OSAKA: For centuries, tatami (畳) has been an essential part of Japanese people’s lives, an element unique to Japan, meticulously crafted by skillful men with extravagant attention to detail.
The tatami craft shaped so much of Japan, as a lot has been dictated by the floor culture’s involvement in Japanese daily life.
A tatami mat measures an average of 90 by 180 cm, which would contain a person lying down, with around 5 cm thickness. It is traditionally made with a rice straw core covered with a natural woven rush, or igusa (藺草) straw, which has a fresh grassy smell, with its long sides usually sealed by a cloth-like edge called heri (縁).
Yamada Tatami Shop in Kyoto is a 76-year-old tatami-producing business run by the Yamada family; the father, son and his wife.
“Tatami helps absorb air moisture during Japan’s humid summers, and upon stepping on tatami mats, we feel cool. Conversely, during winter, tatami mats release moisture into the air, so it becomes less dry. I think tatami is quite climate-friendly. Tatami, besides its cushioning, has a humidity control system and an aromatherapy effect which causes people to feel relaxed, a bactericidal (Bacteria-killing) effect. Those effects come from igusa, which is the kind of grass used to make tatami mats. Therefore we tatami makers highly appreciate igusa,” Yamada said, a second-generation son of Yamada tatami shop’s first owner.
Yamada explained how a professor from North Kyushu University called Hiroshi Morita, conducted research on the functions of igusa, and found that it contributes to children’s concentration during studying. His discovery was based on an experiment where he divided students into two groups. The first group studied in a tatami mat room, while the second group studied in a standard room. Both groups had an exam afterward. The students who studied in a tatami room got a better score than those who studied in the standard room. As a result, he believed that igusa made children more concentrated.
The vast amount of shrines, temples and tea rooms in Kyoto ensure continuous demand for tatami and its renovation, which keeps the tradition of the floor mats and its traditional sewing craftsmanship alive.
“Tatami used to be an essential item at home where all rooms were tatami rooms, but nowadays, most rooms have wooden floors, so tatami seems to me like it’s becoming a more precious item in our life,” Yamada’s wife said.
“Tatami craftsmen carry heavy tatami mats daily, so their body requires a lot of strength. That’s why my husband eats a lot,” she added.
Tatami is shaped to the precise dimensions of the rooms in which they are placed in. The nobility began using tatami about 800 years ago. Status was used to determine the size and thickness of their mats, with some pattern designs used solely for aristocrats. It then evolved with the tea ceremony to become a norm for the public.
Tatami wasn’t just a floor culture but corresponded with strict rules on how to move, sit and even place items on the mats in tea ceremonies.
The borders of each mat determine where a person should sit and accurately place tea utensils with respect to the small tatami seams or rows. For example, the brazier board or furo (風炉), where the chagama or tea kettle (茶釜) is heated, should lie 16 rows (16 fingers) in front of the host’s knees, and 7 seams from the left edge. Guests also sit 16 rows away from the border. Those stern placements are considered the most convenient for the host and, at the same time, eye-flattering to the guests.
Tatami may indeed be unique to Japan. However, the floor seating culture isn’t, as it can also be spotted in a few other cultures, including some Arab countries with its Sijjad (سجاد) or Arabian carpets. It may be particular to the Muslim world, where floor culture was practiced by the main prophet of Islam, Muhammad, and suggested as a humble way to sit, eat and even sleep, with minimal furniture getting in the way, among other motives.
When mentioning Sijjad or Arabian carpets, Aladdin’s flying magic carpet may come to one’s mind. However, Arabian carpets may have dated back to the 7th century and were made from various materials, including its most popular, sheep’s wool.
“I watched some people from the middle east on television. They were sitting on the floor, eating supper, as well as praying on floor mats,” Mrs. Yamada recalled.
But Japanese people also have their own reasons for their prevailing floor culture.
“We appreciate the floor culture. We take off our shoes before we enter our house to keep our rooms clean. Also, we don’t have enough land in Japan, so we usually lay down Futon (布団) mattresses on the tatami whenever we want to sleep. Upon waking up, we refold the mats and pack them back into the closet to fully utilize the space. Furthermore, we sit on the floor to have meals or casually chat. Such an act makes us feel more comfortable with other people rather than sitting on the chair,” Mrs. Yamada said.