Why Do Japanese People Sleep On The Floor?

Japanese Room

Hello, I’m Mishi! Have you ever wondered why Japanese people sleep on the floor? If you go to Japan and stay in a Japanese room, you will probably sleep on the tatami. Maybe, you will think why do they sleep on the floor. To answer this question, we have to take a look at the history of Japan.

Let’s check the reasons why they sleep on the floor! (^-*)~^

Before you go further, if you don’t know futon, check my futon article.

 

History of futon

 

To talk about why Japanese people sleep on the floor, I have to talk about the history of how they used to sleep in Japan. This way can also explain how the futon is being used by them.

 

Jomon period/縄文時代 (14,000-1000 BCE), Yayoi period/弥生時代(400 BC – middle of 300 AD) to Kofun period/古墳時代(middle of 300 to 700 AD)

 

Japanese pit house

Japanese pit house called “Tateanashiki Jukyo(竪穴式住居)”

In this period, The houses that people lived in are called “Tateanashiki Jukyo(竪穴式住居)“. These are complex pit houses that were the most commonly used method of housing in Japan(a picture above). They dug a hole in the ground and put a roof over it, so the floor sits lower than the ground. They put soil around the houses or built houses on high soil to prevent the rain, humidity, bugs, and so on from getting in. 4 to 6 wooden pillars were used to sustain roofs. It’s warmer under the ground than above ground. Ancient people had this knowledge!

Inside of Japanese pit house

Inside of Japanese pit house

In this house, there were two ways to sleep.

 

1: Mattress on the ground

Mushiro

Mushiro = cover

This is the most common sleeping method. They used a mattress called “Mushiro(筵) or Komo(菰)” which was made of grasses like straw, rush, Japanese nutmeg tree’s leaf, rice plant, cattails, and so on. They also used the skin of animals and trees or dried seaweed as a mattress. This is the beginning of Futon.

 

2: Mattress on the log

LogThis case is very rare but logs were used as a bed. They were found in Nishitai ruins/西田井遺跡(Wakayama prefecture/和歌山県). They put Mushiro on a log to sleep.

 

Nara period/奈良時代 to Heian period/平安時代(710-1192)

 

Emperor Shomu

“Portrait of The Emperor Shomu” Wikimedia Commons with CC License Attribution

In 756, Empress Komyo dedicated Emperor Shoumu’s belongings to Todai temple. In one of those, there was a wooden bed. This one is the oldest bed which exists in Japan so far. The length is 237.5cm, width 118.5cm, and height is 38.5cm. It’s said tatami or mattress was put on top of this bed to sleep. Empress Komyo’s bed was also found. They put their beds together and slept together.

 

A mattress for Emperor

In Nara period, tatami was starting to be made by noble people. A couple of Mushiro(筵) was put together and the rush was put on. The oldest existing tatami in Japan is called “Gosho no tatami/御床畳” which means Emperor Shoumu’s tatami. It’s said that he used to use it on his bed as a mattress.

 

Shinden Zukuri/寝殿造

Genji Monogatari Emaki

“Genji Monogatari Emaki” From The New York Public Library

In Heian period, noble people lived in the style of houses called “Shinden Zukuri/寝殿造”.(A picture above)

The features of Shinden Zukuri are

  • The main building is called “Shinden/寝殿” sits on the center of the property. This building has two rooms called “Nurigome/塗籠” and “Moya/母屋”
  • There are no walls. (*except for Nurigome) They separate spaces with blinds, folding screens, doors, and so on
  • There were ponds and playground gardens
  • Only for noble people like high-rank people
  • Each building has one room only
  • Buildings are connected with a corridor
  • Floors are basically made of wood
Bokiekotoba - Nurigome

Nurigome from Bokiekotoba {{PD-old-70}}

* Nurigome/塗籠  is an interior closed room with heavily plastered walls. This room is for sleeping at first but later on, they used this room for storage too.

At this time, floors were wood so they put tatami on wherever they wanted to. If you see a picture above, there are green parts on the floor. Those are placing tatami.

 

Canopy bed? Micho/御帳 is special!

Kyoto Gosho Micho

Micho in Kyoto Gosho Wikipedia

In a room called “Moya/母屋“, there is a bed called “Micho/御帳“. This bed looks like a canopy bed. It used to be used for relaxing, meeting guests, deciding political rule, and so on. Some high ranked people slept inside of Micho.

Micho was also a symbol of authority or financial power. They started to decorate the Micho for showing their status. Especially, the Imperial family’s that used a different style of Micho.

