You don’t need to be an anime buff or interested in Japanese culture in general all that much to know that the Japanese preferred place of sleep are a combination of mat, blanket and small pillow called a futon which regularly resides on the floor.
While some Japanese do in fact sleep in beds and these are also a staple of the hotels that cater to foreigners, futons are still an integral part of what it means to be Japanese in the cultural and historical sense.
Is there more to this seemingly strange way of sleeping though? Can a futon compete against the mattress you’re used to and love? You definitely won't find out unless you actually try sleeping on one and understanding the Japanese point of view might just convince you to do so!
It’s important to understand how the use of a futon ties into the Japanese way of living. Although much has changed since the days of the Japanese shogunate, or empire, some fundamental things stay the same; space throughout the island nation being at a premium is certainly one of them.
Japanese homes are generally smaller and more confined than European ones, not to mention the spacious abodes a lot of Americans are used to. In such cramped conditions, the space that is available necessarily needs to fulfil more than one function. The futon is perhaps the most prominent, but just one of the space-saving methods Japanese people use with great results every day.
When the place you sleep in occupies literally more than 20 percent of your total living area, you learn how to adapt quickly. The futon’s lack of any rigid parts makes it great for folding up and placing it where it won't get in the way. Many Japanese homes even have closets specifically built for futon storage.
Sociability is another aspect we might not be thinking of; while people in the West tend to visit with relatives for extended periods less often and mostly live in nuclear families, the Japanese are sociable both within their families and without, not minding having to put up a visiting cousin for a few nights or give a friend a place to sleep after a night out on the town. Futons come in very handy at times like these since storing a spare is much easier than having a guest bed and preparing it for company is a cinch.
Even something like the marital bed which we take for granted functions differently in Japan. A married couple have separate futons. While stuff like cuddling and spooning is out of the question, since each person is snuggly tucked into their own futon, there are advantages to such arrangements – everyone has enough personal space to rest comfortably, and since you can place two futons directly beside each other, the sense of togetherness doesn’t need to be lost. Some might call this a win-win situation; the Japanese almost certainly do.
The kids also get a blast out of using futons; they’re great for sleepovers! Using one teaches children responsibilities at an early age since a futon can’t simply be left on the floor where it only gets in the way during the day. A futon is also a much safer alternative to a bed as there’s no height from which children can fall. It can act as a cushioned and fun play area too, and parents needn’t fear that their children will break or damage the bed as there are no boards to break or springs to bend out of shape.
The Japanese have long since recognized the health benefits of sleeping so close to the floor and on a base as firm as the traditional tatami mat. There’s no better way of learning to adopt a sleeping posture that’s beneficial in relaxing muscles all throughout the body which leaves one refreshed and full of energy after sleep.
Allergy sufferers are another group futons are good for since they require more maintenance than a bed. It sounds counterintuitive at first, but as futons need to be (and can be) aired out more frequently than bed so as not to start getting moldy, the increased air circulation and exposure to sunlight help kill off bacteria and get rid of tall the mites, skin and dust particles and other nasty things lurking inside. Many Westerners who’ve tried the futon have already attested to this and wouldn’t trade back for the world.
Our natural environment, the society in which we live, and the traditions we have adopted shape our lives in unseen as well as material ways, and the futon is a fine example of the latter where Japanese society is concerned.
Don’t think that it all stops there – the word “futon” was directly adopted into the English language to denote this specific type of bedding, and, given its benefits, it wouldn’t be surprising if the bedding itself gains more widespread acceptance as more people learn about it.