13 Facts You Didn't Know About Tatami

Tatami has been keeping Japanese people on solid footing for hundreds of years. Soft and sophisticated, this one-of-a-kind straw mat flooring holds a lot of surprises, including its history, manufacturing process, and connection to Japanese culture. Here are 13 fascinating tatami facts sure to make you love it even more!

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What Is a Tatami Mat?

Before jumping in, let’s cover the basics - what is a tatami mat?

Tatami is a type of straw-based flooring used in traditional Japanese rooms. Most tatami mats are made into a standard size that can be assembled, arranged, and removed with ease, making them convenient to use and clean.

“Tatami” (畳) comes from the Japanese word meaning “to fold” or “to pile” (tatamu). It’s believed that the word “tatami” was used in the past as a general term for foldable woven flooring mats, which, over the years, has evolved into what we know today. While now competing with modern floorboards, tiling, concrete, and more, tatami still holds a special place in Japan, and remains popular in hotels, restaurants, and even homes.

13 Facts You Didn't Know About Tatami

Tatami Mats Have 3 Parts

The most recognizable part of a tatami mat is the “tatami-omote” (畳表), which is the surface of the mat. It is made out of woven soft rush, a kind of grassy plant called “igusa” in Japanese, and comes in different grades of quality, with the highest reserved for important spaces such as shrines and temples.

The “tatami-beri” (畳縁,  also called a “heri”) is the cloth edging of the tatami mat. These act as borders to hide and protect the ends of the woven area. They come in a variety of colors and patterns, with some stores even offering full customization.

Finally, there is the unseen “tatami-doko” (畳床, also called a “toko”), which is the sturdy base of the tatami mat, serving as a backing for the soft tatami-omote. Similar to tatami-omote, the highest quality bases are used in shrines, temples, and tearooms. The tatami-doko is designed to be resilient enough to withstand long-term use.

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Tatami Is Made Out of Many Materials

As mentioned, the surface of tatami (tatami-omote) is made of the plant soft rush (igusa), requiring around 4,000 to 7,000 pieces to complete one tatami mat.

The rush is woven into a weaving string that binds it together. This string is made out of materials like hemp, cotton, and linen, and has a big effect on how strong the overall surface will be, with double hemp strings being the best.

High-quality tatami bases (tatami-doko) are traditionally made using compressed rice straw, chosen for its humidity control, thermal insulation, fireproof properties, and durability. Starting at 40 cm, extreme pressure is used to compress the straw to a minuscule 5 cm, making it extremely dense. As straw can be expensive, non-natural materials are often used as a cheaper alternative. This includes compressed wood chips, styrofoam, and wooden boards to make a durable and affordable tatami-doko “sandwich.”

Tatami Is Mentioned in the Kojiki

The Kojiki is a collection of ancient texts that make up Japan’s oldest existing records, and through them, scholars have uncovered more about tatami mats from early 8th-century Japan. The Kojiki has descriptions illustrating tatami of the time as foldable woven rugs that could be piled up, making them more similar to straw mats. However, during this period, such tatami was reserved for the nobility and upper-classes, making it far from what we’re familiar with today.

The oldest existing piece of tatami is from the Nara period (710–794), and is currently held at Todai-ji Temple’s Shoso-in treasure house in Nara. It is made of five or six layers of woven straw and was believed to have been used as a bed for sleeping.

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Tatami Rooms Became Common During the 17th Century

By the Kamakura (1192-1333) and Muromachi (1336-1573) periods, tatami had evolved into a flooring material that covered whole rooms, but was still viewed as a status symbol enjoyed by nobles and samurai.

During the Azuchi-Momoyama (1573-1600) and the Edo (1603-1867) periods, tea ceremonies and “sukiya-zukuri,” a Japanese architectural style that makes use of natural materials, including wood and tatami, became a common part of Japanese life. This spread across the country, and by the late Edo period, tatami mats were seen in the homes of regular townsfolk, further reaching rural farmers by the early Meiji period (1868–1912).

