History of Wafuton

A wafuton has been now popular as the comfortable bedding in the foreign countries. But actually, there was a long road until wafutons became the comfortable bedding.

The Bedding during Primitive Times

People lived during primitive times (up to the third century) lived on hunting and farming. Sleep would be essential for them to relieve the day’s fatigue. The bedroom-like places have been found from the remains of the Yayoi period (from the 10th century B.C. to around the 3rd century). The bedding at that time was a mat woven from karamushi (choma (hemp)) called mushiro. It is said that a little harder matting was laid on the floor first and then a little softer mushiro was laid out on it.

The Bedding during Ancient Times

Ancient times (third century to twelfth century) can be divided into three broad parts of Kofun period in which local ruling families emerged, the Asuka and Nara periods in which the continental (Chinese) culture was introduced, and the Heian period in which the culture of court nobles flourished.

During the Nara period, a mat woven from rush or straw such as mushiro or komo, which was handed down from primitive times, was used as a shiki-buton (bottom mattress). The rich and poor alike in this period seems to have slept on the wooden bed with this mat.

But a single straw mat was too thin and helpless to get a comfort sleep, so several layers of straw mats became gradually used as the bedding, which became later tatami floor. In those times, straw mats were not used to cover the floor but were used as a portable shiki-buton to sit on or sleep on. Unlike today’s tatami floor, it was not thick but bordered with nishiki (brocade) like today’s one.

The people of high rank, who were unsatisfied with straw mats, began to use a zabuton-like cushion (shitone) covered with silk or fur and the cushion was placed on the straw mats as a shiki-buton.

On the other hand, mushiro (straw mats) or hemp fabrics were mainly used as a kake-buton (comforter) at that time. The single hemp fabric without cotton batting wouldn’t be enough to keep warm. The Manyoshu (the oldest anthology of Japanese poetry) contains several poems in this period writing about how cold sleeping alone is or how warm sleeping together with a partner is.

Partly influenced by Chinese culture, a cho-dai like a canopy bed became popular among the people of high rank during the Heian period (from the 8th century~). Silk used to cover over a cho-dai also played a role in keeping insects out in summertime or keeping cold air out in wintertime.

However, around the period when the tatami mats were laid all over a room as the floor material, the cho-dai gradually disappeared. The space-occupying cho-dai was probably unfitted for Japanese-style houses. Gradually, a shiki-buton (shitone) became laid out on the tatami mats at night and put away during the day to use the room more effectively. This style has survived until today as a part of traditional Japanese lifestyle.

A new kake-buton stuffed with cotton batting also appeared around the same period. A patchwork quilt seems to have been considered the best comforter among the people of high rank.

The Bedding During the Medieval Period

The medieval period (from the 12th century to the 16th century) can be divided into three broad parts of the Kamakura period in which dominant samurai warriors began to appear, the Muromachi period in which the original Japanese culture including the wabi-sabi idealism bloomed, and the Sengoku period (period of warring states in Japan) in which many warriors fought against each other in the quest for ruling over the whole country. With the rise of a samurai culture, times moved on from the aristocratic culture and the elegant lifestyle to the era of simplicity and frugality.

The straw mats, which had been previously used as the bedding or cushions, began to be used as floor covering material in the medieval period. This was partly because the gramineous plants began to be largely cultivated with the rise of agriculture and as a result of it, a large amount of straws became easily available.

In this period, there was a major change in the way of using a bedroom. The bedroom was originally supposed to be located in the best place of the house. Furthermore, there was the custom of putting beautiful paintings and interior decorations in the bedroom at that time. For these reasons, the bedroom was considered a perfect place to serve guests and it gradually became used as a reception room.

This place became modern-day tokonoma (alcove) in a traditional Japanese room where kakejiku (art) or ike-bana (flowers) are displayed. The tokonoma, which is the size of a tatami mat, is one step higher than other places and it is considered to be traces that the tatami mat was once used as the bedding.

Around the same period, a kaimaki futon (comforter with sleeves) began to be used. Those sleeves were not for covering the arm but were laid out on each side of the body to prevent the futon from turning outward and keep the heat in.

When it comes to a shiki-buton (bottom mattress) in this period, a thin mat was still used with the tatami mats. Nowadays, people sometimes sleep directly on the tatami mats especially when they take a short nap. So, people of those days would be satisfied about sleeping on the tatami mats.

