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Japanese are respected and known for their pride and discipline in culture. Despite modern civilization, they practice their tradition with pleasure and strictness.
But what’s fascinating about them all is their floor culture.
It revolves around a mat known as a tatami. It is a dried mat woven with rushes. Tatamis get wrapped around a core and then sewn tightly.
In the olden times, what got used as the primary material is the rice straw.
Today, most Japanese opt to use readily available synthetic materials.
The rushes used in making the mats are from the herbaceous plants known as ‘igusa.’ They are part of the Juncus species.
If you’ve been to Japan, tatami mats are not new to you. But you may not have any knowledge concerning them.
In this article, you shall learn everything you need to know about the floor culture in Japan. Let’s start by learning more about tatami, the center of the Japanese floor culture.
Though tatami mats are attractive and most used in the Japanese flooring system, they are fragile. They stain, gouge, and scratch easily. This is why the Japanese wear socks with sandals to keep their feet clean when they enter their homes.
In return, caring for them becomes a challenge. You also cannot count on them for a long time. Tatamis do not live for over ten years.
But replacing them within a short time doesn’t seem to bother the Japanese. They still use them. Because making them entails a specific art and much labor, tatami mats are expensive.
But this, and the extra care required to maintain them, does not shun the Japanese.
It is evident that the Japanese love the personality and charm of the tatami mats. The mats contain a sweet and welcoming smell loved by everybody.
The Japanese commitment to their floor culture by using the tatami is incredible!
You may wonder how the Japanese tatami came to exist. Here is a brief history.
The Origin of Tatami
During the ancient Yayoi and Jomon eras, the Japanese used to make ‘mushiro.’ These are simple mats made with straw.
During the Nara period, the word ‘tatami’ came alive. It means to stack or fold. The folding or rolling up here means how they used to do it during the early days – not like today.
Then came the Heian or Nara era, and the tatami got used as a bed that illustrated someone’s authority. Each mat was designed differently based on the person’s superiority.
But it is not until the Edo and Muromachi era that tatami became part of every Japanese household.
Its significance as a symbol of superiority was lost. The mats took a new role during tea ceremonies. They became highly regarded during such events, especially in the Edo period. No wonder they carry a lot of historical significance!
Tatami consists of various parts. To understand these mats better, let’s look into their components.
What Constitutes a Tatami Mat?
Tatami comes in three parts as follows;
- Border (Tatami-heri)
- Cover (Tatami-omote)
- Base (Tatami-doko)
Traditionally, the base gets made with several layers of pure rice straw, also known as wara-doko. This material gets regarded as the best due to the following reasons;
- Lasts long
- Fireproof ability
- Controls humidity perfectly
Between the straw, a material known as stylo-doko gets sandwiched. Its feel is similar to that of the rice straw, but it comes lighter.
A kenzai-doko base is one made from non-natural or building materials. The materials could be polystyrene foam or compressed wood chips placed within or the entire board.
The covers of the tatami mats usually are graded. Those made with highly rated materials find their way into sacred places such as temples and shrines.
Most households in Japan use mats made with high to medium-grade materials.
The stronger the material, the more durable the mat becomes. An excellent example of a sturdy material used is hemp.
Most tatami borders got made using hemp or cotton. But today, synthetic fiber is commonly used because it’s sturdy and comes at a pocket-friendly price.
Tatami mats are not the same in all regions of Japan. They vary in size as follows;
- Kyoto: It’s known as Kyoma tatami, with a size of 0.955m x 1.91m. Its average thickness is 5.5cm
- Tokyo: It’s called Kantoma or Edoma tatami, with dimensions of 0.88m x 1.76m, and an average thickness of 6.0cm
- Nagoya: People refer to it as Ainoma tatami. It measures 0.91m x 1.82m.
Despite being made with resilient and fireproof materials, tatami comes with many other benefits. No wonder the Japanese love them. Check out the advantages associated with using tatami herein below;
Advantages of Tatami
I. Air Purifying
The iguna used in tatami is a perfect air purifier. It is known to eliminate the smell of tobacco. If you visit the home of Japanese who smokes, you can hardly discover he’s a smoker if he owns a tatami.
Maybe when you practically see him smoking.
The aroma from tatami is soothing and relaxing, thanks to the existing vanillin. Despite the mat’s relaxing ability, it also absorbs sound.
Homes that do not tolerate loud sounds or noises benefit much from the tatami.
