When Japanese forces landed at Milne Bay in New Guinea in August 1942, they were equipped with two armoured tanks and distinctive split-toed boots that puzzled the Allied troops.
It was only after World War II when Australians identified the shoes as jika-tabi, rubber-soled footwear that separated the wearer’s big toe from the others.
They were developed around the turn of the 20th century by the brother of the founder of the Bridgestone tyre company, and they were based on the design of the traditional Japanese split-toed sock.
A pair of jika-tabi boots captured at the Battle of Milne Bay are on display at the Australian War Memorial (AWM) with other material originally gathered by the Army to help Australian troops understand how the enemy worked.
AWM senior curator Shane Casey said Australian soldiers thought the “otherworldly” shoes were made for climbing trees.
“The Japanese were somewhat mysterious to us … they had this aura of being supermen,” Mr Casey said.
“They’d conquered half the Pacific area by this stage and we were very fearful of them and thought they were going to … conquer New Guinea.”
Japanese soldiers tracked by patterned soles
The Battle of Milne Bay (August 25 to September 7, 1942) was a victory for Allied forces as well as a morale booster for their comrades fighting on the Kokoda Track and other fronts in Asia and the Pacific.
It is regarded as the first major Pacific conflict in which the Allies decisively defeated the Japanese on land.
The battle began when elite Japanese naval troops attacked Allied airfields on the eastern tip of New Guinea.
A total of 167 Australians and 14 Americans were killed; Japanese casualties were much higher at around 750.
Japanese soldiers who fled into the jungle found their boots were a liability.
“For weeks afterwards Australian and American forces … were tracking those stragglers the Japanese forces left behind and killing them or capturing them,” Mr Casey said.
“Australians were able to track them easily because of [their boots’] distinctive pattern.”
Jika-tabi shoes still worn
These days, jika-tabi shoes — sometimes known as ninja boots — can be seen in samurai movies, on running tracks and even on the catwalk.
Their light, durable grip is still favoured by Japanese gardeners and construction workers.
Mr Casey said it was likely other historic jika-tabi boots were souvenired by WWII soldiers.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if there were examples of these dotted all over Australia … in people’s attics,” he said.
“If they’ve been stored in a box … they might actually be still pliable and in good condition.
“If they’ve been exposed to ultraviolet radiation … sunlight and the like, they’d probably be rock hard and if you tried to put them on they’d probably shatter.”