Tabi or not Tabi

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Even the sturdiest building can crumble if it is built on a weak foundation. Following this same principal, the human body can accomplish unimaginable feats, but not without a stable base.

In Ninjustu, the foundation of the art starts with proper kamae. For this concept, the goal is to match balance and movement. The base of this balance originates from the planting and steadying of the feet into the Earth.

The feet are often overlooked as a necessary part of the whole in regard to weight training, stretching and overall body maintenance, but their well-being is, in fact crucial. One important factor in achieving overall foundational health is proper footwear. Thus, tabi have remained a staple in the Ninjutsu uniform.

Types of Tabi

The noun tabi means journey. There are two types of tabi; indoor and outdoor. Their distinctions are primarily derived from different types of soles.

Indoor tabi– In the dojo one would wear indoor tabi. The sole of the shoe is typically made of leather, suede or cotton canvas. This provides maximum movement across the smooth surface of the training facility. They are also traditionally worn as house shoes/slippers.

Outdoor tabi– When practicing outdoors, a thicker soled shoe is usually more appropriate depending on the terrain. The outdoor tabi typically have a rubber sole. This provides more protection and grip on uneven surfaces. Most casual wear or fashionable tabi are formatted more like outdoor tabi.

Modern Footwear Follies

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Argued as the world’s oldest leather shoe

A good portion of the shoes worn in society today bare little similarity to the shape of the human foot, which has evolved over 2 billion years without shoes. The first type of foot covering was developed around 50,000 years ago and was comprised of animal skin to protect from cold weather and harsh surfaces such as rocks. Eventually this led to the development of leather sandals. It has only been over the last several centuries that it became normal to compress our toes together in a complete sheath. This compression has been the catalyst of a number of painful muscle, bone, and health problems that are not exclusive to the feet, but extend throughout the body.

Modern shoes are so heavily enhanced at all angles that they do not conform to the natural shape of the foot, but instead act to alter it. This often places the foot in such a modified position that certain muscles within the foot and leg become less active, decreasing the actual strength of a person’s foundation If one was to stand on a flat surface with bare feet and observe the position of the toes it is most likely true that they are not compacted together.

The Benefits of Tabi

Tabi are traditionally worn in the practice of Ninjustu because of the art’s Japanese origin, and are much more conducive to overall foot health than most athletic footwear. Tabi separate the big toe from the others, which serves to bring the body into alignment. The slight widening of foot surface creates increased stability. It also allows the arch to lift. This in turn lifts the ankle, which supports the knee, followed by the pelvis, spine, neck and head.

The absence of thick, over-supportive material in the sole of the tabi allows for the muscles in the feet and ankles to be engaged, which leads to stronger feet. Stronger feet lead to a stronger foundation and a stronger foundation leads to a stronger body. The separation of the toes can also increase agility and dexterity.

Toes and Brain Function

Some research has show heavy correlation between brain function and use of the big toe. The Sakura Sakuranbo Childcare Institute in Furuya, North of Tokyo has been using a “crawling program” to stimulate brain function in children with disabilities. These children are encouraged to play barefoot on the floor and move so that they start using their big toes in a natural way. Soon they are able to put their toes against the floor and eventually learn to crawl. They then make such improvements that they are playing with blocks and beginning to mouth words, which was previously unimaginable.

Reflexology is the Chinese practice of foot massage used to stimulate other areas of the body. According to traditional Chinese medicine, if you manipulate the reflex points on the feet that communicate with the brain, you will stimulate the flow of vital energy to the brain and promote a healthful balance of the brain’s processes.

The frequent use of tabi as footwear can relieve unwanted pressure in a number of places on the typically suffocating foot. The split toe design also encourages correct pressure between the big toe and second toe, which directly correlates to the neck as well as a number of other areas.

Tabi as Athletic Shoes

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Shigeki Tanaka winning the 1951 the Boston Marathon wearing tabi shoes.

In 1951 the Boston Marathon was won by Shigeki Tanaka who crossed the finish line at 2:27:45 wearing tabi made by the company, which is now called “Asics.” Despite Tanaka’s success, the shoe never became popular with American athletes. Perhaps this is partially due to timing, considering that this was just six years post- WWII and the integration Japanese culture may not have been openly welcomed. The style was discontinued shortly after and replaced by the models similar to the mainstream running shoes adorned today.

Blue Ribbon sports, which later became “Nike,” used to carry the Asics brand. Years after the split of the companies, Nike introduced the “Air Rift,” which was another attempt at a tabi running shoe. The design never caught on, but in 2006 Asics gave it another shot and produced 4,400 pairs of the “Tai-Chi Tigress” and “Marathon Tabi.” These two collections sold out quickly.

The Return of the Toe Spacer

There has been a recent movement in mainstream culture to revert back to a footwear style based on the concept that less is more. With thinner material and intentional spacing between toes, many people are beginning to heal and strengthen what was broken by long-term use of over adjustment.

Several styles that have been recently introduced separate all five toes, or just four toes grouping the smaller two together. The benefit to tabi still outweighs these multi-separations on a larger scale because each person’s foot varies in toe length and sometimes having each toe separated can cause and individual compression. Still, this is likely better than snug fitting shoes that bunch them all.

Ninjutsu Tabi

The tabi have always been an integral part of the Ninjutsu uniform. Originally this was so, because of its Japanese roots. Today it remains that way for multiple reasons including a thinner sole for heightened sensation, awareness and quietness along with the fact that they can allow the feet to hold things between the toes if needed. One never knows when they will need an extra hand.

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