Micho/御帳” is also called “Michodai/御帳台” or “Chodai/帳台”.

 

A cover to sleep

About a cover, They had a cover called “Fusuma/衾”. It was made out of hemp, silk, mulberry, and so on. Also, they wore their kimono to sleep.

 

Yaedatami/八重畳

By the way, do you know the meaning of tatami? Tatami means to pile up over and over. In the Heian period, most noble people used tatami as a mattress to sleep. They piled a couple of Mushiro(筵) up. This tatami is called “Yaedatami/八重畳” by old documents “Kojiki/古事記” and “Nihonshoki/日本書紀”.

There’s also a pillow that looks like a small tatami. Some high ranked people used to sleep on Yaedatami and used a small tatami as a pillow. Yaedatami was usually inside of Micho.

 

The ordinary people and farmers

Straw Wara

What about the commoner? Their house was still a pit house. The way they sleep is the same as before. They used Mushiro and Fusuma but not like the ones that noble people had. They also used the straw to sleep under.

They wake up to go to work when the  sun comes up and go to bed when the moon comes out. They had a pretty simple plain life.

 

Kamakura period/鎌倉時代 to Muromachi period/室町時代 (1192年-1573年)

 

Katsurarikyu

Katsurarikyu is famous for Shoin Zukuri 京都フリー写真素材

A new era has arrived. In Kamakura period, aristocratic society moved to samurai society. The style of houses changed too. Shinden Zukuri gradually faded out and “Shoin Zukuri/書院造” was established.

The features of Shoin Zukuri

  • It’s conscious of social position
  • Samurai society used this style
  • There are many rooms in one building and the rooms connect with a corridor
  • There are many walls. Shoji screen and sliding doors separate spaces
  • Japanese dry landscape or rock garden called “Karesansui/枯山水”
  • Tatami is filled in floors
  • “Irimoya Zukuri/入母屋造” is a style to make roofs
Irimoya Zukuri

Irimoya Zukuri in Katsurarikyu 京都フリー写真素材

They used to put moveable tatami on the floors but in this period, the floor is basically tatami, therefore they started to sleep on the tatami floor.

 

A cover to sleep called “Kaimaki/掻巻” and “Onzo/御衣”

 

In Kamakura period, some high ranked people had a cover to sleep with. This is called “Kaimaki/掻巻”. This cover has a collar and sleeves which exactly looks like kimono.

In Muromachi period, Kaimaki was called “Onzo/御衣”. The name is different but it is basically the same thing as kaimaki.

But those were for some high ranked people. Most of the people still slept with their clothing or Fusuma.

 

The ordinary people and farmers

Japanese sceneryOn the other hand, some rich ordinary people could have a house with Irimoya Zukuri. But many people still lived in a pit house in this era. This is not much of a difference from before yet for them.

 

Sengoku Period/戦国時代 to Edo period/江戸時代(1467‐1868)

 

Harunobu Suzuki - Zashiki Hakkei Nurioke no Bosetsu

“Harunobu Suzuki/鈴木春信 – Zashiki Hakkei Nurioke no Bosetsu/坐鋪八景・塗桶の暮雪” Two women are making cotton.

In this period, cotton spread around all over Japan. According to old documents called “Nihonkoki/日本後記” and “Ruijukokushi/類聚国史”, a seed of cotton came to Japan in 799-800 but at first, they failed to  cultivate it.

In 1492-1500, they finally succeed to cultivate cotton in Mikawa(present Aichi prefecture). According to an old document “Tokitsugukyoki/言継郷記”, in 1558-1569, The merchant took cotton to Kyoto and spread around all over Japan. Cotton was used for armors, flags, matchlock guns, and so on.

 

A cover called “Yogi/夜着

Yogi Kaimakifuton

Yogi or Kaimakifuton

While the spread of cotton, a cover called “Yogi/夜着” was made. This is a cover but looks like a kimono. As you see Kaimaki and onzo above, Yogi is a developed one from them. It’s also called “Kaimakifuton/かいまきふとん”. Cotton is inside. A collar and sleeves are to keep them warmer than normal covers.

There are various qualities for Yogi. High ranked people had a silk Yogi but ordinary people had a hemp and cotton Yogi. In around 1565, there is an old document called, “Tamoninnikki/多聞院日記”  that says about the Yogi. The high ranked people in Kyoto and Nara mainly started to use the Yogi and a mattress called Shiki futon which is a present futon but not thick like now.

When a Yogi became popular in Edo(Tokyo), a cover called Kake futon which is like a present futon spread in Kansai area(around Osaka and Kyoto). At this time, the trend was always from Kansai area.

