The Complete History & Evolution of the Futon – From Japan to America

In this article, we’ll discuss the history of the Futon, giving a summary of beddings used in Japan from Medieval times such as the mushiro mat, tatami mat, shikibuton, komo mat, etc., and the role they played in shaping the modern futon of today.

We will also discuss the futon’s arrival in America and the main differences between Japanese and American futons before ending with some frequently asked questions on the topic.

The Complete History & Evolution of the Futon – From Japan to America

History of the Futon

The futon may be a popular choice in bedding today for college students to take to their dorm rooms or for campers to take on their hiking trips, but they were not specifically designed for that purpose. Indeed, the futon has come a long way and has a rich and interesting history.

The Japanese futon came to America only in the 1970s, and while the modern ones are quite thick, padded, and comfortable, originally, they weren’t designed to be so.

To understand the futon, one needs to consider several other Japanese bedding elements that have contributed to the futon’s creation.

Let us trace the interesting history of the futon in detail.

The Complete History & Evolution of the Futon – From Japan to America

History of the Futon Mattresses

The history of the futon can be traced back to other early Japanese mattresses used by Japanese farmers and peasants including the shikibutons, Tatami mats, and wafutons.

People in medieval Japan used thinner mattresses that could be easily rolled up and put out on the floor as an additional bed. Typically, families were large and homes were small, so such roll-up beds were used to save space and to carry on travels as well.

Here are some of the early mattresses used by Japanese people – both the rich and the poor:

The Complete History & Evolution of the Futon – From Japan to America

The Mushiro Mat

In early medieval times, poor Japanese peasants used hemp mats called mushiro mats. Straw, hemp, and gramineous plants were found in abundance in the region. Hence, the material became popular in bedding and was also quite comfortable as a mattress material.

Mushiro mats came in varying thickness based on the amount of hemp or straw used. Tired farmers and peasants would lay thinner mushiro mats on the ground and cover them with slightly thicker and softer mushiros to sleep on.

To keep warm, they also used mushiro mats as comforters to cover themselves. In fact, you might find poems written about this in the Manyoshu Literature about ‘how cold it is sleeping alone while how warm it is sleeping with a partner on the Mushiro’.

The remains of straw-based mats like these have also been discovered through archeological remains from the Yayoi period.

The Complete History & Evolution of the Futon – From Japan to America

The Komo Mat

During the Kofun, Nara, and Asuka periods, a lot of Chinese influence started changing the Japanese way of life.

In the Nara Period, rich and poor people alike used mats made from straw or hay laid over wooden frames for sleeping. These straw-based komo and mushiro mats laid the foundation for the tatami mats.

The Tatami MatTatami mats were traditional Japanese mats made using netted grass or reed. People laid tatamis under their shikibutons (described below) to provide extra cushioning while also promoting airflow and breathability. Many Japanese homes today still have tatami mats covering their floors from wall to wall.

Today, the tatami mat has also undergone many cosmetic changes and facelifts. It is no longer just made from natural materials but many synthetic and man-made materials are used in making them. These include foams, rubbers, cotton, as well as the more modern down. The reason for this change is that people use tatami mats for many functions other than just supporting futons such as a walking surface, a surface for placing their ozens or Japanese food trays, and for sleeping as well.

The Complete History & Evolution of the Futon – From Japan to America

Cho-dai Canopy Bed

The Chinese brought this covered bedding to Japan during the Heian period. Rich Japanese families loved this style of sleeping and would use silky fabrics over their cho-dai to keep out mosquitoes and other creepy crawlies.

Once the tatami mats came about, the cho-dai bedding started to disappear. The cho-dai was just too uncomfortable for smaller Japanese homes, and most families would lay down the shikibuton over tatami mats to sleep upon.

The Complete History & Evolution of the Futon – From Japan to America

The Shikibuton

The word shikibuton can be directly translated as bed cushion. In early times, they were the rich man’s mattress. Rich and affluent Japanese found the tatami, komo, and mushiro mats too thin and uncomfortable. Hence, they used shikibuton mattresses made with silk and fur to be placed upon the straw bedding or wooden frames.

In poor Japanese families, every item had a role to play. The shikibuton was no different. It was constantly rolled up and stowed when not in use. Japanese brides even brought these bed rolls to their homes after marriage as part of the dowry. This was an important custom, as the bed rolls were considered among the necessary household items.

