About the History of Tatami – From its origins to modern trends

May 24, 2024
Rurikō-in

In recent years, the growing popularity of Japandi Style—a beautiful fusion of Scandinavian and Japanese aesthetics—has captured the hearts of interior design enthusiasts. This harmonious blend brings together the best of both worlds: the simplicity and functionality of Scandinavian design, combined with the minimalism and elegance of Japanese interiors.

One of the standout elements in Japandi interiors is the use of traditional Japanese items. Kakejiku (hanging scrolls) and elegant vases are often featured, helping to create an organic and serene space. However, among these treasures, tatami mats have gained significant attention for their unique ability to transform a room. Not only do tatami mats bring a relaxing ambiance with their natural materials, but they also offer practical benefits such as heat and sound insulation.

Tatami mats, traditionally confined to Japanese-style rooms, are now making their way into modern Western homes. Thanks to the innovation of tatami that can be simply laid on top of existing flooring like a rug, incorporating these mats into your home has never been easier. This evolution allows anyone to infuse a touch of Japanese elegance into their space without a complete renovation.

But did you know that tatami mats have a rich and storied history in Japan, their country of origin? Today, we’d like to take you on a journey through the chronological history of tatami, from their ancient beginnings to their modern-day fusion with Western interior design.

Stay tuned as we explore the fascinating evolution of tatami mats and discover how these timeless pieces can enhance your home with their beauty and functionality. Whether you’re a seasoned interior design aficionado or just beginning to explore the Japandi style, there’s something here for everyone to appreciate and incorporate into their living spaces.

INDEX

 

When was tatami first created?

First, let’s briefly explain what elements make up a traditional “tatami.” The structure of tatami can be broadly divided into three parts: omote (表) or cover, doko (床) or base, and heri (縁) or edge. The omote is the surface layer of the tatami that you see and touch, typically made from a plant called igusa (rush). The doko is the core material, made from rice straw, a choice closely tied to Japan’s rich history of rice cultivation. Finally, the heri are the edges that secure the tatami surface to the doko. However, there are also types of tatamis without edges, such as Ryukyu tatami (琉球畳).

The size of a single tatami mat varies from region to region in Japan. For example, a tatami mat used in the Kanto region, called Edoma (江戸間), is 5 feet 9 inches long and 2 feet 11 inches wide. Interestingly, while many elements of Japanese culture, like kanji characters and ramen noodles, were introduced from China and adapted locally, tatami is a unique Japanese creation. This uniqueness gives tatami a special appeal in interior design.

Now, let’s look at the history of the word “tatami (畳).” The term first appeared in Japan’s oldest history book, Kojiki (古事記), compiled in 712. This indicates that the concept of tatami existed in Japan about 1,300 years ago. However, tatami back then was different from the modern version we recognize today. It referred to a thin rug, which makes sense given that the word “tatami (畳)” comes from tatamu (たたむ), meaning to fold. Modern tatami is too thick to fold. It wasn’t until the 14th century that people began using rice straw to make the thick doko we associate with contemporary tatami.

The oldest surviving tatami mat is stored in Shōsō-in (正倉院) at Todaiji (東大寺) Temple in Nara Prefecture. It is said to have been used by Emperor Shomu (701-756) when he slept, suggesting that the prototype of tatami existed in Japan as early as the 8th century.

From placing to laying out tatami mats on the floor

Illustrations of Heian Aristocrats

Although tatami was created in this way, it was initially reserved for use only by aristocrats and other people of noble status. Furthermore, even among the nobility, there were regulations regarding the thickness of the tatami and the pattern of the tatami’s heri (縁) according to rank, indicating that tatami mats served both as a cushion that brought comfort and as a symbol of authority. Interestingly, stepping on the heri is sometimes considered a breach of etiquette in modern Japan because, in ancient times, the pattern of the heri indicated the rank of nobility.

During the Heian period (794-1185), when aristocratic culture flourished, the residences of aristocrats featured wooden floors with tatami mats placed specifically for seating and bedding purposes. This is very similar to the modern use of tatami mats. Initially, tatami was commonly placed only in specific areas, but how did this practice evolve to tatami being laid out to cover entire rooms?