 

The spread of Tatami

Tatami

Tatami

In the middle of the Edo period, tatami was finally affordable to the town people. But people who did agriculture couldn’t get them yet until Meiji period.

In the late Edo period, some people had business with tatami or tatami craftsmen began crafting. This much, tatami spread all over Japan.

In this period, people started to call a cover “Kakebuton/掛布団” and a mattress “Shikibuton/敷布団” like a present day. Many ordinary people used tatami as a mattress. Tatami was cherished by people like a futon. But people like farmers couldn’t get a futon and tatami until later on.

 

Futons were so expensive!

Rich Japanese MerchantIn the Edo period, thanks to the success of producing cotton, they could make Yogi and Shiki futons but ordinary people couldn’t afford to have it yet. The reason is the price. Futons cost 30 Ryo in this period which 1 Ryo was 1.000.00 – 3.000.00 dollars for a futon* so to buy a futon is like buying an expensive car! Of course, most of  the people couldn’t have it.

*The value of Ryo was variable and also the value of futon too. The value of money was up and down in this period. It is very hard to compare the value of old money with recent money.

 

The Paper futon was for everyone!

So, how did they sleep? Most people couldn’t afford to buy a decent futon. This is a good question. Here is an answer.

Actually, there were other futons called “Tentokuji/天徳寺”. But Tentokuji was made of Japanese paper. They put the straw inside and also called “Kamifusuma/紙衾”. It was very popular among people, people would say “light, warm, strong, and cheap”.

Even though cheap futon or expensive futon, it was expensive stuff. It’s said that people used to wrap them up with a rug to keep in case of a fire so they can take them out of the house immediately. It’s also said that futons were one of the popular things to be stolen by a thief. The Futon was a very valuable thing! 

 

Competition of futon in Yukaku

Harunobu Suzuki - Burning the love letter

Harunobu Suzuki – Burning the love letter From The New York Public Library She has 3 futon together. This means she is a big shot!

In around 1688, mattresses(Shikifuton/敷き布団) were starting to be used in licensed quarters(Yukaku/遊郭). Many customers spent a lot of money on buying futons for girls. Therefore, futon became a symbol of popularity for those girls. They unconsciously helped futon to be known more by many people.

 

The ordinary people and farmers

Japanese farmersIn rural areas, the way they sleep was still the same way. They slept with Mushiro or straw. The way to sleep was not much different since the Yayoi period. Most of the houses had a wooden floor in this period but tatami which high ranked people used didn’t spread to the town people until the middle of the Edo period. The spread of tatami in rural areas was in Meiji period. Also, the spread of futon with cotton to the rural places was in Showa period.

 

Meiji period/明治時代 -Taisho period/大正時代(1868‐1926)

 

Mitsui Gonomi - Miyako no Nishiki

“Mitsui Gonomi – Miyako no Nishiki” The civilization and enlightenment changed their life style

The civilization and enlightenment occurred in the Meiji period and many foreign things came to Japan. A lot of the cotton was imported from India and the price was so cheap. People could afford to buy a futon with cotton inside. People used an old kimono to make a surface of the futon and bought cotton to put inside of the futon.

 

A closet “Oshiire/押入れ”

Japanese closet Oshiire

Japanese closet called “Oshiire/押し入れ”

The cotton is highly hygroscopic. This caused floors to have mold. People are troubled with it. In the late Meiji period, to prevent mold from occurring, a closet called “Oshiire/押入れ” came out. Since this, the habit of putting futon away in the closet continues until now.(Not all people could have futon and closet yet. The oldest closet is in Nishi Honganji Shoin.)

 

Western Style of Bed

Since civilization and enlightenment, western culture started to come into Japan. This guy named Takeji Usami went to England and learned how to make a bed frame and a mattress. He came back to Japan and established his company to make beds in 1926.

 

The ordinary people and farmers

Japanese old houseThe cotton futon spread to commoners but in rural places like the northern side of Japan or poor villages, they still slept with a futon which was made of hemp, straw or, seaweed inside of a straw bag.

 

After Showa period/昭和時代(1926 – )

 

Japanese Industrial Zone

The high economic growth period changed their life style

The spread of cotton futon was increasing at this time. When futon’s cotton got thinner, they brought it to a shop to fix cotton and add more cotton. That’s how they did since the Meiji period. They cherished the futon so much. In this period, Japanese life changed a lot. The value of the futon also changed. Let’s take a look at them.

 

Polyester

In 1941, there is an invention of polyester. In 1958, it was imported into Japan. Polyester is cheaper than cotton. Now, polyester futons came out.

