Photo: すしぱく on Pakutaso

Tatami – A Tradition Still Very Much Alive in Japan

I don’t know about you, but before coming to Japan, I thought tatami was just the name of the dense rubber mats used for practicing martial arts. Now, while this is not technically wrong–as that is what they’re called–these mats are an evolution of traditional tatami once also used as the surface for performing martial arts such as judo or aikido. Nowadays, when it comes to practicing these sports, though, the tatami used are industrially manufactured mats that, using modern and more affordable materials, mimic the firmness/fluffiness of the original ones. But that doesn’t mean that traditional (a.k.a. ‘real’ tatami) are a thing of the past. Quite the opposite!

What Exactly is Tatami?

The tatami-lined interior of a temple in Kyoto. Photo by @kidswhosayni on Instagram.

Tatami is a traditional Japanese surface used for room flooring, typically elevated from the ground. Most Japanese houses -even modern apartments that don’t actually use tatamis- are still measured in number of tatamis, since their measurements are standardized. The standard varies slightly throughout Japan, though, with the Kansai region having the largest ones and the Tokyo area the smallest. Tatamis are made of fine woven rush grass wrapped around a rice straw core, although modern tatamis use wood chip or foam boards. Each tatami mat is lined with a ribbon or fabric called heri, that covers the edges of the board. When tatamis are fresh and new, the color of the rush tends to be distinctly green and with a rich odor; as they age, the scent fades and they turn yellowish.

A traditional Japanese tea room is always a tatami room. Photo by Carlos ZGZ on Flickr.

Though initially set out in special rooms to represent privileged seating spots for the nobility or samurai, tatami gradually started losing its luxury status to reach the common citizens’ homes, and became the standard by which rooms in houses would be built. Tea rooms, for example, tend to have a square surface with an area of 4½ tatami mats, arranged in a harmonic way (yes, there is such a thing as disharmonic way of arranging tatami, and it is believed to bring misfortune and misbalance in life).

Tatami has many perks, like having insulating properties that help regulate the room temperature; something especially useful during extreme weather seasons as it helps keep rooms fresh in the summer and prevents the heat from escaping during winter. The firm yet somewhat soft surface makes it comfortable to walk around barefoot, sit directly on, and sleep on it using a thin futon mattress.

Tatami + socks = a match made in heaven! Photo by haru__q on Flickr.

I’ve had the pleasure of living in a Japanese home with tatami rooms and I can say I loved the experience! Rooms with tatami flooring are very homey, comfortable and versatile. They seamlessly morph from a dining room to a bedroom, making them great for small homes, and walking barefoot on them is a breeze (tip: also great for practicing yoga!).

Tatami In A Modern World

Photo by Yuki Yaginuma on Flickr.

Even now in this day and age, there are numerous family-run tatami factories that use the same tatami building methods they’ve been using for generations, carefully crafting most of the tatami by hand or using old-fashioned tools and machines. Sadly, that’s not the case for the majority of the tatami out there, that tend to be industrially made almost in their entirety. What’s more, a big portion of the tatami used in Japan in the last decades is imported from China, where they mass-produce tatami using cheaper materials and methods.

Japanese homes also started evolving during the post-war period after WWII, when the West began to blend into Japanese culture, and elevated furniture such as tables and chairs influenced the Japanese tradition of sitting on the floor. Both homes and businesses started adopting these new kinds of furniture which, naturally, are harmful to the tatami surface, thus pushing people to choose other kinds of floorings rather than tatami.

On top of that, tatami require a lot of care as they can be easily damaged, shouldn’t get wet and need to be replaced entirely within 6 or 7 years. This makes Japanese young adult generations opt for more affordable and low-maintenance floorings to go with their fast-paced lives.

The Future of Tatami

A traditional Japanese room with tatami flooring. Photo by halfrain on Flickr.

So with industrial tatami taking over as expected, and tatami’s popularity decreasing to give way to more ‘Western-style’ houses, family-run tatami factories seem to be walking on quicksands. In the last decades, small scale tatami businesses have been shutting down all over the country, thanks to the decline in sales that comes together with–or causes that–younger generations of the family won’t continue with the business.

However, there’s still plenty of Japanese families that continue choosing tatami for their homes–hopefully buying them from small local makers–and many family-run factories that keep passing on the art of tatami making to younger generations.

If you would like to take a peek at a small family’s tatami factory, take a look at our mini-tatami making story!

We hope you have learned a bit about tatami today and that you get the chance to visit some tatami-lined rooms while in Japan! When you do, take a moment to appreciate this beautiful icon of the Japanese culture that refuses to disappear.

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