Modern shikibutons are made using a cover stuffed with cotton filling for softness. They have a thickness of about 3 to 4 inches with covers made of cotton, canvas, or linen weave, and it is zippered.

Shikibutons are eco-friendly and have a minimal carbon footprint.

The Kakebuton

The kakebuton is a Japanese comforter quite similar to duvets and comforters in the US. They come with a removable, washable cover and are usually made from silk or natural materials. The special feature of the kakebuton is that it regulates your body temperature and does not leave you feeling hot and sweaty like the regular western comforters.

The Complete History & Evolution of the Futon – From Japan to America

Futon

All the above elements gave rise to the traditional Japanese bedding set called the futon. The word futon represents a combination of many Japanese words for different bedding elements like the shikibuton or “bedding pillow” and kakebuton or “comforter”. It is also a derivation of Chinese and Japanese words for “circular pillows filled with cattail floral spikes”.

The futon thus became the quintessential and traditional bedding set from the Land of the Rising Sun.

The Complete History & Evolution of the Futon – From Japan to America

The Futon Arrives in America

The popular futon came to America in the 1970s when American soldiers posted in Japan during the war took it back to their homeland. They found that the thin futon mattresses prevented backaches by providing superior comfort and better spinal alignment.

Americans fell in love with the futon for its convenience. They could take this thin, rolled up mattress along on their camping trips and hikes, and to their hostels and dorm rooms without adding to luggage weight.

They could easily roll up the futon to stow away during the day and roll it out to use at night. It was ideal for people who often had overnight guests to serve as an extra bed.

Difference Between American and Japanese Futons

The main difference between the American futon and the Japanese one is that the former is used with frames that can be assembled/disassembled with ease. They are convertible, serving as a sofa/couch during the day and as a bed at night. The rolled-up futons of Japan are simply placed inside closets during the day and rolled out on tatami mats at night.

The Complete History & Evolution of the Futon – From Japan to America

The Futon Undergoes a Facelift

The last two decades have seen major changes in the futon’s design and style in the USA. You can find futon mattresses made with memory foam, latex, cotton, fur, polyester, cashmere, down, silk, and other materials. You can also buy futons in organic, hypoallergenic materials.

The futon has carved out a niche for itself as far as American furniture pieces go. It is no longer the humble dorm-room furniture item but is increasingly being seen in luxury apartments, hotels, spas, etc.

You can also get futons in comfortable and beautiful materials, finishes, and colors. They come in various styles, wood finishes, and hues to suit different décors.

Qualities of the Modern Futon

The humble futon is economical, versatile, multi-purposeful, functional, convenient, and space-saving. It can be used as a couch during the day or a bed to sleep upon at night.

Today, you can find futon frames in many different materials, although fir and pine are still the most popular choices. Metal frames are also common and well-liked.

You can easily assemble and disassemble a futon and its frame when you have to pack and move homes. They are great to add inside RVs and the backs of large vans. You can also put one in your office to take afternoon naps for enhanced productivity.

Key Takeaways

The rich history of the futon is interesting and also rather humble. This bedding came to the USA in the 1970s, and today, it continues to remain a popular choice for students and homeowners alike. Futons have also undergone a facelift and can be found in a wide range of colors, materials, and styles. While some people might find the futon uncomfortable to sleep on, it is actually very good for the back. The futon of today has come a long way and can be a very viable option for your home!

FAQs

Can you sleep on a futon every night?

High-quality futons are very comfortable to sleep upon night after night. Just make sure that the futon mattress offers adequate support to your back. Some futons have a lower profile which could be unsuitable for people with knee aches, pregnant women, etc.

For most people, the futon is great to sleep on and also better for the back. Sleeping on a futon keeps the spine aligned and that is why many people use this mattress as primary bedding.

Are futons bad for the back?

Compared to plush mattresses filled with memory foam etc., the humble Japanese futon is a lot stiffer. It is this feature that makes it good for the back because firmer resting surfaces (including the floor) keep the spine aligned properly. Some people might find the futon too thin compared to the plush beddings we see in most American homes.

Why do people find futons uncomfortable?

People that aren’t used to futons often find them uncomfortable due to their stiffness and thin structures. However, once you are used to it, futons can actually be very good for your back as they keep your spine properly aligned.

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