replace damaged parts. This allowed them to strike down pretty much anywhere their service was needed, and start fixing geta right away. Apparently, each repairman had its own territory.

170604-0013 - Geta repairman at work on the street, 1880s
A geta repairman at work on the street, 1880s. He is surrounded by his tools and geta that need fixing. Unattributed, hand colored albumen print.
100910-0016 - Geta Repairman, 1890s
Geta repairman at work on the street, 1890s. Geta craftsmen walked around offering their services. They carried their tools, such as a hatchet, plane, and chisels, in baskets balanced on a pole. Teijiro Takagi, hand colored albumen print.
160903-0006 - Japanese Geta Repairman, 1900s
A geta repairman at work on the street in the 1900s. The pole used for balancing his boxes with tools can be seen in the back. Unattributed, hand colored collotype on postcard stock.

Western Footwear

Shoes were introduced to Japan as part of the Western-style military uniform. The first order arrived during the civil war that lead to the Meiji Restoration. They turned out to be too narrow and were trashed. To solve the problem of military footwear, a shoe factory was established in Tokyo’s Tsukiji area in 1870 (Meiji 3).9

Shoes and boots didn’t catch on easily. Some groups of people adopted them, female students for example would wear shoes or boots with their hakama uniforms, and people wearing Western-style clothing—mainly men.

But Western-style footwear was initially seen as extremely inconvenient. It has always been the custom to remove footwear upon entering a house, and shoelaces made that troublesome. In 1910, Japanese author Jukichi Inouye described the social problems they caused:10

Still, boots and shoes are often unavoidable when we pay a chance visit; but then the boots should be elastic-webbed, for if we call with laced boots on, the servant who answers the door has to wait patiently in the draught until we take them off. The situation is aggravated when the visitor leaves; for then the host and his servant, and if he is a friend of the family, the wife and the children, will come to the porch to see him off and remain there until he leaves the house. If the caller has any tact, he will merely tuck in the laces and walk out with his boots flopping and tie them when he is out of the premises. Many visitors, however, think nothing of keeping the whole family shivering in the cold while they leisurely lace their boots, for probably they too are put to the same ordeal when they have visitors in laced boots.

120413-0007 - Japanese Female High School Students, 1920s
Students of Miwada Girl’s High School (三輪田高等女學校) in Kudan-kita, Tokyo, 1928 (Showa 3). They are wearing hakama, but Western-style footwear. Unattributed, gelatin silver print.

Through the early 20th century, geta and zori generally maintained their dominance, especially with women. Even at modern work places like hospitals and telephone exchanges. Japanese Red Cross nurses used geta in the operating room, while phone operators wore zori.

Geta were still common in in the 1950s. On a photo of Japanese women registering for elections in 1952 (Showa 27), every single one is wearing geta, even those in Western-style clothing. In the countryside, many people even continued to go barefoot.

But by the sixties, as the Japanese economic miracle was taking root, Western-style footwear increasingly took over from traditional Japanese styles. Soon, they had almost completely disappeared from the streets.

131128-0034-OS - Japanese Operation Room, 1904–1905
A Japanese medical team wearing geta attend to a wounded soldier at an operating room during the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905). Unattributed, glass slide.
160904-0010 - Japanese Telephone Exchange, 1920s
Young Japanese women in uniform working at switchboards at a telephone exchange in 1923 (Taisho 12). They all wear zori. Unattributed, gelatin silver print.
160202-0005 - Japanese Female Vendor, 1947 (Showa 22)
A barefoot female vendor with a straw hat pulls her cart on the way to market, 1947 (Showa 22). Unattributed, negative film.
160306-0007 - Japanese Women Registering for Elections, 1952
Japanese women wearing geta register for elections in 1952 (Showa 27). Unattributed, gelatin silver print.

In the mid 1990’s, young people rediscovered geta and zori with the new popularity of yukata (cotton summer kimono).

Famous Japanese fashion brands like Kansai Yamamoto, Junko Koshino, Junko Shimada, Comme des Garçons and others created beautiful new yukata designs that attracted modern urban youths. This created a yukata boom, and a new market for traditional Japanese footwear, albeit updated to modern expectations.

130609-4395 - Modern zori, Shibuya, Tokyo, 2013
Modern zori photographed in Shibuya, Tokyo, 2013.
131103-7851 - Modern Japanese geta by Japanese fashion brand tabunzettai
Modern variation on traditional Japanese geta by Japanese fashion brand tabunzettai (多分多分絶対), photographed in Shibuya, Tokyo, 2013.
Modern pink colored geta by Japanese fashion brand FURIFU
Modern pink colored geta by Japanese fashion brand FURIFU. Photographed in Shibuya, Tokyo, 2013.

Geta and zori can also still be found at many onsen ryokan (hot spring inns), where they are lend to visitors together with yukata. Some hot spring resorts, like Kinosaki Onsen (Hyogo Prefecture) and Naruko Onsen (Miyagi Prefecture), have developed their town with the premise of wearing geta. In these towns, the tourist office even offers geta rental.

When you walk down their streets, you can hear the nostalgic karan koron (カランコロン) sound of geta, just like it reverberated through the streets of old Japan.

Notes

1 Inouye, Jukichi (1910). Home Life in Tokyo. The Tokyo Printing Company, Ltd., 128.

2 Yanagida, Kunio, Terry, Charles S. (1969) Japanese Culture in the Meiji Era Vol.4: Manners And Customs. Tokyo: The Tokyo Bunko, 287.

3 ibid 280, 281.

4 ibid 21–22.

5 ibid 22.

6 Inouye, Jukichi (1910). Home Life in Tokyo. The Tokyo Printing Company, Ltd., 126.

7 ibid, 127.

8 ibid, 126.

9 Yanagida, Kunio, Terry, Charles S. (1969) Japanese Culture in the Meiji Era Vol.4: Manners And Customs. Tokyo: The Tokyo Bunko, 23.

10 Inouye, Jukichi (1910). Home Life in Tokyo. The Tokyo Printing Company, Ltd., 123.

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Reference for Citations

Duits, Kjeld (). 1920s: Geta and Zori Shop, OLD PHOTOS of JAPAN. Retrieved on October 1, 2022 (GMT) from https://www.oldphotosjapan.com/photos/897/geta-zori-traditional-japanese-footwear-meiji-taisho-showa-period

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