"Tatami" is a unique Japanese craft that has been produced for centuries using traditional techniques and all-natural local resources like soft rush, rice straw, hemp, or cotton. It is incredibly eco-friendly, as you only have to replace the cover if it gets damaged. In recent years, old-timey, bulky tatami have slowly been overtaken in popularity by light, modern tatami that still have all the benefits of the original. In this article, we’ll be discussing the characteristics, benefits, charms, history, and maintenance of this traditional Japanese craft so that you can fully understand and appreciate everything there’s to know about tatami.
How Long Have the Japanese Been Using Tatami?
The Ancestor of Tatami
It’s generally accepted that the ancestor of the tatami is the mushiro (seen in the picture above), which was a mat woven from straw, sedge, and bamboo fibers. It first appeared in Japan around the Jomon period (13,000 BC – 300 BC*) and was used until the Yayoi period (300 BC – 300 AD*). Japan’s oldest existing historical text, the Kojiki, also makes note of a mat called the "Sugatatami," which was made from woven sedge.
*There are actually many competing theories as to the timeline of the Jomon period, with most modern research putting it between 16,000 BC and 900 BC. This also makes it difficult to pinpoint the start of the Yayoi period.
The Birth of Tatami
The tatami mats we know today came into existence during the Nara period (710 – 794). The Shosoin Repository at Todai-ji Temple, a registered World Heritage Site in Nara, is home to a mat from this time called the "Gosho-no-Tatami," which was most likely used for sleeping. During the Heian period (794 – 1185), houses of aristocrats had wooden floors, which were partially covered by tatami for sleeping or sitting on.
Floors started to be covered completely by tatami from the mid-Kamakura period (around 1250). Then, during the Muromachi period (1336 – 1573), the shoin-zukuri style of architecture became popular among the upper class (e.g. samurai and temples with influence), resulting in many houses being built with complete tatami flooring and a central room that was both a study and living or sitting room.
During the Azuchi–Momoyama period (1573 – 1603), production of "igusa" or soft rush—used to make the surface of tatami mats—exploded, and from around the mid-Edo period (1681 – 1780), commoners, too, were able to afford tatami for their homes.
What Kind of Plant Is "Igusa"?
Igusa ("soft rush" in English) is a perennial herbaceous flowering plant in the Juncaceae family. It’s also known in Japan under the name "toshinso," and it’s found all over Japan, from Hokkaido to Okinawa, growing in lakes, marshes, rivers, swamps, and many other bodies of water. It flowers from May to September.
The type used to make tatami is typically grown in rice paddies and harvested in July. You can find it being grown primarily in Kyushu (Kumamoto, Fukuoka, Saga, and Oita prefectures), as well as in the Chugoku (Hiroshima and Okayama prefectures), Hokuriku (Ishikawa Prefecture), and Shikoku (Kochi Prefecture) regions. Kumamoto’s Yatsushiro region in particular is Japan’s number one grower of this plant, accounting for 80-90% of the country’s soft rush production.
In the past, it was said that the most high-quality tatami mats used igusa from Hiroshima Prefecture (Bingo-Omote variety) and Okayama Prefecture (Bizen-Omote variety), but nowadays, tatami mats that use soft rush from Yatsushiro are right up with them in terms of quality.
However, many modern Japanese houses have changed, causing a drop in the demand for tatami. As a result, there are fewer producers of tatami and igusa. In 1996, about 70% of soft rush was produced domestically, but in 2014, that number dropped down to just 20%.
How Are Tatami Mats Made?
Making a tatami mat is relatively simple. You start with the “tatami-doko” base which is covered by a “tatami-omote” outer layer. A "tatami-beri" hem or edge is then attached to the long side (see picture above for reference).
The cover is attached by interweaving string with strands of soft rush. The string, known as “tateito,” is usually made from hemp or cotton, but modern tatami mats sometimes also use synthetic fibers. Similarly, some modern tatami mats use artificial materials for the outer cover instead of natural rush.
Traditionally, the tatami-doko base was the “wara-doko” variety made from pressed layers of rice straw, but nowadays many mats use “tatami board” pressed wood or light polystyrene foam between layers of rice straw instead. Time are changing and with it, so do tatami mats.
Unique Features of Tatami Mats
Tatami Are Resilient
Traditional tatami made with a rice straw base and covered by igusa are all-natural and therefore are packed with air, which gives them a high degree of elasticity and resilience. That said, some modern varieties made without any of these all-natural fibers can still be quite strong as the materials are carefully chosen to resemble natural fibers as closely as possible.
Tatami Are Heat-Insulated and Fire-Resistant
Since tatami are actually full of air, they are insulated against heat. The all-natural ones made from soft rush and rice straw also absorb moisture quite well. Additionally, because the rice straw base is tightly packed, they can be quite fire-resistant.
