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.
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.
Making a tatami mat
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.