Tatami Mats: A Guide to Japan’s Most Famous Flooring
Throughout history, tatami mats have been a key part of Japanese culture, design, and even sports. The woven rush grass of tatami mats creates a comforting, relaxing space that can be enjoyed by all. In this guide we cover the origin, uses, and maintenance of tatami mats in modern Japan.
What Exactly Is Tatami?
Tatami is a style of flooring that is ubiquitous throughout Japan. Traditionally, rush grass (IGUSA) was woven around a rice straw core to keep the tatami mat firm. However, now the rice straw core is often replaced with more modern materials, such as wood chips or polystyrene foam. Newly made tatami mats start out with a strong greenish tinge and a scent of grass, and over time, both the color and scent fade. The mats are usually edged with a fabric border to keep the edges neat.
The Origin of Tatami Mats
Tatami mats date back to at least the Nara period, in the 8th century. They were originally used primarily for sleeping, and only for nobility and upper-class citizens. Around the 16th century, tatami mats began to be used as flooring to cover entire rooms, rather than only for sleeping or sitting.
At this time, they were still primarily for the upper classes, and Japanese architecture was developing into the style we now associate with traditional Japanese homes. By the 17th century, tatami mats were common among all levels of society, and it became normal for most houses to predominantly have tatami mat floors.
In recent years, there has been a decline in their popularity, largely due to difficulty in cleaning the grass material, along with the need to occasionally replace them. However, it is still very common for Japanese houses to have at least one room with a tatami mat floor.
Tatami Mat Sizes
Due to the extensive use of tatami mats as the flooring of choice throughout Japanese history, they came to be the standard unit for measuring room size. Rather than meters or feet, “jo” (畳) is used to calculate room size by referring to how many tatami mats will fit in a room. This measurement system is commonly used by realtors and architects, including for rooms that are not intended to have tatami flooring.
For example, a room that is 4.5 jo is large enough to fit 4.5 tatami mats. Both full-size and half-size mats are common, in order to perfectly fit a room. However, tatami mat sizes are not standardized across the country, and vary between regions.
In Tokyo, a full-size tatami mat is typically 0.88 x 1.76 meters while in Kyoto, a full-size tatami mat measures 0.95 x 1.91 meters. Most mats have a thickness of around 5 or 6 centimeters.
The Traditional Flooring for Martial Arts
One of the most well-known uses of tatami mats is as flooring for Japanese martial arts. Traditionally, normal tatami mats are used for their firm yet yielding quality, along with their ability to withstand impact. Karate, judo, and aikido all use tatami, and stepping onto the tatami mat is considered a sacred entering of the martial arts zone.
In modern times, the tatami mats used for martial arts are regularly made of a thick foam, similar to that used for gymnastics. It is made to imitate the texture and qualities of tatami mats while being more durable and flexible. These foam mats are often still referred to as tatami in the martial arts world and are still treated with the same respect as real tatami mats.
Tatami in the Modern Age
With the Westernization of Japan, it has become more and more common for Japanese houses to follow a Western layout and design. This often includes wooden floors. However, it is common to have at least one room featuring tatami mat flooring, which creates a comfortable fusion between traditional and modern, Japanese and Western, allowing one to enjoy the benefits of both. A room like this is commonly referred to as washitsu or “Japanese-style room.”
Having some tatami mat flooring is a great option as it provides a calming space within the home, is comfortable for directly sitting or even sleeping on, and is a safe, soft floor for children to play on. Nowadays, it is possible to buy tatami mat flooring that is designed to be placed over hardwood floors, making it easy to convert any room into a tatami mat room.
Click to see the details of the tatami mats.
Tatami Mat Care and Maintenance
Tatami mats do require a different type of care compared to hardwood or carpeted floors. They usually have a life of around 5 or 6 years. Over this time, the color will fade to a yellowish brown. Once the mats begin to look worn out, it is time to replace them, or in some cases flip them over.
It is important to clean the mats regularly as the rush grass material is prone to picking up and absorbing dirt, liquids, and other particles. They are also sensitive to humidity and will start to grow mold if left in a humid environment without cleaning for too long.
Cleaning a tatami mat consists of using a vacuum with a specific tatami setting or a mop designed for use with tatami. Manual cleaning with a dry cloth is also a useful way to keep them in best condition.
Cleaning must always be done in the direction of the rush grass and never against the grain in order to avoid damage. Also, because tatami mats can be easily damaged, it is important to never wear shoes on them and to make sure that furniture legs are suitable for tatami flooring, preferably with a wide, flat bottom that can better displace the furniture’s weight.
Incorporate Japanese Culture into Your Daily Life
Anyone visiting or living in Japan will quickly become acquainted with tatami mat flooring. It is popular for its calming scent, natural texture, and comfortable feel. From its beginnings as a sleeping area for nobility, to its use in martial arts, and its common use today across houses, tea rooms, restaurants, and more, tatami mats have kept their place as an important aspect of Japanese culture.
To incorporate more Japanese culture in your life, we invite you to read through our guides to understanding and experiencing first-hand many of Japan’s traditions.
Tatami Related Products
These products are made of Igusa (tatami), slippers, book-cover, floor mat, pillow, yoga-mat and under-table-mats.