It is said that tatami mats began to cover the whole floor from the end of the Kamakura period (1185-1333) to the Muromachi period (1336-1573). At first, residents had specific places to sit when they sat in a circle, leading to the mawari tatami (廻り畳, meaning placing tatamis in a circular way) method of laying tatami to cover only those areas. Eventually, this style evolved to cover the entire room with tatami.

Laying out tatami mats requires defining the tatami size during architectural design or determining the optimal tatami size for existing living spaces. This shift from placing mats in specific spots to covering entire rooms likely involved significant technical innovations. Unfortunately, there are no documents recording this breakthrough, but we can still be impressed by the high level of skill of the tatami craftsmen of the time. Notably, such tatami production techniques were registered as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2020.

During the Muromachi period (1336-1573), many residences incorporating tea rooms appeared under the influence of the tea ceremony popularized by Sen no Rikyū. This type of residence is called Sukiya-zukuri (数寄屋造り). The term is named after sukii-mono (数奇者), which describes people who enjoy the tea ceremony and other refined arts in an elegant way. In my opinion, a suki-mono may be likened to someone who is devoted to a hobby in modern day. This further boosted the demand for tatami, as it was laid out in tea rooms.

From the Popularization of Tatami to the Latest Tatami

Tatami-floored tea room

As mentioned earlier, tatami has long been a symbol of authority and was not widely used by the general public for much of its history. Even during the Edo period (1603-1868), tatami mats remained closely associated with status and power. This is evident from the existence of the position tatami-bugyō (畳奉行), who was responsible for managing tatami in castles.

Tatami began to gain popularity among the general public around the middle of the Edo period. This shift occurred when the tea ceremony, previously enjoyed mainly by the samurai class, spread to townspeople who had become economically prosperous enough to incorporate tea rooms into their homes. As a result, tatami became more commonplace. Around this time, seiza, the uniquely Japanese way of sitting, also spread along with the increased use of tatami.

However, the widespread use of tatami was initially limited to urban areas. It wasn’t until the Meiji period (1868-1912) that tatami became common in rural areas. The lifting of restrictions on the use of patterns on tatami’s heri (縁), which had previously been regulated, may have played a role in this broader adoption. Although tatami has a long history, it only became a staple in every Japanese household relatively recently.

Demand for tatami mats surged during Japan’s rapid economic growth after World War II. As new houses were built at a rapid pace, the demand for tatami also increased. Despite the growing popularity of Western-style architecture, the desire for traditional Japanese-style rooms with tatami remained strong. This high demand led to a shortage of rice straw, the traditional material for tatami’s doko (床), prompting the development and adoption of new materials such as polystyrene foam and insulation board.

In recent years, the popularity of tatami has declined with the rise of wood flooring in Japanese homes. Wood flooring is more cost-effective and aligns with the Western style of living preferred by younger generations. Additionally, traditional tatami mats have certain drawbacks, such as the need to prevent mold and insects, their tendency to be easily damaged by pets, and the difficulty of integrating them into Western-style rooms.

However, the disadvantages of wood flooring, such as poor heat and sound insulation and the lack of a comfortable surface to relax on, have led to a demand for a better solution. In response, new tatami mats have been developed that can be easily placed on wood floors, providing the benefits of traditional tatami with the convenience needed for modern living. These new mats maintain the heat and sound insulation properties of conventional tatami and come in a variety of colors to match Western-style interiors, making them a great option for adding a touch of Japanese elegance to any room.

If you’re interested in incorporating tatami into your home, Interra USA offers a wide range of tatami mats designed to complement Western-style rooms. Be sure to check out the links below to explore their collection.

Unit Tatami – Interra USA

Conclusion

Living room with tatami mats

In this issue, I’ve shared a quick overview of the history of tatami, a flooring material unique to Japan. You might have known that tatami has a long tradition, but you may be surprised to learn that it only recently became popular among the general public in Japan. It’s fascinating to see how the use of tatami has come full circle: initially used in specific locations during the Heian period, then spread over entire rooms, and now returning to being placed in pinpoint locations in modern homes.

I hope the information in this article gives you some ideas on how to incorporate tatami into your own home. Stay tuned for our next issue, where we’ll delve into more interesting aspects of tatami. Thank you for reading and see you next time!

 

Reference link:

畳 – Wikipedia
寝殿造 – Wikipedia
書院造 – Wikipedia
数寄屋造り – Wikipedia
小学生でもわかりやすい畳のお話と畳の歴史年表 | さわはた畳屋
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