What’s the Floor Culture They Have in Japan?

Japanese culture is known for its strong traditions and discipline, which are practiced in modern times.

One aspect that fascinates many is Japan’s unique floor culture, centered around the iconic tatami mat. Traditionally made from rice straw, tatami mats represent authenticity and tradition.

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These mats, derived from the ‘igusa’ plant, are essential in Japanese homes. They offer invaluable insight into the country’s cultural heritage.

If you want to learn more, this article will explore the lively world of Japanese floor culture.

About Tatami

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Though fragile and prone to damage, tatami mats are popular in Japanese residences.

To prolong these weaved mats, the Japanese don’t wear shoes inside and often wear socks with sandals. This ensures they keep their feet clean and prevents damage when they enter the house.

Caring for tatami can be challenging. Although they last around ten years, they require intricate craftsmanship for replacement. Yet, their enduring popularity reflects the Japanese appreciation for their charm and welcoming scent.

The history of tatami dates back to ancient times. It evolved into a symbol of authority during the Nara and Heian periods. Over the years, tatami gradually became commonplace in households during the Edo and Muromachi eras.

Tatami consists of three main parts: the border (Tatami-heri), cover (Tatami-omote), and base (Tatami-doko). Traditionally, the base is made from layers of rice straw for durability, fire resistance, and humidity control.

The covers of tatami vary in quality, with higher-grade materials used in sacred places like temples. Despite regional differences in size, tatami offers many benefits. This includes air purification, relaxation, and safety.

While the art of tatami-making is declining, many Japanese still use tatami for sitting and napping.

Sitting Positions

In Japanese floor culture, there is a specific way of sitting on tatami mats or cushions known as zabuton. There are several common sitting positions:

  1. Seiza: This is a formal sitting posture. One sits directly on one’s knees, legs folded underneath one’s thighs, and back straight. This is used for tea ceremonies or when visiting traditional Japanese settings.
  2. Agura: Also known as “cross-legged” sitting, this position involves tucking one leg closer to the body. The other leg rests on top, crossed over the extended leg. The Japanese sit with their legs crossed during casual situations at home.
  3. Anza: This position is similar to seiza but less formal. In it, one sits on one’s knees with one’s legs folded underneath one’s thighs, but the back is not kept straight.
  4. Wariza: In this sitting posture, one kneels with their legs bent and their bottom resting on the heels.

These seating styles are about physical comfort and reflect cultural norms and etiquette. The choice of seating position can vary based on the context, the formality of the situation, and personal comfort.

Japanese Dining Tradition and Floor Culture

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The practice of eating while seated on a zabuton is deeply rooted in the unique cultures of Japan and other Asian countries. 

This tradition extends beyond the home to high-end restaurants with tatami rooms. Diners embrace the experience of sitting on the ground, whether on tatami or seats with low tables when eating.

Several factors contribute to the preference for floor dining:

  1. Space: Homes in Japan are often tiny, making floor dining a practical solution for maximizing space use. After meals, clearing away utensils allows for versatile use of the area. This is a reflection of how the Japanese value efficiency in living spaces.
  2. Cultural pride: Eating on the floor is a cherished aspect of Japanese culture, symbolizing tradition and heritage. This cultural preservation is evident in customs. You can observe it in traditional clothing and culinary practices centered around food.
  3. Washitsu and Tatami: Traditional Japanese-style rooms, or washitsu, feature soft tatami for people to sit on the floor. It aims to enhance the dining experience. Because these mats are comfortable and delicate, floor dining is encouraged over conventional furniture to protect the tatami. This is common in ryokans and Japanese hotels that offer cultural immersion to foreigners visiting the country.
  4. Earthquake safety: Japan’s seismic activity poses safety concerns for traditional furniture during earthquakes. Low chairs and tables minimize the risk of injury. This aligns with Japan’s proactive approach to disaster preparedness.

In the absence of tatami, low tables like Chabudai or Kotatsu are alternatives to floor dining. They ensure comfort and practicality while maintaining the essence of Japanese floor culture.