Learning futon-related Japanese vocabulary

Neru (go to sleep)

We often hear that Japanese is difficult. This might be because there are so many words in Japanese which have similar meanings and the speaker must choose his/her words properly according to the situation or the relationship between speaker and listeners. For example, if you use the word, ’omae’ which is meaning ‘you’ for your boss, you may be fired in the worst cases, because the word is supposed to be only used for close friends. Like this, there is a little complicated rule, so it takes time to get used to choose the right words depending on different situations or different speaking partners.

There is the word, ‘neru’ meaning ‘go to sleep’ and it is synonymous with the words such as ‘yoko ni naru (lie down)’, ‘futon ni hairu (get into a bed)’ and ‘shushin (go to bed).’
There are more words that have similar meaning.

Some futon-related words become funny if they are literally translated, so let me try literal translation.

Suberi-komu (slip into)
:<literal translation>slide into a futon

Kuru-maru (wrap oneself up in)
:<literal translation>wrap oneself in a futon to become a sausage of corndog

Ne-korobu (lie down on)
:<literal translation>fall on a futon

Fuseru (face down onto the floor)
:<literal translation>The soldiers hit the dirt

Goron-suru (lie on)
:<literal translation>play the sound of something being falling down to the floor(goron)

The Bedding During the Modern Times

Modern times (from 16th century to 19th century) can be divided into the two parts of the Momoyama period in which Hideyoshi TOYOTOMI held the right to rule Japan and the Edo period in which the Tokugawa shogun family held the right to rule Japan for 260 years. These times can be said the most peaceful era in Japan, although there were fierce conflicts frequently such as the race for successor to the Shogun.

During these peaceful years, a wide variety of cultures developed. Especially, popular culture achieved significant development.

In these days, there was the hierarchy of samurai, farmers, artisans and merchants in Edo society, but anyone in all social classes could go to school. So the percentage of people who could read and write was said to have been high.

Around the same period, a number of new things were created in pursuit of greater convenience. One of them is a zabuton which is for sitting on. Originally, there was a zabuton-like cushion called shitone which was stuffed with a thin layer of floss silk in the Heian period. In modern times, the production of cotton became more and more widespread in Japan, which led to the creation of the zabuton that a thick layer of cotton batting was used for stuffing. The new invention soon became a big seller because people could sit in the seiza style with less pain with the item.

The production of cotton became even more active, which brought a change of the bedding. A large amount of cotton began to be used to make a futon and a warm thick futon became available. From this period, a futon used as a bottom mattress began to be called futon or shiki-buton like today. Since a woven cotton fabric became used as the exterior fabric of the futon, the appearance of the futon looked almost the same as modern-day futon.

In this period, a wadded futon with sleeves, which was handed down from the medieval times, was still used as a kake-buton and it became called yogi(夜着nightwear). With increased amount of cotton batting, yogi became much warmer. Although people called it a nightwear and sleeves were available, the sleeves were not used for covering the arm and they were just laid out on each side while sleeping, which this style was also handed from the medieval times.
It was after the late Edo period that the sleeves were removed from the kake-buton (yogi). This was because the futon craftsmen in Kansai area realized that it was totally absurd to keep the sleeves which were no longer functioning. Once the sleeves were removed from a futon and a square bordered futon like a modern-day futon appeared, it soon became popular.

Reference Material:
日本民俗建築学会『日本の生活環境文化大事典―受け継がれる暮らしと景観』 柏書房

Learning futon-related Japanese vocabulary


Although a futon called kaimaki or yogi appeared in ‘The Bedding During the Medieval Period’ or ‘The Bedding During the Modern Times’, most of readers probably had no idea what it was.

However, most of the Japanese people of today has been still using goods which look similar to the kaimaki futon or yogi. It is a dotera. Also called a wataire-hanten. It is a padded haori (a Japanese half-coat) with wide sleeves and worn as winter home wear. You can check the image on Google by using the word ‘dotera’ or ‘wataire.’

This yogi (the bedding), which first appeared around the Edo period or modern times, became smaller and wearable. So the dotera is like a scale-down version of the yogi. In other words, the yogi is like a scale-up version of the dotera.

In the Edo period, there was another winter clothing called nenneko, which was also the different version of the yogi. Although the dotera is supposed to be worn by one person, the nennenko is supposed to be worn by both the mother and her baby. Up to around 40 years ago, any households with babies had the nenneko.