Benefits of Tatami and Igusa
Tatami Are Antibacterial
Bacteria can be found everywhere in the house, and while most are harmless to humans, some can cause adverse health effects if they get in your body.
Fortunately, soft rush happens to have antibacterial properties that can ward off bacteria such as E. coli O-157, salmonella, and Staphylococcus aureus. In one study, E. coli O-157 was sprayed on a tatami mat and left to multiply, but after 15 hours, it did not reproduce at all.
Tatami Can Regulate Moisture Levels
Igusa has an almost sponge-like structure, so if it’s placed in a humid place, it will absorb all the moisture from it. But, when placed in a dry place, it will release moisture into it, keeping moisture levels as stable as possible. It’s no surprise then that the tatami was created in Japan, where the summers can get really muggy. They're so essential to the Japanese way of living that residents have been using them for over 1,300 years now!
Tatami Can Help Get Rid of Bad Smells
The same qualities that make soft rush moisture-absorbent also make it able to eliminate bad odors such as ammonia and cigarette smoke.
Tatami Are Relaxing and a Natural Air Purifier
Because it’s made from soft rush, the outer layer of a tatami has sound-absorbing qualities and includes phytoncides: compounds released by trees which are often used in natural deodorizers and air purifiers. This means that tatami mats not only smell like trees, but are able to purify air.
Studies have also shown that phytoncides have a relaxing effect on the body and mind.
Types of Tatami
There are actually many different types of tatami.
The most common type is the one with a base, cover, and hem, called the "heri-tsuki tatami" (pictured above). This is the tatami mat that you are most likely to encounter in Japan.
One place in a traditional Japanese home where tatami mats have long been used is the "tokonoma" alcove (pictured above), which typically display hanging scrolls, ikebana flower arrangements, and other decorations. The kind of tatami used for tokonoma alcoves are either the "usu-beri" with a thin edge or the Okinawan-style "Ryukyu tatami," which has no edges.
Ryukyu tatami are mats made from Okinawa’s Shitto rush. They have no edge, and are quite unique compared to other tatami without hems because of where they're made and what's used to make them. Because they lack distinct edges, Ryukyu tatami are very modern-looking and are great for interior decoration, so they've been becoming more and more popular lately. However, edge-less tatami actually take a lot more work and skill to produce, so they tend to be more expensive than conventional tatami. That’s why, when it comes to edge-less tatami, the colorful ones laid out in a plaid pattern and made using Japanese washi paper or plastic fibers are most popular.
Usu-beri mats have no base and feature a thin edge, which is why they are most often used as throw rugs and the like. They’re sometimes also called "tatami carpets.” The kind seen in the picture above that is used as a decorative rug or mat is especially popular nowadays.
Tatami Yoga Mats
In recent years, igusa has become a popular material for yoga mats as it has a relaxing effect on the mind and body.
Babies tend to sweat more than adults and have underdeveloped immune systems, which is why tatami mats and rugs are perfect for them.
When to Replace a Tatami Cover or the Entire Mat
When a tatami mat gets damaged, it’s normal to go to a tatami workshop and have the cover replaced or turned inside out. However, if you’re living abroad, it’s easier to just buy a new one. It will probably end up much cheaper than sending it to be repaired in Japan. If you do live in Japan, here are the services offered by tatami workshops.
・Uragaeshi (Turning the Cover Inside Out)
If your tatami is just discolored, faded, or bleached, you can ask for the cover to be turned inside out. The process is known as “uragaeshi” and is usually performed 2-3 years after purchase. This can only be done at a tatami workshop, so if you don’t want to bother with it, simply buy a new tatami mat.
・Omotegae (Replacing the Cover)
If your tatami cover lost its luster and began to split, or worse yet, became frayed, then you should have it and the edge replaced. The process is known as “omotegae,” which leaves the tatami-doko base intact. Same as with uragaeshi, this can only be done at a tatami workshop.
・When to Replace a Tatami Mat
When a tatami mat has had its cover replaced many times or becomes damaged down to the base, then you should buy a new one. You can tell when it’s time to get rid of your old tatami when it starts to feel rough, or when you step on it and feel your foot sinking, or when there is visible space between the mats that wasn’t there previously.
How to Properly Care for Tatami
Care for Tatami Regularly
Regular care for a tatami mat is very simple. First, brush it using a soft broom, then wipe it down with a dry cloth. Remember to always go gently along the stitches. For example, the tatami in the picture above should be wiped up, away from the person cleaning it. However, doing it that way may make your knees hurt, so you can also wipe down the mat from left to right, going along the stitches.
When using a vacuum cleaner, also go along the stitches and use a gentle touch, stopping right before the edge, which will help preserve it.
