A futon is a traditional style Japanese bed that is still widely used in Japanese homes today. Futons are thin mattresses placed directly on the floor – usually a soft rice straw flooring called tatami – and do not require a bed frame. In a country where space is a luxury, futons are ideal because they can be easily folded up and stored away during the day time to create more living space for the family.
The English translation of the 1876 book Transactions of the Asiatic Society of Japan became the first reference for the word futon in the English language, but it was in1885 that the American zoologist Edward Sylvester Morse described the traditional use of futon in more detail in his book Japanese homes and their surroundings. Describing his stay in a Japanese inn he writes: “In fact this work is ridiculously simple. The futons, or comforters, are rapidly folded up and stowed away, or hung over the balcony rail to air.”
Even now in the 21st century, on any given day in Japan, you can drive through the streets, past the endless rows of apartment blocks and see Japanese housewives hanging futons over the balcony rail and hitting them with a paddle to keep them clean. Futons are a part of life from day one for the Japanese. Unlike in western countries where babies often sleep in cots, Japanese babies will sleep with their parents- on a futon. Futons are a family affair and three or more may be laid out on the floor, with mom and dad on the two end futons and junior in the middle – this makes for quite a bad night’s sleep once the little one has learned to move around and get out of bed on his own free will. Western style beds have become increasingly popular in Japan, but while there exists a desperate need for more space and with the tradition of children sleeping with their parents up until around the age of six, there is nothing that beats the convenience of the futon.