Lately I’ve been designing some Japanese interior spaces complete with tatami and shōji. Tatami, in case you were unaware, are a type of floor mat used in Japanese traditional rooms, usually composed of rice straw with a covering of soft rush. Here’s a picture of a couple of mat men making tatami in a 19th century colorized photo (from the Smithsonian Institution’s Online Collection):
Tatami are typically rectangular, sized on a 1:2 aspect, that is, the length is two times the width, though other shapes and proportions are occasionally encountered. Tatami mats come in a few standard sizes, most typically 90cmx180cm, however many other sizes can be made.
The word ‘tatami‘ comes from the verb tatamu, written as: 畳む. The character ‘畳‘ is a simplification of an earlier character, 疊, which breaks down into ‘畾‘ at top and ‘冝‘ on the bottom. While ‘畾‘ appears to be rice field, ‘田‘, tripled, this is in fact misleading. The rice field kanji is doing a stand-in for something else. An early seal character for ‘疊‘ shows this:
Thus the element ‘畾‘ on top of the character is not in fact rice field tripled but is the element ‘夕‘ tripled. The character ‘夕‘ is in turn a simplified version of ‘肉‘, which is a pictograph of meat. Tripling the element suggests a pile of meat. Below that, we have ‘冝‘, which comprises ‘宀‘ roof/building on top and, originally, ‘多‘ below. Another pile of meat since this is the element ‘夕‘ we just saw before, doubled. This lower element, 冝, is therefore tall, neat pile of meat in a room.
The modern form ‘畳’ means “to fold and pile” things in general, and has little to do with meat or buildings. Kanji etymology can get quite convoluted but I find them most intriguing to tease out.
Since tatami mats are in a 1:2 aspect, they are readily tesselated, like dominoes. Certain room configurations, in order to be fully tiled, may require tatami with a 1:1 aspect – the half-mat.
Here are some tatami tiling patterns, starting with 3-mat rooms (upper left) to 4.5-mat rooms (upper right) then 6- and 8-mat rooms below that:
Like kanji though, things are not so simple as they first appear when it comes to arranging these 1×2 mats. Notice that there are no 4-mat rooms listed above for instance. While there are numerous possible arrangements of mats in a given space, certain arrangements are simply not done – or were not done in the past. Perhaps the grip of tradition is growing ever looser in modern Japan so these rules about tatami arrangements may not be so strictly observed these days.
You will note in the above drawings that certain drawings have slightly differing descriptions after them. Take the two examples above of 3-mat rooms:
Notice that the arrangement on the left has “祝儀敷き” written after the ‘３畳’ (3-mat), and on the right side “不祝儀敷き” is written after the 3-mat. Just one character separates them, and that might not be a big deal except for the fact that the character, 不, means un-, or not-. On the left above we have a 3-mat arrangement considered auspicious, as 祝儀, read shūgi, means ‘fortunate’, ‘celebratory’, ‘successful’, etc. On the right is an arrangement considered unfortunate, or inauspicious, fushūgi.
What governs whether something is ‘auspicious’ or ‘inauspicious’ is pretty much a matter of superstition. I would suspect virtually all cultures have them in one form or another. And in all cultures, I suspect, there are individuals who are very concerned about superstitions and those who think they are irrelevant. Some, nevertheless will follow superstitions even while not really believing in them, ‘just in case’. The 15th century text on Chinese carpentry, the Lu Ban Jing, for example, is largely concerned with superstition, both on the side of the carpenter’s practice and upon the part of the client for that carpentry.
In Japan, the number ‘4’ can be read as shi. Shi, however, is also the reading for a character meaning death (死). So, in counting, Japanese people tend to avoid saying shi and instead use the reading yon instead. This practice would be more strictly followed around a hospital. Surprisingly, this curious association of phonemes between ‘4’ and ‘death’ is also present in Korean, most dialects of Chinese, Hakka, and Vietnamese – I say ‘curious’ because these languages are not as linguistically close as one might think.