III. Osteoporosis Reduction
Osteoporosis is a condition caused by fewer bones in the body. The bones become weak in return, making them break easily from a fall, bump, or sneeze.
Tatami assists a person suffering from this condition to stay safe. If it’s the spinal cord with a problem, the back gets to stay straight while using a tatami.
You cannot compare a tatami with the furniture and style beds from the West used to manage osteoporosis. The mats work out great than such equipment.
IV. Healthier Functioning of the Brain
Tatami comes with a unique texture. When stepped on barefoot, it stimulates your foot sole, which relaxes and soothes the brain.
As a result, your brain starts functioning properly. It is ideal to use by the elderly and babies.
You cannot compare a fall impact on the tatami to that on a hard concrete floor like those made with tiles. Tatami is soft, and you may not suffer any alarming damage when you or any of your stuff falls into it.
You can easily break a bone when you slip on a hard floor. Items have gotten known to fall apart when dropped on concrete floors.
Though the Japanese are holding onto their floor culture, the trend has decreased over the years.
Unfortunately, the modern Japanese generation does not want to learn the art of making tatami. As a result, the aged tatami artisans lack successors.
Despite this sad aspect, most Japanese are still using tatami today. They use them for sitting and sleeping. Are you wondering why? Check out the following insight;
Why the Japanese Sit to Eat
To sit while eating is not new to many cultures of the world. What differentiates it is how people sit while they eat.
In Japan, they eat while sitting on the tatami. It is common practice in Asian countries. You will find people sitting on the floor in restaurants in Japan.
Despite being an embraced practice, some Japanese don’t have tatami in their homes. They prefer using more comfortable floor chairs and tables.
It’s common to find a Japanese with regular chairs and tables in his home, but he prefers eating while seated on the floor.
What’s shocking is that the same happens in high-end restaurants in Japan. You will find people eating in a five-star restaurant while sitting on the floor.
It could be on the tatami or floor seats. The tables used are also low.
Do you want to know why?
Though the Japanese eat while seated on the floor to maintain their culture, there are other reasons. Check them out;
Japanese houses get designed smaller. A low table and some floor chairs that are good for the back or beds may take up the entire room!
Eating on the floor makes it convenient. After eating while seated on a tatami, you only need to remove the utensils and other stuff to create space for other things.
If using short chairs and tables, they will occupy a small space. Also, you can move them with ease to create more space.
b) Culture Reservation
It is the main reason why people eat seated on the floor in Japan. Like they wear kimono, cook traditional food, and visit shrines, the Japanese find pride in eating while sitting on the floor.
Regarding the Japanese culture, the country got locked down once for a long time.
As a result, there was no Western influence for that long period, explaining why the Japanese did not get used to the beds from the best.
c) Washitsu and Tatami
Washitsu is a Japanese room style found in most households. The room’s floor usually gets covered with soft tatami mats.
All rooms in the olden Japanese homes used to be washitsu. But today, you may find only a room or two.
The tatami covering the room’s floor gets made with rice straws. They are, therefore, very soft. Any furniture could easily damage or leave a mark.
Besides, why would they need a chair to sit on while the tatami is very comfortable?
Unfortunately, Japan experiences so many earthquakes. Furniture may be hazardous during an earthquake. If they do not block your way, the chair, table, or other items may be life-threatening.
What will happen when a heavy piece of furniture hits your head during that natural occurrence? It is only safe to have little furniture in your home.
In the absence of tatami, the Japanese use low chairs and tables while eating. The tables used are short-legged, also known as Chabudai.
These traditional tables are ideal to use when seated on the tatami as their height ranges from 15cm – to 30cm.
Another kind of table used is the Kotatsu. It’s also low and comes covered on top with a heavy blanket or futon. Then a heat source is usually placed underneath.
In the olden time, the Japanese used to place a charcoal brazier. Today, other heat sources like electric heaters get used.
Most people wonder why Japanese tables are low. Could you be one of them? No need to fret; continue reading to grasp some insight.
Why Are Japanese Tables So Low?
As illustrated earlier in this article, Japanese tables don’t come with a standard size. Though some embrace tables with the standard size, the majority prefer the Chabudai and Kotatsu.
If you’ve been reading this article keenly, you may already know why the Japanese tables are low.
The illustrated reasons why Japanese loves eating while seated on the floor are why they build their tables low. Shorter tables save on the much-needed space in the small Japanese rooms.
In natural disasters like tsunami and earthquakes, which are rampant in Japan, it would be safer to deal with a small table than a large one.
