Unique tatami flooring
How many buildings have you been in where you can say that the type of flooring is a key feature? While I’m sure there are a couple of cases where this is true, in Japan, traditional flooring called Tatami or Tatami mats can be safely described as such.
There was a time when quite possibly every building in Japan had wall-to-wall tatami mats and nothing else. However, fast-forward to today and tatami rooms have somewhat fallen out of fashion. (although many homes still have at least one tatami room.) Western conveniences have overtaken the desire to stick with Japan’s conventional flooring, yet craftsmen and businesses are finding ways to adapt tatami mats into the modern world and appeal to a younger audience.
To understand the changes, we first need to understand what makes tatami that ‘unique flooring feature’.
The only way to properly understand tatami is to look at traditional tatami that has existed for over 1000 years, before moving on to seeing how it has changed.
Characteristics and qualities of tatami mats
As a very basic description, tatami mats are fairly thick rectangular-shaped panels that line the floor of an interior space. While the word ‘panel’ may suggest a hard surface, they have in fact a firm yet slightly springy quality to them that makes it very comfortable to walk on.
This comes from the fact that the basic material is that of compressed straw which makes up the majority of a tatami mat, on top of which is a soft covering made from common rush (igusa). The ‘igusa’ when woven into tatami also has the quality of releasing natural grassy aromas to the room. This is especially true for newer tatami mats and is part of the appeal for many. Along similar lines, newer tatami often possess a natural green colour due to the use of the common rush, but will fade in time to form a more yellow appearance.
This (mostly) natural type of flooring has qualities beyond that of just appealing to the senses.
Firstly, tatami mats have fantastic air quality and humidifying properties. The common rush is known for its humidity regulation; it absorbs excess moisture in the air when it is warm and releases it when the air is dry and cold. It also has the capacity to absorb Co2 from the air alongside other pollutants.
Secondly, the straw base acts as a great insulator of both heat and sound through air pockets. Meaning, that in summer or when the weather is warm greater airflow can help keep the room cool, but at the same time in cooler weathers can help retain heat. The same air pockets provide a great level of sound absorption.
Usage and placement
As previously mentioned, tatami mats come in individual ‘panels’ rather than in one big unit like a carpet for example. This means that they need to be placed together to form a cohesive floor pattern. While in theory you could place tatami mats in any way you like, (as long as they fit) there is generally a universally accepted floor plan that is almost entirely adhered to simply named as a ‘auspicious’ layout.
Until the later half of the 20th century all rooms could feasibly be tatami, however, some rooms are more suited to being tatami rooms than others. As we slowly progress towards the modern day you will most likely see tatami mats being used either in the bedroom or the Japanese dining room.
Without getting too involved, this is down to the traditional ways the Japanese would eat and sleep, with both cases being performed on the floor. (A futon for sleeping would rest directly on tatami, as well as sitting on cushions directly on tatami when eating.) Using tatami in these two rooms would make the most sense by providing the most comfort.
The use of tatami is so ingrained in Japan that they have become an official measurement for room sizes; that is to say, the size of a room is determined by how many tatami mats can fit into the space. This method has been given the unit of measurement known as a ‘Jo’, where one Jo is roughly 1.6m. I say roughly as tatami sizes can vary by region.
Disadvantages of tatami mats
Tatami mats are not without their problems. Despite their comfort, unique aesthetics, and benefitting qualities, they can be tricky to maintain. You may notice that tatami rooms often contain very little furniture, this is due to how easily damage can occur whether it be scratches, tears, gouges etc.
Marks and stains are also a bit of a problem; ironically due to how well they absorb things. This is also the case with dust, and excess moisture which — if left for long periods — can result in a build up of mould. To avoid these scenarios tatami must be cleaned and aired regularly which can be a hassle.
Lastly there are some other considerations such as the scent of the igusa which, to some is pleasant, but to others is overly pungent, as well as the fact that tatami can be incredibly expensive.
As we move towards the present day, tatami mats are not seen to be as necessary as they once were to the point that there was a risk that this traditionally crafted flooring could be forgotten entirely. To avoid this, the image of tatami had to change and to address the issues associated with them.
Modern day tatami has become quite different in almost every aspect. The once straw and rush combination has been replaced with compressed wood chip and polypropylene construction which makes these tatami-style mats more durable, more resistant to fading, while eliminating the need for regular maintenance.
The iconic panel shape has also changed. Most common ‘modern tatami’ now is the shape of a square which allows for a chequerbox formation when placed together. This is to address the idea that previously an entire room must be covered with tatami. While this is certainly still achievable, the modern approach is to designate just part of a room as a tatami focused area, such as; a play area for children; a space for relaxation; a yoga space etc.
All these changes make tatami more versatile, while at its core still being a surface that is comfortable to sit, sleep, work, or play on top of.
Oh and did I mention a choice of colour is now available? This single change most importantly allows tatami to fit within the contemporary aesthetic and retain that ‘unique Japanese flooring feature’ in its own way.
Inevitably some aspects of conventional tatami are lost in transition both intentionally and unintentionally, such as the grassy aroma, as well as the room balance and furniture considerations that are part of owning a traditional tatami room.
Here’s a direct comparison to see the changes more clearly:
- Rectangular shape
- Straw and rush construction
- Grassy aroma
- natural green colour (yellow when faded)
- Humidifying properties
- Absorbing properties
- Good insulator
- Hard to maintain
- Easy to damage
- Recommended to change every three years
- Square shape
- Woodchip, polystyrene or polypropylene construction
- Aroma free
- Choice of colours
- No humidifying properties
- No natural absorbing properties
- Poor insulator
- Easy to maintain
The move to create more modern tatami mats doesn’t mean the elimination of the traditional ones. If anything, contemporary alternatives bring tatami as a whole and their unique qualities back into focus; while keeping this Japanese craft alive, they could also re-invigorate interest in them.
Consider venues such as Ryokan, Kabuki theatres, or tea rooms which are uniquely Japanese, they will more or less all have traditional tatami mats as a form of floor covering or seating arrangement. These tatami found within are a part of the experience and can be enjoyed without worrying about their upkeep — these are venues where one cannot live without the other and will always be a part of them.
This coexistence is important, while they are theoretically the same kind of material and serve similar uses they are unmistakably different, and lend themselves better to different people and situations. It’s very much like entry level vs professional level tatami.
Finding your own tatami mats
While tatami mats are — on the whole — uniquely Japanese, that doesn’t mean you can’t get hold of some yourself. While they can certainly be expensive somewhere like The Futon Company is one of the very few places to get hold of some in the UK.
If you are serious about creating your own tatami space try looking into acquiring them directly from Japan, somewhere like Tokyo Tatami Maker for example, where you can see both traditional and modern style tatami mats in more detail.
Thoughts on tatami changes
Tatami’s adaptation to modern living should be something that is welcome. They are a more convenient solution to the busy lives people face and allows the continuation of habits and comforts that traditional tatami offer — without a lot of the fuss. But this is on a household level, rather than historic or cultural establishments which will always remain traditional.
The craft of tatami in recent times has been in a state of decline, however, the introduction of a modern variation of tatami is also an attempt to save and preserve this small part of Japanese life. Without an attempt to adapt it to the modern world, tatami and the people who make it could disappear. To that end, while the change from traditional to modern may be out of necessity, it may just achieve what it set out to do — whilst being a welcome addition people didn’t know they needed.