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The tatami as part of a social, cultural, architectural and environmental system has been lost in the transformation of lifestyles and in the introduction of traditionally non-Japanese practices. This becomes obvious in foreign practices and in connection with spaces of tourism. Tatami-beds of European or American design are wooden structures that hold two mats on which futons can be placed. This creates a permanent piece of furniture on top of the floor, thus defeating the original purpose of the tatami as a multifunctional floor covering, becoming objects in a room that cannot be moved with the changing rhythms of the day.

Apartments rented out on AirBnB are another example. They highlight the discrepancy between foreign perceptions of Japan and the Japanese view of foreigners’ needs and desires. Walls decorated with kimonos as wall decorations, tatamis on which Western-style beds are placed, making a multifunctional use impossible, futons rolled out next to a butsudan where the ashes of the deceived family members are kept. Or futons laid out on the wooden floor of a traditional kura, a storage building that hosted grains and family valuables. Such practices are contradictory to the traditionally integrated use and function of tatami.

The loss of traditional practices and lifestyles is also documented in much boutique architecture. A few contemporary architects have continued to include tatami spaces. Tatamis are still present in religious buildings such as Ando Tadao’s 1991 Water Temple on Awaji Island. Shigeru Ban’s Naked House from 2000 features tatamis as part of the rolling cubicles, detached from the actual floor. The client had asked Ban to design a house that was completely open, where the whole family could communicate while also maintaining some sense of personal ownership. As a result, Ban created tatami-fitted boxes open on two sides that run on wheels. Other designs by contemporary Japanese architects surprisingly don’t feature tatami spaces. The NA house by Sou Fujimoto, with its multiple levels and sitting places, uses wood floors instead of tatami.

One might wonder why Japanese still bother to live on tatamis. For one, the high density of Japanese cities may call for a preference for multifunctional spaces. A chair and a table are objects that stand around, but these are not necessary in a tatami setting, whereas sabutons can be folded away. Integrated storage spaces prevent the need to buy a cupboard. Advertisements in Tokyo and throughout Japan also seem to suggest yet another space where tatamis have endured (and are perhaps even coming back). Publicity for leisure spaces, traditional hot spring spas for example, show tatami spaces for sleeping and eating, making traditional lifestyles the counterpart to busy modern Tokyo. The persistence or return of such traditional elements is also reflected in the use of traditional Japanese clothing (yugata) worn by women and men in traditional resort towns, but also on a summer day in one of the big metropolises.

Japanese life is changing, tatamis are no longer the all-round part of daily life, they have retreated into niches, including Western style tatami beds and resorts. But a careful look at their unique multifunctional capacity as a platform for life may allow this unique tradition of multifunctional tatami living to continue. For the time being, there are still a number of tatami makers who know their trade and who can help continue this century-old tradition.

Acknowledgement: Partial funding for this project was provided through the collaboration between Kyoto Institute of Technology and the Design &History research programme of TU Delft.