Tatami Mat Manufacturing Is Concentrated in Southern Japan

Much of the soft rush (igusa) needed to make tatami is grown in southern Japan. Prefectures such as Kumamoto, Hiroshima, and Fukuoka are particularly famous for their rush, although the majority used in Japan nowadays is actually imported from overseas.

The largest production area of soft rush is in Yatsushiro, Kumamoto Prefecture. Yatsushiro’s abundant water and fertile land, alongside the locals’ dedication to traditional cultivation and painstaking labor, provide the perfect conditions to cultivate strong, healthy rush. Overall, this region makes up an impressive 80-90% of Japan’s total rush production, with over 1,300 hectares of dedicated farmland. Naturally, Kumamoto is also Japan’s leading producer of tatami-omote, making over 2 million tatami mats in 2020 alone.



The Standard Tatami Mat Size Varies Across Japan

There are four standard tatami mat sizes in Japan, three of which are regional.

The largest tatami mat size is called a “kyoma,” which measures 95.5 cm x 191 cm and is used around Kyoto and the surrounding Kansai region, alongside Chugoku, Shikoku, and Kyushu. The next tatami mat size is the “chukyoma” at 91 cm x 182 cm, primarily seen in Fukui, Aichi, Gifu, and Mie prefectures. Following this is the “edoma” at 88 cm x 176 cm, used in Tokyo and the rest of the Kanto region stretching up to Hokkaido. The smallest tatami mat size is the “danchima,” measuring 85 cm x 170 cm, which is intended for apartment complexes and condominiums.

“Jo,” which uses the same character as “tatami” (畳), is also a common way of measuring rooms in Japan. When house-hunting, you’ll likely encounter an apartment or house listed with a certain number of “jo,” which indicates the number of tatami mats that rooms can fit. Knowing these tatami mat size variations can be helpful when finding a place in Japan, allowing a rough idea of the measurements before visiting.

Tatami Mats Can Be Arranged Into Two Types of Patterns

There are two general tatami mat patterns, auspicious “shukugi-jiki” and inauspicious “fushukugi-jiki.” Auspicious patterns are laid out in different directions to prevent the corners of the tatami from meeting and forming a cross shape. This style is most common in homes, and is essential for celebratory events like weddings.

On the other hand, inauspicious patterns have the tatami mats laid out in straight rows, with the edges forming crosses. While this is avoided in homes, it is common at events like funerals, and is also frequently employed at temples. You can also see this arrangement in halls at ryokan inns and such, used to better protect the mats from damage.

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A Unique Type of Tatami Hails From Okinawa

“Ryukyu” tatami mats are distinguished by their small size, square shape, lack of a cloth border, and checkered pattern. Their name comes from the Ryukyu Kingdom, which governed over the Okinawan islands between 1429 to 1879. These tatami mats came into daily use after 1609, and were originally made with a type of Okinawan grass called “shichitoi” (also called “shichito”).

Being thick and sturdy, tatami mats made of shichitoi do not require cloth borders for reinforcement. Nowadays, however, Ryukyu tatami generally refers to all mats featuring this design, regardless of the material.

Tatami Mats Are Used in Japanese Martial Arts

Aside from Japanese homes, tatami flooring is also used in dojo for Japanese martial arts like judo, karate, and aikido. Tatami mats are viewed as an important element of these sports, and are treated with deep respect by students and professionals.

The softness and non-slip texture of tatami are ideal for martial arts. They are, however, made differently from regular mats, with a thick foam in the middle to absorb impact, and to keep them flexible enough to ensure safety. While extremely durable, these tatami mats still require daily cleaning and maintenance.

Tatami Changes Over Time

When tatami is freshly made, it has a pale green hue and a fragrant, grassy scent. After a few weeks, the tatami mat’s fragrance and color will begin to fade, and the green will eventually turn into a light yellowish-brown, growing deeper as it ages.

Tatami mats are not meant to last forever, and will eventually need to be repaired. While lifespan depends on usage, tatami around 3-4 years old without significant damage can first be flipped over to the other side, making them look like new again without any additional costs.