 

The high economic growth period (1954 – 1970)

Japanese bullet train Shinkansen

Japanese bullet train “Shinkansen/新幹線” was made in the high economic growth period.

In 1962, the two-storied bed became popular. At that time, a single bed was not popular at all. The reason why two-storied beds were popular is because of the high economic growth period in Japan. In an old Japanese house, there were not many rooms. They basically had one big room for living, eating, and sleeping. They put things like tables away when they sleep. So when children’s rooms were added to the Japanese houses, two-storied beds didn’t take up much space. It was convenient for them but they didn’t put a mattress on the beds. They put a futon on beds until now.

In recent years, each child has their own rooms in Japan. This style of life pushed the sale of a single bed and nowadays, many people use beds to sleep.

 

House in Japan now

 

Tokyo Sumida River

Tokyo Sumida River

Too sad to know this but nowadays, Japanese houses are mostly western styles. There is a Japanese room in the western-style houses. Did you get disappointed? Tatami is disappearing from Japanese modern houses.

The reasons why they don’t make Japanese style houses are

  • Not much space to make Japanese style houses
  • Not many walls in Japanese style houses – Not good for earthquake
  • The roofs are heavy – Not good for earthquakes
  • Pillars are a wood – They are weak when earthquakes happen. Also expensive nowadays.
  • Not many carpenters can make Japanese style houses – It takes a special skill and knowledge to make Japanese houses
  • Materials are expensive to make – Western-style is easier and cheaper to make
  • High maintenance – This will cost a lot to check up on materials they used
  • Japanese government recommends high insulation and high airtightness
  • Many Japanese long for western lifestyle – As they take foreign culture into Japan, they grew up. This caused the Japanese to long for it.

There are many factors for this but I think many foreigners get sad to see and hear that Japanese old-style housing is going away little by little.

 

Convenient reasons to sleep on the floor?

 

Futon and TatamiAs you read the sentences above, they have a long history to sleep on the floor. But if you think about Japanese circumstances or background, you can maybe find convenient reasons why you want to sleep on the floor.

  • Japanese don’t wear shoes in their house – No worries to lay down on the floor
  • Earthquake – Maybe, it’s best not to put much furniture in the rooms. Because it might block your way or fall down
  • Spare spaces for the house – You can get more space if you fold futon or put them away in a closet
  • Follow tradition – Not let their ancestors down. They do what they are taught by generations

What do you think?

 

Pros and cons to sleeping on the floor with a futon

 

Futon Pros and ConsPros

  • It’s good to straighten spine – A floor is harder than a bed. When you lay down, you can keep your posture straight
  • It might reduce your back pain and shoulder pain – If your body keeps a straight line, it will reduce your back pain and shoulder pain. To sleep on the floor, you might be able to expect this effect
  • Detox effect – As you lay down on a floor, this would give stimulation to your liver,  kidney, and skins. This effect will get your blood circulation better. You can expect the effect of taking waste products out of your body
  • It’s cooler on the floor in summer – As you go lower, the temperature goes down. Summertime is good to sleep on the floor
  • It’s easier to clean the floor than having bed – All you have to do is to move the futon and vacuum
  • A room can be used widely –  You can simply move the futon and have more space. If you are a minimalist, it would be great
  • It’s easy to take care of a futon – All you have to do is wash the covers. Shikifuton = mattress can be put outside under the sun. The latest mattress can be washed in the laundry
  • Don’t worry about falling – Do not worry. If you sleep on the floor, you will not fall
  • You don’t have to worry about things under your bed- You don’t have to worry about looking for Yokai.

Cons

  • Your body might not like to sleep on the floor – This can be pro or con. It is up to how your body wants to sleep.
  • It’s colder in winter – Summertime is cooler to sleep but wintertime is colder to sleep for certain people
  • It might be hard for you to toss and turn – A bed is softer so easy to toss and turn but I’m not sure if your body likes to toss and turn on the hard floor
  • Dust problem – As you know, dust piles up on the floor every day. To sleep on the floor, you have to sleep close to the floor. This might give you a problem

 

Summary

 

A cat in futonCould you understand why they sleep on the floor in Japan? It was a long history to understand but it’s always fun to see the background. Nowadays, Many many Japanese people sleep on the bed. I think people who sleep on the floor are less than people who sleep on a bed. That’s sad! But it’s worth it to try a futon if you like it or not. You might like it! I do recommend it!

Anyway, I have to go! Sayonara-! Have a good day! ^_^/\~~

 

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