The most important thing to know about the Japanese futon is that it is different from what we think of as a futon in the US. It is not the space-saving sofa bed popular with college students, although it is likewise flexible. The Japanese futon is actually typically thought of as a set of items: a shikibuton (敷き布団) and a kakebuton (掛け布団); often accompanied by a tatami(畳), a makura (枕), a mofu (毛布), and occasionally a taoruketto (タオルケット). While just a few of these items are essential, they are referred to and grouped together; much like we think of our beds as being not just a mattress and box spring—but also inclusive of blankets, comforters, pillows and more. The name of this Asian bedding set is actually something of a long-running misnomer, as futon (布団) is actually a Japanese loanword—similar to words such as emoji (絵文字) or tsunami (津波). The English-speaking world has appropriated the word futon and changed its meaning slightly, so to differentiate we now have to use a qualifier; hence the term Japanese futon to denote the traditional kind.
First: What’s Tatami Flooring?
Before we discuss the parts of the Japanese futon in detail, it’s important to tackle another Japanese item: tatami flooring, which is composed of tatami mats arranged and laid out on the floor. The firm yet cushioned tatami is made of rush grass and rice straw, and was commonly found in Japanese homes for centuries. These days, Japanese homes are not automatically expected to have tatami flooring; though many maintain at least one washitsu (和室)—a traditional Japanese-style room—or have tatami mats specifically to use in between the ground and their Japanese futons. Tatami provides additional padding and protection to the Japanese futon, is similarly flexible and easy to roll up and put away, and adds authenticity to the bedding set. However, worth noting here that a tatami is completely optional, and that most Japanese futon sets available online will not have this bundled in; you will have to purchase it separately.
What Are the Parts of the Japanese Futon?
When it comes to the Japanese futon itself, the main component is the mattress: the shikibuton. Historically it was stuffed with 100% cotton, but contemporary models available today use a variety of materials; such as wool, latex, foam, and other synthetic materials. It is generally firm due to its thickness—about three to four inches, less than half the height of a typical foam or innerspring mattress—and the fact that it is laid out on the floor. It is about the same size as a tatami, at 5.9 feet long and half as wide. On top of the shikibuton is the kakebuton: a comforter or duvet of varying thickness and make. A kakebuton is a little larger in size than the shikibuton, and laid on top its edges usually spill over the side. It can be machine- or hand-quilted; and made of fabrics ranging from the most cost-efficient cotton and polyester, to more expensive options such as silk. The former tends to be heavier and more prone to dust mites, while the latter is naturally hypoallergenic and more able to regulate temperature through the seasons. Like a duvet, the kakebuton is often protected by a cover that is easily and regularly washed; these covers are usually simple compared to the kakebuton, which can still be seen through a popular “open window” design that faces outward.
Like sleeping bags or tri-fold mattresses—which, incidentally, you can place under the shikibuton for a softer feel—Japanese futons should ideally be folded up and stores in an oshiire (押入) or a deep closet during the day. This not only prevents molding and the accumulation of dirt, but also makes the area available for other activities and uses. To further preserve the quality and lengthen the lifespan of a Japanese futon, it must be aired out, preferably under direct sunlight, on a regular basis. It is also normal in Japan to see people beat their futons with a special stick made of bamboo to aid in shaking off dust and other particles.
While you can use any kind of pillow with a Japanese futon—after all, it is your bedroom setup, and you can alter it as you see fit—if you want a complete cultural experience, then a traditional makura should be part of your bedding. A makura is smaller and firmer than a typical pillow; and authentic models are packed with buckwheat hulls. However, many commercially available makura sold as part of Japanese futon sets now contain foam or other synthetic fillers. As an aside, even if you are not thinking of getting a Japanese futon, consider the makura; Buckwheat hull pillows are actually recommended for people with allergies, neck pain and tension—as they’re organic, hypoallergenic, easy to shape and provide great support—although they can be noisy if you’re not used to them. As for the mofu (毛布) and the taoruketto (タオルケット), these are simply Japanese blankets. The mofu is for cold weather and is typically made of wool, while the taoruketto is for hot weather and looks and feels like a larger beach towel.
Why Use a Japanese Futon?
Japanese futons are excellent for living areas with limited space or a minimalist theme. They are also good to keep on hand as guest beds, although some may find them uncomfortable without extra padding. To fix that problem, you can layer shikibuton on top of each other until you reach the desired feel or opt for the modern solution already mentioned above—a tri-fold mattress underneath. Occasionally you will see something of a compromise: a Japanese futon on top of a tatami or mattress placed on a low platform bed. This offers the best of both worlds for some.