If both sides of the tatami have worn out or gotten dirty, the tatami-omote can be refaced. This is recommended if it’s been around 5 years since you flipped the tatami mat over. Refacing requires only the front layer of the tatami mat being replaced.

The final measure is replacing the tatami mats completely. If the tatami has been used for a long time, and both sides have already been refaced, or if it has developed a musty smell, it’s time to start looking for tatami replacements. On average, this is done around the 10-year mark.

Tatami Needs Regular Maintenance

To get the most out of your tatami mat, it’s essential to maintain it. Tatami mats are susceptible to humidity, and will start growing mold if left in a humid environment. This is especially common during Japan’s summer months between June and August, when high humidity levels afflict much of the country. To combat this, allow the tatami mats to breathe by consistently airing out the room, and try not to cover tatami with rugs, carpet, or furniture without regularly moving them to get air underneath. Also, make sure to wipe any spills on tatami with a dry cloth immediately, and dry out the room.

For general cleaning, there are vacuum cleaners and mops specially designed for tatami mats, which should be used regularly. If you don’t have access to specialized tools, a regular vacuum cleaner will do just fine. If you really want to look after your mats, pull them up and place them outside about twice a year for a complete air-out, ideally on dry, sunny days, but out of direct sunlight.

Unfortunately, tatami mats are also prone to dust mites, known as “dani” in Japanese. Infestations can be prevented by regularly cleaning your tatami and keeping them dry and well-ventilated. If spotted, there are special bug sprays that target dust mites sold in supermarkets and drugstores in Japan.


A Traditional Tatami Mat Room Is Called a “Washitsu”

Traditional tatami mat rooms are known in Japanese as “washitsu” (和室), which literally means “Japanese-style room.”

A washitsu’s most distinguishing features include the “tokonoma,” an alcove where art pieces and flower decorations are displayed, “shoji” paper sliding doors, “fusuma” sliding doors, “oshiire” built-in closets, “ranma” transoms, and low-lying furniture such as “zataku” tables, legless “zaisu” chairs, and “zabuton” floor cushions.

Many modern Japanese homes still have at least one washitsu -  although they may not have all of the traditional elements. As the softness of tatami makes them comfortable to relax or sleep in on a futon, they are often used as sitting rooms or bedrooms.

You Can Easily Create Your Own Tatami Room

“Unit tatami” or “oki tatami” is a style of modern tatami mat that can be placed over non-tatami flooring. They are sold in Japanese furniture stores in a wide range of shapes, colors, and styles.

As they can be easily arranged and moved around, you can use them to cover an entire room, or just a small portion to sit on. They are made to be lighter and more casual than regular tatami mats, and are the perfect way to incorporate Japanese aesthetics into the home.

Recommended Hotel to Enjoy the Charm of Tatami: Cyashitsu Ryokan Asakusa

Even if you don’t have tatami mats at home, a trip to Japan offers loads of opportunities to experience their appeal! One hotel filled with stylish tatami is Cyashitsu Ryokan Asakusa, a 3-star traditional “ryokan” inn located in Tokyo’s famous Asakusa district, known for stunning temples and an abundance of culinary options. The sophisticated Japanese-style rooms are the main attraction, allowing guests to sleep on tatami and enjoy traditional washitsu fixtures – including shoji paper doors that slide open to excellent views of Tokyo!

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Related article: ▶ The Best Tatami Beds from Japan That Ship Overseas [BECOS x tsunagu Japan]

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Tatami: Defining the Japanese Way of Living for Hundreds of Years

The use of tatami played a part in defining several periods of Japanese history. First reserved as a luxury for nobles and samurai, tatami mats eventually became a key architectural feature in Japan, and still provide comfort to the modern-day Japanese. Next time you’re in Japan, take a moment to enjoy this staple of Japanese culture, and you’ll surely understand why it’s still around to this day!

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The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.

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Jen Laforteza
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