The Venerable Straw Mat Has Been Utilized for Thousands of Years
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
Besides slippers, sunscreen and spam musubi, the goza mat is quintessential for a day at the beach here in the islands. Even tourists grab their $4.99 folded straw mat at ABC Stores in Waikïkï and head out to our now overcrowded shores. These goza mats offer great protection from the hot sand. But there is more to the mat than meets the seat. Although they are often used as carpets or in Hawai‘i’s case, beach mats, these woven, usually straw, goza mats form the top layer of one of the most important design elements of the Japanese home, the tatami mat.
Tatami are rectangular, floor boards topped with a woven mat made from the rush plant. They are used for the flooring of traditional Japanese rooms. The word “tatami” is derived from the verb tatamu — “to fold” or “ to pile.” Fitting in naturally with Zen-influenced design elements of minimalism, tatami are an essential part of every Japanese room.
In addition to being in shrines and temples, they’re also found in rooms used for traditional arts such as chadö (tea ceremony) and ikebana (flower arrangement). Since tatami is firm yet yielding, many martial art venues such as karate, aikidö and judö use tatami to absorb the impact of practitioners.
In Japanese homes there is usually at least one washitsu, or Japanese style room. Often containing the family’s Buddhist altar or Shintö shrine, these rooms also are used for entertaining guests or sleeping.
Many foreign and Japanese tourists travel to hot spring towns where they stay in ryokan, or inns, that host them in washitsu rooms. There they treat themselves to elaborate kaiseki dinners or breakfasts served to them as many also they lounge sitting on tatami, followed by sleeping on futons, which is also set up on tatami. Arguably, crawling into a futon after a late night soak in the hot springs of Yamashiro Onsen and falling asleep to the earthy, sweet scent of tatami definitely has it over a hotel bed on the Las Vegas strip.
Perhaps one of the reasons for its longstanding appeal is the many environmental and health benefits of tatami flooring. As this year’s Olympic athletes quickly discovered, summers in Japan are quite humid. The rush covering of the mats effectively absorbs moisture during the summer, but also releases it during drier times like winter.
For many, besides the feelings of nostalgia that tatami conjure, the mats have a soothing aroma that even acts as a stress reliever to some. In terms of acoustics, the mats absorb sound well. Ever drop silverware on tile floor? It makes quite a bit of difference to drop it on tatami. Safety is yet another factor as Japanese feel that the give of the mats is safer for the elderly and toddlers in case of falls.
Many also believe that tatami absorbs dust and reduces allergic irritants. But it is also largely dependent on regular maintenance and ventilation which is why it is suggested that tatami be changed every three years. They are also wiped down or vacuumed regularly. Some vacuum cleaners in Japan even have a tatami setting.
The structure of tatami consists of three parts. First, the top layer of tatami is known a tatami omote, which is a thin mat that is woven from the igusa, or rush plant. Today, artificial tatami omote may be made from wood pulp or plastic which makes it less expensive and easier to clean.
Tatami doko creates the base for the tatami omote, and is constructed of rice straw that is tied together with hemp or synthetic fiber depending on the quality of the mat. Following World War II, however, tatami doko began to be constructed from foam polystyrene and insulation board or particle-board that is layered in tiers. More recently, as many Japanese homes feature heated floors, steel is also used for the tatami doko.
Finally, a fabric edge, tatami beri, finishes tatami. Made from materials such as hemp, cotton or silk, tatami beri is sewn around the edges of tatami for a decorative border. Today artificial fibers make up tatami beri to give it more durability and strength. For certain rooms like teahouses or temples, or even tokonoma (alcove) of Japanese rooms, special tatami beri is used. The borders are plain black, however in other instances tatami beri is decorated with a pattern
Tatami differ slightly in size, depending on the region in Japan it is made. In Kyöto, for example, kyöma tatami are 3 feet by 13.5 inches by 6 feet 3.25 inches, whereas in Tökyö, edoma or kantoma are 2 feet by 10.75 inches by 5 feet, 9.25 inches. Smaller living spaces in crowded Tökyö may be the reason for this discrepancy.
In fact, tatami are such an integral part of Japanese history, that it is the unit used in the measurement of room sizes in Japan. Room size is determined by how many tatami will fit in it, and the term jois used rather than feet or meters. A room for Japanese tea ceremony or chashitsu, might be 4.5 jo meaning that four and a half tatami mats may fit into the room.
Besides, size, there are a set of standards or strict rules for the layout of tatami in rooms. Shugijiki is the layout for celebratory events, while fushugijiki is the layout for somber ceremonies such as funerals. In this style, mats are placed in a repeat grid pattern with all mats either vertical or horizontal. The shujigiki layout involves shorter edges of mats being matched with longer edges surrounding two vertical mats in the center of the room.
The Rules of Treading
There are rules for treading on tatami. Of course, footwear is never worn when entering a tatami room, but also one is never supposed to step on the fabric edge of the tatami either. Although reasons for this are unclear, some explain that in the past, the tatami beri edging sometimes had the pattern of the family crest. Others indicate more practical reasons, saying it is easier to damage the mat at the edge. In the tea ceremony, too, there are stringent rules for the placement of tea implements such as placing a tea bowl down so many stiches from the edge.
History of Tatami
Tatami have been laying around throughout Japanese history. Although some historians suggest that tatami’s antecedent, straw mats, called mushiro, were used to cover dirt floors used during Japan’s Neolithic Period, the Yayoi Period (ca. 300 BCE – 250 CE). Solid evidence of tatami is found in Japan’s oldest piece of historical literature, the “Kojiki — Record of Ancient Matters,” written ca. 712 CE.
