Takin’ it to the Mat

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 ‘‘ is a simplification of an earlier character, , which breaks down into ‘at top and ‘ on the bottom. While ‘appears to be rice field, ‘‘, tripled, this is in fact misleading. The rice field kanji is doing a stand-in for something else. An early seal character for ‘‘ shows this:

Thus the element ‘on top of the character is not in fact rice field tripled but is the element ‘‘ tripled. The character ‘‘ is in turn a simplified version of ‘‘, which is a pictograph of meat. Tripling the element suggests a pile of meat. Below that, we have ‘‘, which comprises ‘‘ roof/building on top and, originally, ‘‘ below. Another pile of meat since this is the element ‘‘ we just saw before, doubled. This lower element, , is therefore tall, neat pile of meat in a room.

The modern form ‘畳’ meansto 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, , 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 (). 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’, ‘‘:

In this context, the symbolic alignment of mats into the ‘‘ 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.

13 Replies to “Takin’ it to the Mat”

  1. As a westerner living in Japan, I love a tatami mat room, and definitely prefer to have one in my residence, specifically the room where I sleep. Tatami is very comfortable to walk and lie upon, and it seems to be a cooler surface during the hot weather, and a warmer one during the colder time of the year. Now the mats are available with heating elements in them, as you would find in heated wood floors. The natural like relatively soft serene surface presents interesting elements when designing furniture for such rooms, generally sparsely furnished, so what is put in the room shows off well. The color of wood can be very attractive in combination with the the neutral tatami color.

  2. It's very possible the origin of the kanji came from when the mats were only just a thin grass mat without the actual straw pad. They were generally stacked, you might sit on three or four for comfort. The use of the niku kanji could be that pelts may have been used and stacked prior to grass mats. Especially in colder seasons or climate.

  3. Dennis,

    thanks for the comment and I also find tatami a wonderful surface. Like shoji, they do not stand up well to hard use and require regular maintenance, but the feel of the rushes underfoot is hard to beat.


    good to hear from you and interesting speculation about the use of the element for meat in that kanji. I tend to think that your supposition might be erroneous however (very easy to do with complex creatures such as kanji), given that 'meat' and 'pelt' had quite separate pictographic elements. I've spent more than a little time myself holding to erroneous ideas as to the meaning or origin of elements in kanji. You're right though that before tatami there were simple thin mats which were stacked for storage and sometimes stacked for a high-status person to rest upon. In the case of the kanji, the thing I find surprising is the substitution of a more complex element (rice field) for a simpler one (meat), as usually the element substituted is simpler, not more complex. And why pick rice field, and not some other element?. I'm sure those specialists out there who look at kanji etymology in depth would have their theories – maybe I'll drop my kanji 'otaku' friend in Japan an email in the next couple of days and ask him about it.


  4. Another issue about that character and trying to associate the 'meat' elements to the piling of pelts is that the character was created in China, where it referenced piled meat, later piled items in general, and then later borrowed by the Japanese who shifted their use of the character slightly. The character was borrowed before tatami were created, so it is likely that the character's suggestion of 'piling' seemed appropriate to associate to the verb tatami and then the object, tatami.


  5. I know that there are different grades of tatami, both applying to the quality of edging around the outsides of the mat, and the manner of construction. Probably longevity is also affected by the construction. I've heard ten years as being an approximate length of use before replacement, but it would depend on the severity of use, as mentioned, and things like exposure to a lot of sun and moisture. I would imagine the more humid areas might be harder on the rushes over time. Some rooms in a home, the tatami might get very minimal use, as in a guest room, or a room reserved for gatherings or special occasions. In such cases the tatami will greatly last. I used to see a lot of tatami with cigarette burns, but much less these days.

  6. Dennis,

    some helpful observations – thanks! I have read that if tatami mats are well cared for, they can last upwards to 30 years. Caring for them involves taking them up periodically and re-laying them in different spots in a room, kind of like flipping a mattress from time to time, and knowing how to clean them without damage. An overly-powerful vacuum can cause damage, for example.


  7. Japanese handmade brooms are very cool. The ones best used on tatami are soft and supple, non damaging but are thick and pick up the dust well, and they last. It is an old craft. Generally made from the Summer Cypress plant or other natural materials, and often beautifully woven.


  8. Dennis,

    many thanks for the link. those brooms are beautiful! Of course, at a price of $135.00~$282.00,plus shipping, they aren't going to be popular with all buyers. Sounds familiar somehow…


  9. Chris,

    Perhaps that site is trying to market some authenticity beyond what is generally found at a place that would be selling similar looking brooms at a third the price. Those do seem quite pricey. There is also the theory where if something doesn't sell, try marking it up.

  10. Kim,

    thanks for your comment.Most modern Japanese houses have at least one 'washitsu', or traditional room with tatami mats. Wherever there are tatami mats, there is potential for putting the mats down in the wrong manner.

    A lot of modern houses are using non-traditional tatami mat arrangements mind you, employing lots of 1×1 mats, and seeming to disregard the 'rules'. Examples can be found at:



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