Buying large shoes in Japan is a bit like trying to find a prime-time TV show that doesn’t feature at least one past or present member of AKB48: You know they exist, but it often takes perseverance and a measure of luck to track them down.
Back home in New Zealand I take a perfectly average size 7, but the corresponding Japanese size of 24.5 definitely puts me at the Bigfoot end of the spectrum. Luckily for me, that’s still within the standard range, but women over 24.5 and men over 27 (9 in U.S., 8 in U.K.) are “outsize,” meaning that a large percentage of the foreign population are going to have problems. And buying shoes online from your favorite store back home can backfire, as the 30-percent import duty on shoes can bump up the total cost considerably.
But it isn’t only foreigners in Japan who have a hard time with shoes; younger Japanese are also outgrowing standard sizes. My 15-year-old daughter is of average height but her feet are up to 25 — and still growing — while several of her Japanese girl friends wear 25.5 or 26. Why aren’t the retailers taking notice?
According to Hideyuki Saso of the Japan Shoe Retailers’ Association, most Japanese people didn’t even start wearing Western-style shoes until after World War II. Those who lived out of the major cities still favored open-style footwear like geta and zori. Traditionally, Japanese feet are shorter and wider than those of their Western counterparts and tend to fall within a limited size range. “Now, however, there are more young people who don’t fit the old standard. Over the last 10 years, most manufacturers are bringing out shoes at least up to 25.5 for ladies and 28 for men.”
Then why can’t you find these sizes easily in the shops? “While these sizes exist, the demand for them is still fairly limited,” cautions Saso. “Even if a shoe store stocks larger sizes in certain styles, they can’t be sure that the customer will want that style and color. Young people, in particular, are picky! No retailer wants to risk using up inventory space for shoes that won’t sell, so the average shoe shop simply won’t stock them.”
He adds that sometimes customers will go into a shop looking for a certain size and take the shop assistant’s word when told they don’t stock it. “But I suggest trying on some shoes anyway. For example, a young person used to tightly laced sneakers usually can go down a whole size when buying loafers for school or dress occasions.”
For women, in addition to major department stores, clothing chains Zara, Forever 21 and Shimamura have a limited selection of larger sizes up to about 26.5. Specialist shops for women in Tokyo catering for larger sizes up to 27 or 27.5 include Tulsa Time in Gakugeidaigaku (www.tulsatime.co.jp), Original Fan in Kasai (www.originalfan.com) and Washington in Ginza and Shinjuku (www.washington-shoe.co.jp). Be prepared to pay around ¥10,000 a pair at these three shops.
For a wide selection and reasonable prices, however, big-foot specialist store Ten on the west of Shinjuku is a good bet for both women and men. You can also order online at shoes-ten.com.
Internet shopping can sometimes be tricky when you aren’t sure how sizes run, but Japanese companies are generally good about accepting returns. Nissen (www.nissen.co.jp) carries both larger shoes and a wide selection of large-size clothes for men and women at lower-end prices. And then there is always Rakuten and Amazon.
Women may be able to find acceptable casual styles among the men’s selection, but the options for truly big-footed males are limited. In addition to Ten, mentioned above, there is Big-B Shoes in Gotanda, who try hard to accommodate foreign customers with an English section on their website (www.big-b.jp/zenglish.html) Also, Kutsu no Hikari (www.kutsunohikari.co.jp) has two stores, in Kawasaki and Okachimachi. (Their Shinjuku store closed last year.)
So, with Japanese feet growing larger, will we see more big-foot shops in the near future? Don’t hold your breath, says a spokesman at Ten’s Shinjuku shop. “Young people’s feet are growing bigger, it’s true, but the number of young people is decreasing year by year. I honestly don’t think the shoe market is going to change very much.”
If you have a store anywhere in Japan or site you can recommend for bigger shoes, please let us know.
Kiwi Louise George Kittaka has been based in Japan since she was 20. In the ensuing years she has survived PTA duty for three kids in the Japanese education system and singing live on NHK’s “Nodo Jiman” show, among other things. Send comments and questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.