Similar to the west where tall buildings ‘lack’ a 13th floor (as far as the elevator buttons are concerned), Japanese avoidance of the number ‘4’ extends to many areas – buildings, parking lots, designations on ships and cars, room numbering, etc.. This superstition of the number 4 even gets its own name, in the English language at least: tetraphobia.
In Japan, a room to take 4 mats would be avoided generally, and having 4 mats meet at their corners, forming at their meeting a ‘+’ shape is to be avoided in any mat arrangement. Perhaps the reason being that the ‘+’ shape, when rotated, forms an ‘X’, which is the symbol for not-, don’t-. The Japanese also have a superstition about treading on the edges of the mats themselves, which is thought to bring misfortune. In the traditional martial arts of Japan, practicioners were taught to avoid stepping on the cracks formed between the mats, possibly to avoid tripping, possibly to avoid being struck by a knife shoved up from the floor below by some enemy.
Curiously enough, superstitions about cracks, spread, if you’ll pardon the word-play, far and wide. According to John A. Dowell in and article cited in Encyclopedia of Popular American Beliefs and Superstitions,
“In many European- and African-American folk belief systems, cracks in the earth, in walls or between walls and doors, or in sidewalks or floors frequently indicate fissures in metaphysical boundaries between this and some other – often nefarious – world. Employing sympathetic magic, people may interact with such boundaries. These clefts in the boundaries may be divided intro three general types: the most common, which deal with health and the family; those concerning either placating or taunting the supernatural spirit world; and those which manipulate the physical environment.“
From this belief system comes down the children’s rhyme, “Step on a crack, break your mother’s back, step on a line break your father’s spine.” It’s charming the little ditties that get passed on to the younger generation, huh?
In Japanese interior architecture, the fear of ‘4’ and the fear of cracks means that many possible tatami mat arrangements are avoided. In some cases, too, the arrangement of mats in a room might be temporarily rearranged for inauspicious occasions, such as funerals. Consider the following two possible mat arrangements for a 4.5-mat room:
The arrangement on the left is fine, while the arrangement on the right is considered no good because of the four mat corners coming together in one spot.
Here are another couple of arrangements for a 4.5-mat room:
These mat patterns look extremely similar to one another, however the arrangement on the right is considered most unfortunate. Why? Well, it turns out that in previous eras when a person was to commit ritual suicide, seppuku, in a room of 4.5 mats, the mats were arranged as seen on the right side. The mats may have been arranged in that pattern for such an occasion due to similarity in form to a Buddhist symbol we would term in the west a ‘left-facing swastika’, ‘卍‘:
In this context, the symbolic alignment of mats into the ‘卍‘ form may be taken to mean ‘the eternal afterlife’. In Japanese, the symbol ‘卍’ is taken to refer to Buddhism in general, and if you look on a Japanese map and see that symbol, it is to indicate the location of a Buddhist temple.
The Chinese brought in the symbol along with Buddhism from India, and from there is traveled to Japan. Swastika comes from the Sanskrit svastika, and is a good luck symbol. That the Nazi party in Germany adopted a right-facing swastika as their party symbol is unfortunate as it can result in some westerners misinterpreting the left-facing swastika from East Asia as having something to do with Nazism, which it does not.
The cracks between tatami are also crucial concerns when placing the mats in reference to entry doors and decorative alcoves, tokonoma. It is considered inauspicious to have either an entry/exit door or alcove aligned axially to a split between mats:
On the drawing at left, both the alcove (in black at upper right) and accompanying oshi-ire below it are adjacent to cracks in the mats. The drawing at right shows the proper way to configure the six mats.
It is also bad form to have a single entry/exit door open onto the narrow edge of one mat:
So, in designing a Japanese room, it is not a simple matter of working with a mat multiples as an organizing theme, as if were a simple dominoes problem. Configuring the room size on that factor and no other, if traditional Japanese mores and beliefs are to be taken into account, will inevitably lead to outcomes which a classically enculturated Japanese would see as inappropriate.
Thanks for coming by the Carpentry and I hope you enjoyed this look at tatami mats.