When the imperial clan of the Yamato Period established its first capital in Nara in 710-814 CE, aristocrats were already using tatami, primarily for sitting or lying down. In fact, the world’s oldest tatami, said to be used by Emperor Shomu, is found at Nara’s Tödaiji Temples’ Shösö-in, and is referred to as Gosho-no-tatami.
By the Heian Period 794-1185 CE, a time when life centered around the aristocracy and courtiers of Heian-kyö (present day Kyöto), thick tatami were used as cushions and indicated the authority of those who sat upon them. Thin mats were only used in certain parts of a room, which, at the time, had wooden floors. The versatile mats were used for sitting or sleeping, depending on if they were folded and were exclusively used by the nobility. The mats were stacked according to rank; the higher the pile, the higher the rank.
The mats were not used as flooring until the following Kamakura Period (1185-1333 CE), when rooms containing tatami as flooring increased. However, they were still used by only aristocrats and samurai.
During this time, the architectural style of shoin-zukuri begins to make an appearance amongst dwellings for Zen abbots and the wealthy samurai. Shoin-zukuri refers to a style of residential architecture that evolved into the traditional Japanese house. Design features of this style include square posts, shöji or fusuma doors, a tokonoma and floors covered with tatami.
Tatami finally began spreading amongst commoners during the Muromachi Period (ca. 1336-1573 CE), especially when tea master Sen no Rikyu began to popularize the tea ceremony wabicha, or the tea ceremony that emphasizes the aesthetics of natural elements and rustic simplicity. Rikyu’s smallest tearoom — which he built in Kyöto in 1582, Tai-an — was a mere two-tatami mat sized room. As a result of this more simplistic and rustic style, tea ceremony became prevalent among common people.
During the Warring States and Edo periods Japan’s three great daimyo (feudal lord) leaders Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu (Shogun) all had famous tatami made by craftsman from Hiroshima. By this time, commoners too, were able to afford tatami to cover their floors.
Issei Bring Tatami to Hawai‘i
Fast forward to Kona, Hawai‘i, around the 1900s and one finds that Japanese immigrants to islands also carried on the tradition of tatami and goza. At the Kona Historical Society’s Kona Coffee Living History Farm located on the Big Island, visitors may experience the former homestead of the Uchida family.
Daisaku Uchida immigrated from Kumamoto Prefecture to Kona. After a working in the sugar industry, Uchida married and leased farmland from the Greenwell family to operate a coffee farm in 1913. The family’s farmhouse, now part of the Kona Coffee Living History Farm, was well maintained and visitors are able to view it close to its original state. Some of the rooms still have floors that are covered with goza mats that resemble tatami.
A Sixth Generation Tatami Craftsman
Takashi Inokuchi, a sixth generation tatami craftsman in Kyöto articulates the uniqueness of the craft today, “The charm of this work is that you can be involved in the conservation of traditional shrines and temples as well as provide tatami mats for ordinary households. It is a way of preserving Japanese tradition and culture. You can take pride in working in a profession unique to Japan.”
Inokuchi’s family has been producing tatami since 1870, right after the beginning of the Meiji Era (1868-1912). He grew up around tatami, and watched his father and grandfather work. “Without hesitation, I set out on this path.”
From age 12, one starts an apprenticeship and is able to make tatami in six years. Inokuchi said that, today there are tatami training schools where individuals can study and complete the program in three years while also working at a tatami shop for a small wage. Although in 1965, these schools were already established, Inokuchi remembers several apprentices who would train at his family’s home. They lived together and learned the art of making tatami while also sharing food and even clothing.
When asked about whether or not there are any women who are tatami craftsman, Inokuchi relates that he does know of one. He surmises that there are not many because with the weight of each mat being about 60 lbs, it would be a little challenging. However, recently light tatami mats containing plastic foam are being made, so even women may be able to become tatami craftsmen. He adds, “In the world of sumo, women are not allowed to step in the dohyö (sumo wrestling ring) because it is a sacred place, but there is no such custom with tatami.”
Like any craft, producing tatami takes time. New mats which are hand sewn take about three hours to create. It involves cutting the base and sewing the mats and edges. For replacing the top layer of the tatami mat (tatami omote), since it is hand sewn, it takes an hour. However, when using a machine, it takes 30 minutes.
Placing the mats, too, is not as simple as it seems. “If you have six tatami mats, you might think that it would be easy to complete a job by putting six tatami mats of the same standard size side by side, but that is not the case. Even for a six tatami mat room, you have to measure each room and prepare a tatami mat that fits perfectly like a puzzle,” he explains.
Despite the challenges, Inokuchi believes that, “Tatami are indispensable to Japanese culture such as in chadö and ikebana. It plays an important role in preserving Japanese culture. When you change the tatami mats, the blue-green color and scent of the fresh rush grass will make the whole room look new and refresh you, which makes our customers very happy.”
You Can Even Eat It!
Although the demand for Japanese made tatami has dropped due to traditional Japanese rooms being less common, and cheaper tatami being made in China, there is at least one company trying to remedy the situation.
In 2017 a group in Kumamoto, Kumamoto IGSA, and Marushige Inc., located in Aichi Prefecture, developed a tatami flavored edible chopstick. The baked chopsticks are made from Japanese rush powder and are mixed with eggs and wheat. Apparently, each pair of chopsticks has as much fiber as a bowl of salad. They sell for 2,084 yen for five pairs on the igsa.jp website. Perhaps these edible chopsticks with a bento on the beach might be better than munching on your goza mat.
Stacy Lee is a writing tutor and an Asian history teacher at Punahou Summer School. She is a lifelong Japanophile and devotee of author Natsume Söseki. Her years of living, studying and working in Japan have taken her from urban Tökyö to a traditional onsen inn in Kanazawa and made her an avowed fan of all types of Japanese cuisine.