Sun-Dry Tatami Twice a Year
It’s recommended that you sun-dry your tatami mat about twice a year. Choose a clear day in spring and autumn and simply hang it outside, taking care not to put the cover in direct sunlight. Have the tatami-doko base dry under the sun for 4-5 hours. There’s a chance that your mat might get infested with mites or other bugs, so don’t dry your mat on the grass or the ground. Concrete or tiles work best.
To pick up a tatami mat, use a flat-bladed screwdriver or something similar to stick between the gaps and pry it up.
As for maintenance, you should replace the cover once every 5-8 years to make sure the tatami will last you as long as possible. The frequency ultimately depends on the type of tatami mat you have, how often you use it, how many people use it, the level of exposure to direct sunlight, etc.
Tatami Size Differences - West vs East Japan
The size of tatami mats is not standardized throughout Japan, and each size comes with a different name. The most popular sizes are: kyoma, chu-kyoma, edoma, rokuichima, and danchima.
Also known as “honma,” this name refers to tatami mats measuring 191 cm x 95.5 cm. It’s mainly used in the Kansai region, home to cities such as Kyoto. Chu-kyoma is also known as “saburokuma,” and it measures 182 cm x 91 cm. It’s mainly used in regions such as Tokai (Aichi and Gifu prefectures), Tohoku, and parts of Hokuriku.
Also known as “kantoma,” “inakama,” and “gohachima,” this tatami size measures 176 cm x 88 cm. It’s used all around the country, but especially in the Kanto region.
Also known as “akima,” this size measures 185 cm x 92.5 cm. It’s mainly used in regions such as Chugoku (Hiroshima and Yamaguchi prefectures) and parts of Kinki.
Also known as “gorokuma,” this is the smallest of all tatami sizes, measuring 170c m x 85 cm. “Danchi” means “housing complex,” which points to this size being most often used at housing complexes and apartments.
Advice for Those Buying Tatami From Abroad
There are many benefits to owning a tatami mat like their moisture-absorbent, moisture-releasing, and antibacterial properties (which also make them baby-safe). The mats also have a relaxing effect on the body and mind.
However, if you’re using a tatami abroad, it might be difficult to know how many mats you should buy to transform a room into a Japanese-style room because of the tatami’s non-standardized size, to say nothing of the high costs of ordering them from Japan. Additionally, tatami mats require a lot of maintenance, and outside Japan you probably won’t have access to a tatami workshop. Finally, if your mats don’t use soft rush from a reputable producer, you can end up with a tatami that’s full of pesticides and other chemicals, so please be careful.
So, if your heart is set on buying a tatami, make sure it’s a Japan-made tatami rug or mat to minimize risk.
Featured Tatami Products
In this section, we will introduce some of the most popular modern and lightweight tatami mats and rugs. They are IKEHIKO products, which are all made in Japan from the highest-quality materials. We hope you’ll find something here that you like.
RUSH RUG DENIM F JOY GREEN
This IKEHIKO tatami rug is made from 100% homegrown soft rush, and is one of the most high-quality tatami products you can get in Japan. Its secret lies in the exceptional igusa that goes into every IKEHIKO product as well as the modern, chic design. Like the RED mat introduced later in this article, this tatami goes great with any room. The back of the rug is made from domestic urethane, which is baby-safe. The rug comes in two sizes: Small (191 cm x 191 cm) and Large (191 cm x 250 cm).
RUSH RUG KARON BLACK
This tatami rug is made entirely from the top 1% of IKEHIKO’s homegrown, high-quality rush, and features a simple yet chic design that gives it a sophisticated air. The tatami rug is available in two sizes: Medium (190 cm x 250 cm) and Large (190 cm x 300 cm). We also recommend the YELLOW variation, which will brighten up any room.
RUSH RUG CLEOPATRA
In terms of material, color, technique, and finish, this IKEHIKO tatami rug is one of the most exquisite products offered by the company. At first glance, it can be easily mistaken for a Persian rug, but is in fact made entirely out of soft rush that has been woven into beautiful, colorful patterns by experienced artisans using highly-specialized techniques. The rug only uses the top 1% of IKEHIKO’s homegrown, high-quality, luxurious soft rush, which has been dyed twice to increase its durability and make it resistant to discoloration. The rug measures 191 cm x 250 cm.
RUSH YOGA MAT JOY RED
We’ve mentioned before that soft rush is now being used to make yoga mats, and this one by IKEHIKO is a prime example of that. The igusa in this chic mat has been woven and dyed by experienced artisans. Because it’s made from soft rush, the mat is odor-resistant, moisture-absorbing, and stain-resistant, making it perfect for yoga. The back of the mat features PVC gum, which cushions it and helps prevent slips. The mat is only available in one size: 60c m x 180 cm. However, there are multiple designs in IKEHIKO's tatami yoga mat line, so you can choose one that best suits you.
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*These products may not be able to be shipped to certain countries. Please see the retailer's website for more information.
The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.