Eating while seated on the tatami floor in Japan and other Asian countries isn’t just about tradition—it’s also about health benefits:

  • Better posture: Sitting on the floor naturally promotes good spinal alignment. It engages core muscles, keeping your back happy and healthy.
  • Happy digestion: Floor dining encourages a relaxed eating posture. This aids with digestion and reduces the risk of discomfort, such as bloating.
  • Flexibility boost: Regular floor sitting can improve flexibility in your hips, knees, and ankles. It helps keep your joints limber and mobile.
  • Mindful munching: Being close to the ground encourages mindfulness while eating. With it; you can savor your meals and de-stress.
  • Social satisfaction: Sharing meals on the floor fosters a sense of connection and relaxation. It can strengthen the bonds with others and promote overall well-being.

Decoding Low Japanese Tables: Insights into Floor Culture

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Japanese tables come in various sizes, with many opting for low options like Chabudai and Kotatsu.

This preference is rooted in practicality. Low desks save space in Japan’s compact rooms and offer safety during earthquakes. They also facilitate easier movement during emergencies, crucial in Japan’s earthquake-prone environment.

Japan’s historical isolation, particularly during the Yuan and Song dynasties, delayed the adoption of standard tables and chairs.

Unlike China, which embraced seating furniture, people in Japan sat on the floor. The country’s insular geography influenced this. Japan was surrounded by ocean and mountainous terrain and had limited contact with external influences.

Understanding Japanese Floor Sleeping Culture

The history of futons in Japan traces back to ancient times. It was originally a luxury item. Nobles enjoyed bed-like structures, while peasants slept on rice straw mats or the floor during the Nara era (710-794). 

The Heian era (794-1185) marked the beginning of tatami culture, with the nobility using luxury beds made from multiple tatami mats called yaedatami.

Cotton cultivation in the Heian era led to innovations in bedding materials, including padded kimonos for sleeping and the first futons during the Edo era (1603-1868). These early beds were stiff and expensive, accessible only to the aristocrats and upper class.

In the 19th century, they became more affordable by introducing mass-produced versions using cheap imported cotton. This accessibility diminished their status symbol, making them widely available.

This ground cushion gained popularity in the West in the mid-20th century, introduced by travelers who admired Japanese culture. Today, Western-style ones are thicker and used on beds or sofas, diverging from traditional Japanese use.

Despite Western adaptations, many Japanese still prefer sleeping on the floor with shikibuton, preserving cultural customs, and enjoying benefits like comfort and space-saving. This practice reflects a deep connection to heritage and tradition.

Advantages of using Futons

From my observations, sleeping on the floor provides numerous benefits beyond cultural tradition and space-saving measures.

Firstly, there’s the cost-effectiveness aspect. It’s quite noticeable that investing in one is much more budget-friendly than purchasing a traditional bedframe and all its accompanying bedding. With futons, you don’t have to spend a lot to be comfy.

Plus, beds often require larger rooms for accommodation, whereas futons can be placed in smaller spaces without sacrificing comfort.

Another observation I’ve made is the accommodation flexibility offered by this ground cushion. It’s interesting to see how easily multiple people can be accommodated in a room by simply spreading out futons and utilizing available space. 

On the other hand, mattresses have a fixed capacity and cannot be as easily adjusted to accommodate extra individuals.

Lastly, its versatility stands out to me. It can be folded, moved, and tucked away in the closet during the day, while traditional mattresses are typically fixed in place. Alternatively, it can be used as a bed or sofa.

This flexibility is advantageous when considering room layouts and rearrangements, as moving a mattress can often be challenging and time-consuming due to space constraints.

Intense Floor Culture

Japanese culture is a captivating blend of traditions. People often relax, dine, and sleep while seated on the floor.

This cultural practice extends beyond daily activities to include the revered tea ceremony, where participants kneel gracefully on tatami mats in tea rooms while partaking in the ceremonial preparation and consumption of tea.

In this immersive culture, the Japanese people embrace sleeping on the floor as a tradition. Instead of traditional bedframes, households often use bedding consisting of a duvet (shikibuton) and a cotton mattress (kakebuton).

Exploring Japanese culture unveils practicality and symbolic significance within the broader context of the Japanese lifestyle. From the tranquility of tea ceremonies to the comfort of sleeping on tatami, the floor serves as a stage for cultural expression and tradition in Japan.