In case you need to get out urgently, it would be faster as a low table will leave enough space for you to pass.
These natural calamities also withheld Japan from adopting the floor heating culture. When they happen, the fire risks are high.
In the past, most people died due to fire when an earthquake happened than from other impacts like falling objects. The Japanese resolved the floor heating issue by using Kotatsu or hot showers.
After the Yuan and Song dynasties ended, trade between Japan and China ended. Japan, being an island country, was then sheltered from the outside world. Because China is a peninsula, the neighboring countries influenced it.
Unlike Japan, China adopted the use of chairs and tables. The then-ruling leaders, Yuan and Manchu, didn’t like the idea of kneeling on the floor to sit or eat. The idea of using tables and chairs won their hearts.
Due to the extended period without contact from the outside world, it took a long time to introduce standard tables and chairs to Japan.
The country’s geographical location and environmental factors disadvantaged them.
Read more about Chabudai and Kotatsu.
Intense floor culture
The Japanese floor culture is intense. Despite relaxing and eating while seated on the floor, the Japanese also sleep on the floor. It is a practice that attracts so many tourists to Japan. Instead of a bed, they use bedding known as a futon.
The futon is the bedding’s name. It consists of a duvet (shikubuton) and a cotton mattress (kekabuton).
The Japanese used the futon way back during the civil wars. But its use in Japanese households happened in the twentieth century. Let’s look into the Japanese floor sleeping culture for a better understanding.
When Did the Use of Futon Start in Japan?
Only the nobles could sleep on a structure similar to a bed during the Nara era (710-794). Peasants used to sleep on mats made from rice straw. Others could sleep directly on the floor.
It was also within this era that Japan received its first beds from China.
In the 8th century, tatami culture began to develop. Around 794 – 1185, in the Heian era, the upper class had beds made from several tatami mats put together (yaedatami).
The yaedatami came with layers proportional to a person’s rank. By then, tatami got used only for resting. The mats didn’t cover the entire room’s floor.
Cotton cultivation in Japan started during the Heian’s time. Though it was not successful, what got produced was used in the warfare materials.
The demand for use in warfare materials later decreased during the Edo era (1603 -1968).
It resulted in the innovation of cotton use in other things.
During this time, the padded kimonos for sleeping got invented. Kaimaki futon, the first pajama won by the Japanese, was also made. Sometimes linen got used in making kaimaki.
It paved the way for the first futons.
About the Early Futons
The Japanese used senbei futons as their sleeping surface in the early days. The futons contained less cotton, making them stiffen quickly.
Well-quilted and cushioned futons also existed, but they got made by hand and were extremely expensive and luxurious. As a result, only the upper class could afford them.
Futons entered shops in the 19th century, but still, only a few could afford them. Thanks to the access to cheap cotton that got imported, pocket-friendly futons were made.
As a result, anyone could afford a futon, making them lose their status symbol.
Use of Futon in the West
It was not until the middle of the 20th century that futons found their way into the West. They got introduced by persons who visited and appreciated Japan.
They went back to their countries with the futons, where others got to know about them.
Today’s futons are usually thicker, and the Western audiences who have adopted them don’t use them on the floor but on their beds or sofas.
But for the Japanese, most use futons currently on the floor as their ancestors did. Sleeping on the floor comes with advantages.
No wonder the Japanese love it.
Here are the benefits enjoyed by the Japanese when they sleep down.
Why Do Japanese Sleep on the Floor?
Besides creating space, safety measures from natural disasters, culture preservation, and lack of early civilization on beds, sleeping on the floor come with more benefits. They include the following;
You cannot compare the cost of a bed and its bedding with using a futon. You will also require a large room to accommodate the bed.
ii. Easy Sleep Over
With a futon, you can sleep as many people as possible in a room. You only need to look for free space and spread your futon.
But with a bed, you can only accommodate the number of people it can hold. Most beds can manage a maximum of three adult persons. It all depends on the bed’s size.
You can change the location as you wish with a futon. But a bed is fixed in its place. You can hardly move it as space may be limited. If you decide to move the bed, the task may be tedious and time-consuming.
As illustrated above, the Japanese floor culture is intriguing. Though other factors make the Japanese sit and eat on the floor, the main reason is to preserve their culture.
Seeing them exercise these cultural practices in modern today illustrates their love and commitment to their culture.
You might be interested in another article: Kotatsu Floor Chairs – Complete Guide