The Evolution of Tatami

Washitsu traditional Japanese-style room

   Tatami is a traditional type of flooring used in Japanese homes and buildings — it's an essential feature of tearooms, and judo matches are always contested on top of tatami mats. Although wooden flooring is more common these days, people still value the look and feel of tatami, and have found ways of incorporating it into more modern interior designs. Let's take a look at some of the ways in which tatami is used today in contemporary interior design.

Tatami is an essential feature of traditional settings like tearooms.

So What Is Tatami?

   Tatami is a type of flooring using mats consisting of three parts. The middle layer (tatami-doko) is made from material such as dried straw. This is sandwiched between two outer layers, the tatami-omote, which are woven together using a grass-like plant called soft rush. The long sides of each mat are reinforced with fabric belts called tatami-beri. The size of a tatami mat can vary from region to region, but they usually measure around 180 cm × 90 cm, giving them a 2:1 ratio between length and width.

Left: The cross-section of a tatami mat. The tatami-doko (middle layer) is sandwiched between tatami-omote (outer layers), which are woven together with soft rush. Most tatami mats are around 5 to 6 cm thick.
Right: The long sides of a tatami mat are twice as long as the short sides, and are arranged next to each other to fill the space of the room.

   Traditionally, Japanese houses were designed so that the size of each room was determined by how many tatami mats it could fit. Because of this, many people still refer to room sizes in terms of tatami mats — if you tell a Japanese person that a room is a six-mat room, they'll have a pretty good idea of how big it is.

Soft rush is used to make the tatami-omote (outer layers).

Why Is Tatami Used in Japan?

   Japan has four distinct seasons, with most regions experiencing hot, humid weather in the summer and cold, dry weather in the winter. Tatami is able to retain heat thanks to its excellent thermal insulation, and its moisture-absorption properties control humidity in the room properly. These properties make tatami a well-suited flooring material in the Japanese climate.

Traditional Japanese buildings are designed so that air rises from underneath the floor and ventilates out of the room. This means the indoor air is circulated, preventing the tatami from getting over-exposed to humidity.

   Japan has a long-standing custom of removing shoes inside homes and sitting directly on the floor rather than using a chair, making the flexible and comfortable feel of tatami perfectly in tune with the Japanese way of life.

   So tatami has played a pivotal role in Japanese homes for centuries, as it's perfectly suited to Japanese living environments and customs.

New Forms of Tatami

   These days in Japan, wooden flooring has grown in popularity and there are now fewer rooms that use tatami flooring. Even so, the qualities of tatami are still in demand from people who like to sit and sleep directly on the floor — which has given rise to various new types of tatami better suited to modern homes. Nowadays, tatami made from synthetic plastic fibers is a highly practical option, as it's easy to clean and less susceptible to dust mites or mold. There's also colorful tatami that can be used to add the finishing touches to interior designs.
   In the past, tatami mats typically covered the whole floor space of a room, but manufacturers now offer innovative new types of tatami mats that can be placed on top of wooden flooring, allowing them to be used in just one corner or section of the room, for a simple and stylish look.

Non-traditional square-shaped tatami mats can be arranged in unique and interesting patterns. (Photo courtesy of Oryza Inc.)

Tatami made from synthetic fibers requires less maintenance and boasts attractive colors and patterns. (Photo courtesy of Oryza Inc.)

A new type of tatami mat born from the need for a way to easily place tatami on top of wooding flooring.(Photo courtesy of bydesign Inc.)

Reflecting the Light in Tatami Art

   Some tatami artisans have come up with new ways of layering tatami, called "tatami art," in which multi-sided and curved mats are fitted together like jigsaw pieces to create artistic images or geometrical patterns.

Tatami mats designed to resemble scales. (Photo courtesy of Kenze Yamada Tatami.)

   Tatami mats of different shapes that break away from the traditional rectangular form are capturing the imagination of more and more people — so much so that they can now be found not only in private houses but also in ryokan (traditional Japanese inns), eateries and temples.

This idea combines gravel and tatami inspired by a type of Japanese garden called a karesansui (dry garden). (Photo courtesy of Kenze Yamada Tatami.)

   Another interesting thing about tatami that has been cleverly used for artistic effect is the way its color changes depending on the angle it is viewed at, due to how it reflects the light. Some designs utilize this to give the impression that various different colors have been used, when in fact each mat is the exact same color. Differences in the weave affect the reflection of the light and create shadows that appear inverted depending on the viewing angle, and give the impression that the colors are always changing.

   From motifs evoking Japanese gardens to striking images of dragons, there are various ways in which traditional tatami materials have been used to create new artistic value.

A floor with an image of a dragon, created by piecing many tatami parts together. (Photo courtesy of Kenze Yamada Tatami.)

When viewed from the opposite side of the room, the dark parts and the light parts appear to change place. (Photo courtesy of Kenze Yamada Tatami.)

Ever-Present and Changing With the Times

   Tatami is perfectly matched to the Japanese climate and has been used in houses for centuries. While demand has decreased as living environments change, people still like to sit and sleep on tatami mats, and many still value its unique look and feel. New developments have helped bring tatami in line with the times, and its artistic properties have even given it a new lease of life, showing how tatami has continually evolved to meet the changing nature and demands of the modern world.