Because much of ancient Japanese culture was brought from neighboring China and Korea, it is commonly thought that the tatami also came from the continent. Actually, the tatami is a unique piece of Japanese culture. Archetypal mats were brought from the continent, unique Japanese adaptations were added to them, and they evolved as floor coverings. So, when and how did the mats become floor coverings?
The oldest existing tatami
The oldest tatami that exists in Japan is the tatami of the treasure house “Tōdaiji Shōsōin” of the Nara period (about 710 to 794 A.D.). This tatami is called Goshōdatami because Emperor Shōmu (701 to 756 A.D.) used it as bedding. The Goshōdatami resembles a mat spread on a bedstead like a bed, and a few straw mats are put one on top of another and covered with linen.
If you look at the Goshōdatami, you will see that, at that period, the tatami parts such as “tatami facing,” “tatami padding,” and “tatami edge” were all present, and it is obvious that it has the same structure as current tatami. However, it seems that tatami at that time were not used as floor coverings, but as mattresses.
“Tatami” as mats
The mats that became the prototype of the tatami are very old, dating from the Jōmon period B.C. “Jōmon” means a rope pattern, as earthenware excavated from the strata of that period had rope patterns impressed into it. Therefore, in Japan, this period is called the “Jōmon period.” Some of the earthenware of that period has traces of woven mats on the bottom. From this it can be seen that there were already mats that became the prototype of the tatami
In addition, fragments of fabric made of rush etc. have been excavated from ruins belonging to the Yayoi period that followed the Jōmon period. This fabric is believed to have been woven on a loom brought from the continent.
“Tatami” as bedding
With the beginning of the Kofun period that lasted until about the 7th century A.D., a custom came into being among samurai of sleeping on mats spread on bedsteads. Kofun (old tumulus) are the tombs of high-ranking people such as the emperor and the royal family, and among the big ones there are those with a total length of 486 m (about 530 yards). At the time, there was a custom of decoraing with grave goods such as haniwa (terracotta clay figures) around old tumuli. Because haniwa were buried with the dead as subsitute for people and actually used tools, they were earthenware made from clay. Almost all haniwa are made in the form of a person or a horse, but there are haniwa in the form of a house, and there also are haniwa fitted with a bedstead. In addition, in the Zuisho-wakoku-den (The Chronicle of Wa in the Book of Sui) that described the Japanese customs of the time, mats make appearance made of “komo” (mats woven from straw) with edging attached. For these reasons, it is said that the royalty of the period spread bedsteads with mats that were to become the prototype of the tatami and used them as mattresses.
After the 8th century, the tatami increasingly evolved as a comfortable “mattress.” In the “Man’yōshū,” the collection of old Japanese poetry, too, a few names occur referring to the tatami, such as “momen-datami” (cotton tatami), “yae-datami” (eight-layer tatami), “tatami-komo” (tatami mat). “Yae-datami,” according to a book written in about 1170 A.D., measured about 95×48 inches, with seven mats put one on top of another and one straw mat put on top of them. This is almost the same construction as the “Goshōdatami” remaining in the Shōsōin, as explained in the beginning.