A Guide to Tatami Mats and How They Are Used in Japan

Japanese homes are famous for their beautiful interior designs and sense of minimalist appeal. They incorporate nature, practicality, and functionality which are gorgeous and near perfection. Tatami mats are one such example that is a simple and comfortable centerpiece to any room.

Not only are they still a staple in Japanese homes, but they have also gained worldwide popularity. The meticulous attention to detail and craftsmanship of these mats is impeccable. It’s a testimony to the touchstone of artistic quality Japanese culture epitomizes.

Use this guide to learn about these fabulous floor coverings, their history, construction, materials, and uses. Although a simple and elegant way to cover a floor, they are a fascinating home furnishing.

About Tatami Mats

A tatami (畳) mat is the quintessential and traditional floor covering exclusively from Japan. It’s a woven, natural material that’s delicate yet practical; often covering hardwood floors. Many homes in Japan have at least one room entirely covered in a tatami mat.

The word “tatami” comes from the verb tatamu (畳む), which means “to fold” or “to pile.” This describes the manner in how tatami mats fold up or pile in layers when not in use.

Tatami Mats: A Brief History

Tatami mats have been a standard in Japanese homes for centuries. Originally, only the homes of nobility, high-ranking aristocrats, and others of prestige would adorn tatami mats.

The 16th ; 17th Centuries

In the mid 16th century, samurai and nobility began sleeping on tatami mats. This evolved into most homes having at least one in their homes by the 17th century. They eventually became a common household furnishing, actually symbolizing the idea of “home.”

Traditional Tatami Layouts

The increasing practice of spreading tatami mats over whole rooms led to rules and etiquette around sitting and seating arrangements. During the 16th and 17th centuries, the Japanese created layouts dependent on the number of tatami mats and the occasion. There are two basic arrangements: auspicious and inauspicious.

Auspicious layouts, or Shyugi Shiki (祝儀敷き), were most common to use, making up a sort of T-shape by tiling the room with ½-length mats. People place these in such a way to avoid the mat gathering in one spot.  Fushyugi Shiki (不祝儀敷き) are inauspicious arrangements that make a grid-like pattern.

It forms a shape resembling that of an equilateral cross. This layout is specific to avert bad luck at occasions like funerals.

Construction, Appearance, Materials

Often made of soft common rushes, these floor coverings can also come in hemp, bamboo, or cotton. Traditional types have a core comprising rice straw sewn together while modern ones have compressed woodchip boards or polystyrene foam. The surface is hard and durable while the inside is soft and flexible.

The edges have a brocade or plain cloth decoration while some types have no edging at all. There’s a sort of earthy-sweet aroma that emanates from them delighting the senses. When fresh, tatami mats are green. But with use and age, they become more neutral and yellow.

Traditional vs. Modern Construction

Traditionally, they’re handwoven with a design that lends itself to being kind to the environment and sustainable. They’re biodegradable, easy to install, and are a perfect addition to any space.

Machines produce the tatami mats seen today. The rushes used in the bed come from Hiroshima, Fukuoka, Kumamoto, Okayama, and Kouchi. It takes 4,000 to 7,000 rush pieces to make one tatami mat. This process took days by hand, but modern machines generate the weave in about 1½ hours.

The Three Sections of a Tatami Mat

The engineering and design of these mats are what make them strong yet soft. There are essentially three sections involved:

  1. Tatami-omote (畳表): the tatami’s surface; finely woven dried rushes (hemp, cotton or bamboo) interlace with each other. Hemp or cotton yarn wraps the weave to protect and reinforce it.
  2. Tatami-doko (畳床): the inside of the tatami; traditional ones comprise compressed rice straw, but more modern ones have compressed wood chips or polystyrene form. 
  3. Tatami-fuchi (畳縁): the edging of a tatami mat; cloth hides the ends of the weave by wrapping it around the edges.

Sizes of Tatami Mats

The sizing of tatami mats is a little erroneous. They can and do come as standard pieces that measure just less than 35½ inches by a hair over 70¾ inches (roughly 0.9 by 1.8 meters). However, the standard sizes differ slightly throughout Japan depending on the region and have variations in the name.

  • Kyōma (京間) Tatami: These come from Kyoto and measure scant over 37½ inches by 75 inches (0.955 by 1.91 meters) with a thickness of a bit more than 2 inches (5½ centimeters).
  • Ainoma (合の間) Tatami: Translated as “in-between,” these come from Nagoya and have a size of above 35¾ inches by 71½ inches (0.91 by 1.82 meters).
  • Kantōma (関東間) Tatami: These mats, also referred to as Edoma (江戸間), come from Tokyo and have a measurement of more than 34½ inches by 69¼ inches (0.88 by 1.76 meters) with a thickness of about 2¼ inches (6 centimeters).

It’s important to note, however, that tatami mats should fit to cover the room, not the other way around. So, it’s more ideal to have a tatami mat custom made according to the four basic lengths available:

  1. Kyouma (京間): Large
  2. Chuukyouma (中京間): Medium
  3. Edoma (江戸間): ½ length
  4. Danchima (団地間): ¾ length

How to Use a Tatami Mat

Today, it’s very common for people to have at least one room covered in tatami. But this is becoming a dying design practice in favor of more modern accouterments. However, those observing tradition will have a Japanese-style room featuring architecture and décor from certain historical periods.

In Japan, they call such a room nihonma or washitsu, “Japanese-style rooms.” But they also splay Western-style rooms where they cover the hardwood floor to protect it and to maintain the mat’s cleanliness.

Various Applications

Tatami mats can go into almost any room. The bedroom, kitchen, sitting room, dining room, and living room will all benefit from having one. You can also find them in temples, martial arts dojos, restaurants, hotels, and other public gathering places.

The materials are soft and comfortable enough to make them perfect in children’s playrooms or come as a mattress cover. They also provide comfortable dining or tea-drinking experience. This means these mats offer amazing versatility and optimal comfort; whether used for daily activities or for sleeping.

Bedding And Sleep

However, tatami mats are frequent as bedding or to pad a sleeping space. People either sleep on these as is or lay a futon mattress over them. The tatami bed, also called a futon floor bed, provides a hard, firm surface that you can layer with many blankets.

It offers amazing back support and has the potential to reduce back pain with spinal realignment. There are also tatami pillows to complete the set. What’s more, there are platform beds made of tatami straw mats topped with a futon mattress. So, there are many sleeping options when setting up a bedroom.

Final Thoughts

Tatami mats have a centuries-long history of use in Japan. The tradition behind them and perfect design mean they can handle the roughness of martial arts training or the daily activity of simply sleeping. They have a design that’s sturdy, natural, beautiful, and practical.

Genuine Tatami Sold On Amazon

Tatami mats offer a wide range of uses and applications in any home. They’re durable and safe enough to sleep on or as a floor covering in the bathroom, kitchen, dining room, tea ceremony room, or any other place.

Although originally thought to be a luxury item, they have become commonplace in many homes throughout Japan and the world.

My fascination with Japan began several years back at a roadside bonsai stand while on vacation. I became more interested in the where and why's more than the trees themselves. My love of Bonsai led me to further research my interest in the gardens where they originated from and the places and people that surrounded those little trees. My curiosity was well rewarded upon visiting Saitama where the National Bonsai Museum was located and Omiya Village the bonsai mecca for lovers of this ancient art form. Exploring many towns and villages and even making my way to Japan's furthest southern prefecture of Okinawa. I hope to share my love of this wonderful and exotic place with all those who want to know more about Japan.