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14 Sep. 2018

畳から見えてくる日本文化・歴史 その1 / Japanese culture in a world of diversity : Tatami mat part.1

副編集長 / ストラテジックプランナー



By focusing on the Japanese culture that is often overlooked in today’s modern society, we may notice the new values that we can suggest to the global society.
I am Kahori Kishimoto and I will be writing about Tatami; the Japanese traditional floor mattress made of tightly woven rice straw which is an essential part of the Japanese lifestyle. I come from a family that has been manufacturing household Tatami mats for generations and my father continues to run our family business.


Japanese people used to be surrounded by Tatami mats in their everyday lives, however, they were so influenced by Western-style houses and lifestyles that fewer and fewer Japanese architecture courses in colleges taught how to design Japanese style rooms called Washitsu (suitable for Tatami) and Washitsu, along with Tatami, has been slowly disappearing from Japanese households. Also, Tatami crafting requires long years of training and high level of expertise. Tatami craftsmen are getting older and older, struggling to train the younger generation and the supply continues to become increasingly scarce. Sadly, the Tatami market has diminished down to one third of its peak.

  たたみについて1 畳表の生産枚数と価格 引用元)熊本県農林水産部生産局農産課


Indeed, Tatami is not necessary for daily life. Western-style floors are easier to clean and are more practical. However, going beyond just the material and convenience considerations, Tatami reveals so much of Japan’s history and customs as it had been an integral part of Japanese culture for centuries .



– Tatami history
Initially, Tatami was not in its present shape and design. Originally it has become this name because it was called as “tatami” which means “to fold” in Japanese, as it functioned as a mattress that can be folded when not in use. It is quite strange because the current form as we know today is not foldable at all.


It is said that tatami was first referred to the sleeping mattress made from animal leather or cotton. These statements are also seen in “Kojiki” and “Manyoshu”, the oldest existing collection of Japanese poetry. Tatami production slowly shifted from animal leather and cottons to using rice straw for improved comfortability. It is said that the material made from rice straw was first turned into braided straw known as “musiro”, and then “wara”, gaining thickness and rigid mattress form to become the Tatami as we know today.


It was in the Kamakura – Muromachi era when Tatami mats were spread over the entire room as it is now used. This style was developed for the Shoin style which is famous for Ginkakuji ;Temple of the Silver Pavilion. It is one of the constructions that represents the Higashiyama Culture of the Muromachi period. *Link to Wikipedia
However, this style was not for ordinary people at that time; only the emperor and select high aristocrats lived rooms covered wall-to-wall in Tatami. Tatami was very luxurious and out of reach for ordinary people.
Until then it was used as a bed so this change was drastic, similar to if we replaced our whole floor with Tempur matress material.


To create an additional barrier between the monarchy and ordinary people, they had various patterns printed on the rim on the outside of the Tatami mat that ordinary people were not allowed to have. There was no rim on the Tatami mattress that people used as bedding at that time – this was added by the monarchy.



To represent the hierarchy of class, different rim pattern sizes represented different classes: the higher class, the larger the patterns.
Among the highest ranks of Tatami, the rim pattern called “ungenberi” was mainly used for the emperor. To always remain in line with social status and position, it was prohibited to sit or step on the rim pattern different from your own position. You can see “ungenberi” where the Ohinasama is displayed at doll festivals in March.

Let me kindly introduce different kind of rim patterns below :

 あげるようたたみ③小紋 (The rim pattern called “komon”)

The rim pattern called “chumon”, if the pattern is larger, it is called”daimon”.


Ungenberi tatami mat



It is said that ordinary people started to use such Tatami from the Edo era, but that the the current use of Tatami was preserved thanks to Sen no Rikyu; the historical figure with the most profound influence on chanoyu, the Japanese “Way of Tea”. *Link to Wikipedia
He created tea rooms for those close to each other and the small entrance door prompted samurais to put away their swords prior to entering. The tea room was designed to let people enjoy tea peacefully, which helped preserve Tatami as a staple of traditional Japanese life.


Thanks to the development of the tea ceremony, ordinary people used Washitsu and spread Tatami over their entire floor, although the original Japanese-style room created by Sen no Rikyu was very narrow.
Regardless of the status of aristocrats, samurai, merchants, farmers, the moment you enter the tearoom, everyone is equal. It was said that the tearoom was the only space that people could be equal at a time when Japan treated people strictly by their class. My family and I often enjoy tea ceremonies at home.



 Since the Japanese style room and tatami mat enable people to gather in one small room and the Tatami rim enables people to have proper distance from each other, it continues to be an important space, both functionally and emotionally, for Japanese people today.Further, I would like to introduce the contemporary regional differences in Tatami and the origin of how Tatami is made.

取材・文: 岸本かほり
Reporting and Statement: kahorikishimoto