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Tatami Mats: 1000 years in the making
Meet the material featured as part and parcel of Japan. Any time there is any interior scene set in Japan, in any form of visual media, the wood-like material is portrayed. Look long enough at any style of Japanese art, from the woodcut prints of the Meiji Period, Kurosawa’s famed samurai films, or various Studio Ghibli animations and you will find tatami. Not just in Japanese media either; countless action movies from The Matrix to Kill Bill all featuring this uniquely Japanese material.
Even if you’ve encountered this mysterious Eastern material, you may not have paid it a second thought. But with this article, tatami is in the shadows no more and will come out from under the rug.
We’ll answer questions like… Tatami? What is tatami? Can I tatami? Where did this mysterious floor begin?
To start, these are rectangular soft mats made from a rice straw fill and covered with another layer of finely woven straw. Straw all the way down. Their texture is firm with slight sponginess, and found on the floor and often as walls. For those uninitiated, imagine they are like fancy carpets that are smooth instead of fluffy.
So how did tatami floors become ubiquitous in Japan (instead of Hidden)?
History of Tatami
Like any being trapped by gravity, Japanese people traditionally spent a lot of time on floors. One day many centuries ago, someone must have decided “this floor isn’t good enough!”. Over many iterations, they came up with the tatami floor. Given this was olden times, only the nobility were allowed tatami floors. Everyone else was stuck using the floor that wasn’t good enough (ground).
The softness of tatami meant that the rooms with this flooring became a popular place to also sleep. Again this is in comparison to the existing options of that time (ground or pure straw). Little by little, as the Japanese economy grew, less-wealthy families could afford the luxury of soft floors that weren’t spiky straw.
By the Muromachi Period (1333-1573), the mats were already inching their way into all homes. Family wealth would often be denoted by exactly how many tatami mats could be used, with regular families having single stand-alone mats.
For most houses these days, a tatami room is pretty common as the place of rest and gathering. However, mats still feature as a symbol of wealth and an economic indicator, being the standard used for house measurements. Whenever people want to know the size of a room, they’ll enquire on how many jo (畳) or tatami mats it can fit.
All this talk makes it seem like houses are only furnished with one flooring system. This is not the case. While many homes will have a single or multiple tatami rooms, typically the main corridors and many rooms will have standard wooden panelled floors (with Western style chairs).
In fact, tatami was seen as a material in decline in the post WWII era. Among the many changes that this timeframe brought forth was the rise in Westernised living styles, with much hand-wringing about the corresponding drop in Traditional Japanese living styles. Research papers have even cited the rapid loss of traditional rooms as an indicator of this drop. So why have so many Japan homes made the switch away?
While not as divisive as Obamacare, tatami mat cleaning comes with its own set of problems. To the untrained eye, the mats look like a simple and great way to bring Japanese style to any house. Maintenance of such rooms, however, involve a wide array of specialty products found in the imposing aisles of Japanese supermarkets. These include specialty cleaning wipes, anti-mold spray, tatami wax, and even a tatami broom (made from Shuro palm). It really begs the question on how this classic floor can survive in the instant cleaning world (editor’s note: take these cleaning products with a grain of salt; in multiple decades the editor has never seen their Grandmother’s tatami specially cleaned).
We looked at the precipitous fall in dedicated tatami rooms since WWII, but half of all households still live by the tatami. Once again, this might just come down to the urban/rural divide. Cost of housing in the urban metropolises are astronomical, so space for a dedicated tatami room might feel superfluous. As the population keeps inching towards the giant cities, will having rooms for tatami become obsolete?
No, not if people were conscious of the Neighbour City Syndrome (shameless plug).
Beyond those resisting the urban pull and maintaining their homes out in regional Japan, there is another source that keeps tatami rooms around. If you’ve been in a tatami room, it is distinctly Japanese. It looks like Japan. It feels like Japan. It even smells like Japan. For some in the overseas Japanese diaspora, having a tatami room is like having a portal back to Japan.
In various overseas countries now, especially those with significant Japanese populations, there are sources where you can buy authentic tatami mats. Many a homesick household has redecorated to include a room that brings the familiar senses of Japan to them. Naturally the overseas market isn’t limited just to Japanese heritage individuals. Even that great Japanese goods exporter Muji sells it overseas to the tatami-curious.
There are countless reasons that tatami sellers will suggest including this material in your home. You could be a Japanese culture enthusiast, prefer the aesthetic, or be convinced by the floor-sleeping health benefits. Yet, I am getting ahead of myself; floor sleeping will be discussed in an upcoming post.
In the meantime though, I hope this post has informed you of the role tatami plays in Japanese life. Stay tuned for part two in how Japanese people sleep on tatami’s best friend. The Futon.
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