Minimalist Sleep: the Japanese Tatami Mat

Two Japanese Girls Sleeping in Bedroom, Circa 1880

Is a bed frame necessary or a space-consuming inconvenience? The Japanese tatami is not a bed in the Western sense. It is a floor mat with a top layer of rushes, which creates a springy surface for sleeping or sitting. A cotton futon mattress is then rolled out on top of the mat to create a surface to sleep on. This creates a very flexible living space. Futons have been gaining popularity in the West as the concept of minimalist living has become fashionable.

Tatami history

In the late nineteenth century American born Edward S. Morse set out to understand the way of life in Japan. This is his view of Japanese living in wealthy households. He saw much merit in the flexible way of layering the floor with tatami mats.

In regard to the bed and its arrangements, the Japanese have reduced this affair to its simplest expression. The whole floor, the whole house indeed, is a bed, and one can fling himself down on the soft mats, in the draught or out of it, upstairs or down, and find a smooth, firm, and level surface upon which to sleep, – no creaking springs, hard bunches or awkward hollows awaiting him, but a bed-surface as wide as the room itself, and comfortable to the last degree.

Edward S. Morse, Japanese Homes and their Surroundings (New York, 1889), p. 198.

In pre-modern Japan the houses of the elite were fitted with tatami mats throughout.  There was no central corridor.  Rooms opened onto each other, separated by paper screen doors.  The most important room was the yashiki (guest room), situated in the south-facing part of the house overlooking an ornamental garden.  This is where the master of the house entertained guests, displayed antiques, kept his study and slept.  The rest of the family slept in the multi-functional family rooms in the darker, northern-facing part of the house.  This also contained the servants’ rooms, kitchen, toilet and bath.

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Photo by Francesco Ungaro on

Making a tatami mat

making-tamamitamami f]

A tatami mat is comprised of three parts: the doko (base), omote (cover) and heri (border). The thickest part is the base, which is made of rice-straw. The top layer is made from igsu (candle rush). Rush has a sponge-like pith under a hard surface, and fine hollow capillaries that both absorb and release moisture. These properties make it ideal as a mat covering, creating a springy surface that is cool in the summer and warm in the winter.

Common rush (juncus effusus) or Candle rush growing on wetland

Tatami in the modern Japanese home

During the twentieth century a revolution took place in Japanese family life, which is reflected in the architecture of the Japanese home.  During the 1960’s the LDK (Living Dining Kitchen) layout became the standard plan for the Japanese home.  Based around the ideal of the happy, affectionate nuclear family, the traditional yashiki was replaced in the LDK layout with a Western-style living room containing sofas and coffee tables.  Food was prepared and eaten in a Western-style dining-kitchen area, and the family ate together sitting on chairs at a dining table.

In the LDK plan, instead of multi-functional rooms, a private room was provided for the married couple.  Ideally, the children were also provided with separate bedrooms.

In reality, many Japanese families have not entirely adopted Western-style living.  Most homes contain a tamami room, used for relaxing and napping.  Whether couples sleep together, or separately, in a Western-style bed or a futon on the floor, depends upon personal taste.

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The Teahouse

Risa. Kyoto, Japan

This is fifteen-year-old Risa. She is shown pictured here by the photographer James Mollison for his project Where Children Sleep. She sleeps in the corner of a room in a teahouse in Kyoto (second picture). She shares this room with five other women. It is used as a dining room and tea room, as well as a place to sleep.

At the time that the photograph was taken, Risa was the youngest maiko in Japan. A maiko is a young woman who has been accepted to train as a geisha (hostess). She is learning the traditional arts of tea-making, dancing, singing and playing the Japanese drums to entertain the guests who come to the teahouse.

The life of Risa is not typical, but it is one example of how the tradition of sleeping on the floor continues in modern-day Japan. Eating, entertaining and sleeping in the one space, a style of living that the visitors come to flavour, is made possible by the tatami mat flooring.

Healthier sleep?

The futon has become popular in some Western households for quite different reasons.

Futons are marketed in the West as healthier and more convenient than beds on a frame. As property prices rise in many cities and space is at a premium, the minimalist style of furnishing a flat has become popular. Futons made in the traditional way using 100% cotton is seen as natural and healthier than synthetic mattresses. In this Youtube video an American woman explains her reasons for sleeping on the floor.


Inge Daniels, The Japanese House: Material Culture in the Modern Home (2010), with photography by Susan Andrews.

This study of modern Japanese living was the subject of an exhibition at the Geffrye Museum of the home in London.  The collaboration between Inge Daniels and Susan Andrews has produced a fascinating study of the values represented by use of space and architecture in Japan, with beautiful photography.

Available from Amazon.  Also available to readers at the British Library.

Edward S. Morse, Japanese Homes and their Surroundings (New York, 1889)

This nineteenth-century study of Japanese architecture is available as a free ebook provided by the Gutenberg Project.

Japan House, London

A gallery, restaurant and exhibition area presenting Japanese art, design and technology.  Located on Kensington Hight Street, London.  Discover the history of the Japanese home from their website.

Where Children Sleep

For me, the project became a vehicle to think about issues of poverty and wealth, about the relationship of children to personal possessions, and the power of children – or lack of it – to make decisions about their lives.

James Mollison, 2010
Jivan. Brooklyn, New York

Everyone sleeps, and everyone needs a place to sleep. One of the first things we consider when a baby is born is where she or he will sleep. The sleeping environment people provide for their children is dependent on where in the world they live and their financial circumstances. In this series of pictures from photographer James Mollison’s collection Where Children Sleep we are given a glimpse into the widely diverse circumstances in which children live.

In framing the photographs, Mollison captures more than the stark contrast in material circumstances. Sleeping environments are determined by a number of factors: climate, socio-economic background, culture and personality. Providing warmth, shelter and comfort, sleeping areas are multi-functional. They are used also as places to sit, work, play, cook, entertain guests, do homework, watch TV, raise animals for food or as pets, store toys and display treasured possessions and prizes. For some they are private spaces; for others they are shared with family, school mates, colleagues or livestock. Simply looking at someone’s sleeping environment can tell a lot about their values and priorities, as well as their circumstances.

In the photograph at the top of this page a modern bedroom has been especially created for four-year-old Divan by his mother, an interior designer. Here her priorities are to make good use of space in their New York skyscraper flat and to provide a stimulating environment for her son to develop his creativity.

Rush mats on the mud floor of a twig-roofed hut in the Nepali countryside make a mattress for Jyoti and her sister to sleep on. The open fire provides warmth at night and is used for cooking during the day.

Jyoti. Makwanpur, Napal

For eight-year-old Roathy, who lives in a dump in Cambodia, his bed is made out of whatever his family can re-use from amongst the decomposing rubbish. His mattress has been made out of old tires.

Roathy. Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Risa. Kyoto, Japan

This picture is of fifteen-year-old Risa, the youngest maiko in Japan, who lives in a teahouse in Kyoto. The room she shares with five other women is also used as a dining room and tea room. A maiko is a young woman who has been accepted to train as a geisha (hostess). She is learning the traditional arts of tea-making, dancing, singing and playing the Japanese drums to entertain the wealthy male guests who come to the teahouse.

A child’s bedroom in Japan

The picture above shows a floor covered by Japanese tatami mats. This is a floor mat made from a layer of compressed rice straw covered with woven rushes. It provides a surface for exercise and sleep. A thin mattress called a futon is laid on top of the tamami mat and rolled away the next day. In this video from the YouTube site Life Where I’m From, a Japanese girl shows us insider her bedroom.


The rest of Mollison’s collection can be viewed here. His book, Where Children Sleep, is available on Amazon here.