When we were thinking of buying a condominium, we visited several old danchi — apartments built by Japan’s former public housing corporation — because they were cheap and, we thought, easy to renovate. One of the units we inspected had bedroom floors made of tatami mats, and we wondered if we could replace them with real wood floors. The realtor told us that we probably couldn’t. The tatami was mandated by the condo’s management association because it acted as soundproofing. In fact, he didn’t think we’d be able to install real wood floors anywhere in the apartment, because other than tatami only a certain type of sound-proofed laminate flooring was allowed in the building.

One of our non-negotiable conditions for owning a home was real wood floors, but they tend to be rare in Japan, mainly because they are considered expensive and difficult to maintain, which isn’t necessarily true. Softer imported timber, like pine, is as inexpensive as the most conventional laminate flooring, and since Japanese people don’t wear shoes in the home softer wood isn’t as much of a problem as it would be in the West.

As far as maintaining real wood floors, it does take a little work, but the advantage is that everyday use of uncoated or lightly finished wood gives it a natural patina that obviates the need for special care, whereas the thin laminate of common flooring tends to crack and look cheap over time, even when it’s coated. Of course, you get what you pay for and the more expensive the material the better it looks and the longer it lasts.

Old wood has character, but traditionally in Japan wood floors were for public buildings. In homes, they were reserved for rōka (exterior hallways). All the other rooms had tatami, which is unique to Japan. Other Asian societies used woven fiber for floor covering — only Japan codified such technology into a kind of flooring system. Tatami mats are uniformly integrated units that fit into pre-measured floor spaces and are composed of three parts: the omote surface made of woven soft rush fiber called igusa, a doko supporting core made of rice straw and a fuchi wooden frame to hold it all together. Tatami mats, which have been in common usage for about 1,000 years, all adhere to the same size ratio — 2:1 — though depending on the region they are made, they range in length from 1.75 meters to a little more than 1.9 meters. And as anyone who has rented an apartment in Japan knows, room sizes are still described in terms of , meaning tatami mats, even if the apartment contains none. For that matter, layouts of apartments and houses are still based on standard design patterns that use 90-cm units, or about half the length of a tatami, as a base. And when you buy land in Japan you deal with tsubo — area units the size of two tatami mats, or about 3.3 sq. meters.

What’s ironic about using these measurement standards is that for years now the use of tatami has been fading. An article that appeared in the Sankei Shimbun about a year ago reported that the demand for igusa, most of which is grown in Kyushu, has declined by two-thirds over the past 20 years. Some of the slack has been taken up by imported tatami from China. In fact 80 percent of the new tatami installed in homes in 2013 was from China, but even imports are dropping.

That’s because in the late 1970s more families started getting up. Until after World War II, Japanese people invariably sat on the floor, which is why tatami was developed, but with industrialization came a desire for elevation, resulting in the purchase of tables, beds and chairs, which tend to damage tatami mats. If you look at a traditional Japanese home, there is usually no furniture at all.

More families demanded harder flooring when they looked for new homes. For a long time, there was always at least one washitsu (Japanese-style room) in a new home — usually for guests — but young families would contradict the Japaneseness of these rooms by covering the tatami with rugs or “wood carpets,” a popular hard furnishing in the ’80s and ’90s that made a washitsu look like a room with flooring. Such compromises, however, trapped moisture, generating mold and creating perfect climates for mites. It’s important to remember that traditional Japanese houses were designed for hot, humid summers, which is why there was ample space between floors and the ground and lots of sliding doors to increase air circulation. Tatami were made for this environment, but nowadays homes are built to be airtight. Tatami makers have responded by replacing some of the doko layers of straw with styrofoam, which not only retains the mat’s resilience but keeps it drier.

The tatami industry is attempting a revival by pointing out the environmental advantages of woven mat flooring, since no chemicals are used in their manufacture. Lately, there has been much concern in the United States about laminate flooring made in China, which uses carcinogenic formaldehyde as a bonding material. Tatami is a natural product that, if cared for properly, can last years, but such care can be bothersome and expensive.

It’s recommended that you change the omote every four or five years, and the entire mat every 10 to 15 years. Prices for new omote start at about ¥2,000 per mat, while entire mats start at about ¥7,500. Other disadvantages include the fact that sunlight makes them age more quickly, turning them brown, and any liquids that are spilled on them seep deep into the doko. Some makers recommend removing tatami every six months and airing them outdoors, but few homeowners would want to embark on such a difficult and inconvenient task. In addition, tatami cannot be used with most floor-heating systems.

As the old sexist proverb goes, “Tatami and wives are best when new,” and the Japanese love affair with woven mats is based mainly on their pale green or yellow hue and fresh straw aroma; though, as one elderly tatami maker in Kyoto recently lamented to Sankei Shimbun, even this quality seems to be lost on younger people. He installed tatami in a new condominium and a little girl, passing by his truck, remarked on the scent of new straw mats. “It stinks,” she said.

How times have changed.

Philip Brasor and Masako Tsubuku blog about Japanese housing at www.catforehead.wordpress.com.

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