Learn About Traditional Japanese Tatami

by Megan Taylor Stephens

Tatami mats are deeply embedded in Japan’s history. Japanese people have historically spent a lot of time on the floor, so they made sure it was a pristine and welcoming place to be seated! Tatami mats play a big role in both the form and the function of Japanese-style rooms (washitsu). They are not only elegant and aesthetically pleasing, but also surprisingly comfortable. Let’s dive into what tatami are in more detail and what their significance is in Japanese culture.

What are Japanese Tatami Mats?

Tatami (畳) come from the verb tatamu (畳む), to fold or stack. They have been used as floor mats since the Nara period (710-794). Tatami were used for sleeping and sitting, and then folded up and put away like camping pads when not in use. Only the nobility and samurai were granted the honor of using tatami. Mere commoners slept on straw bedding or directly on the ground.

The texture and composition of tatami is perfectly balanced. They are soft on the surface, yet firm inside with a slight amount of springiness. Traditional tatami mats are made from rice straw that is layered and this center core is sandwiched by an outer layer of woven rush grass (igusa). There is usually a pretty cloth border edge, the heri, around the tatami. A notable feature of tatami, other than how unexpectedly smooth they are to sit on, is that they smell divine. It’s hard to describe the scent, but they give off a faint grass or hay smell and evoke memories of playing outside as a child.

image of a room with tatami

Tatami are such as big part of the Japanese home that they are used as a measurement called jo (畳). If someone asks how big a room is, one can say how many tatami fit in it, and that tells the person its area in jo, even if there’s not a tatami mat in sight! Their dimensions vary by region in Japan, but the general rule is that tatami are twice as long as they are wide. A common measurement is roughly 3 feet by 6 feet. So a 12-tatami room would have the rough square footage of about 216 square feet. They are usually approximately two inches in thickness.

How are Tatami Mats Used Today?

By the 16th century, tatami graduated from being used as sleeping and sitting pads to being used as wall-to-wall floor coverings just like a carpet. That is how tatami is used today.

In modern Japan, it is customary for one room of the house—the washitsu, or traditional room—to be the tatami room. Tatami mats are left in place in this room rather than put away. This room tends to have traditional décor and features, such as shoji rice paper doors, a tokonoma (alcove) with a wall hanging or scroll, and decorative things like ikebana flower arrangements. There are often futon mattresses stored in the cupboards to lay down on the tatami as extra beds. The combination of tatami, which is like a sleeping pad, and a futon mattress makes for a very comfortable sleep.

These days, is it not uncommon for tatami’s rice straw core to be replaced by foam or wood shavings. There are several different grades of tatami, some with finer weave and more uniform appearance, and others with cheaper substitutes.

Tatami mats are still commonly used in spaces where traditional Japanese arts and activities occur, such as judo, karate, aikido, tea ceremony (sado), flower arranging (kado), and classic restaurants. Shrines and temples continue to use the highest quality tatami mats.

Even though tatami rooms are declining with modern home design, washitsu signal a sudden change in atmosphere from casual to formal when you enter. Depending on the activity that’s about to take place, your behavior and language become deferential and serious. You bow when you slide open the shoji doors and sometimes kneel (seiza) before entering or while in the room. It’s like you’re in the presence of your ancestors’ spirits and all the Shinto and Buddhist deities when you’re surrounded by tatami. All due to the humble grass floor!

green tatami

Rules for Tatami Use

Tatami etiquette is fairly straightforward. It goes without saying that shoes are not allowed on tatami mats. Shoes aren’t really worn in any part of a Japanese house anyway, but particularly not on tatami, which is delicate material. Nothing sharp belongs on tatami either, such as tables with pointy legs.

Tatami requires some upkeep and care. A damp cloth applied in the direction of the rush grass can be used for cleaning tatami. There are other special tools, such as vacuum cleaner attachments, that can be used to gently clean tatami. Tatami can be prone to discoloration and mildew, so it’s important that light and humidity be controlled in a tatami room. On average, tatami needs to be replaced before 10 years have elapsed.