What are Tatami Mats?

Mary McMahon

Tatami mats are woven straw mats closely associated with Japanese culture, where they have been an enduring feature for centuries. The densely woven mats are traditionally used as a floor covering, and a number of traditions surround their use. The classic size of a tatami mat is three by six feet (one by two meters), although a wide assortment of shapes and sizes are available in addition to custom mats. This standard size is often used as a room measurement, much as square footage is used in many parts of the West. Thus, one may hear a room described as “four and a half mats.” Many Japanese import stores stock tatami mats, and they can also be ordered directly.

Woman with a flower
Woman with a flower

The early roots of tatami mats were probably simple rushes strewn on the floors of rooms to keep them more dry and clean. Gradually, rushes were replaced with woven mats, which evolved an inner layer of stuffing such as straw or rice bran. Tatami mats are traditionally edged in fabric such as brocade to keep the layers together. Today, the filling for tatami mats is often a synthetic material, designed to resist wear.

Initially, tatami mats were associated with the upper classes in Japan, since only they could afford to commission the large, sturdy wooden mats to cover their floors. A seat on the tatami, rather than the wooden floor, was a sign of social status. Over time, tatami mats became more affordable, until they became a part of the décor of most Japanese homes, along with other features like shoji screens.

Several traditions are associated with the layout of tatami mats in a room. Three or more corners cannot meet, and tatami mats also may not be laid out in a grid pattern. These measures are supposed to promote good health, luck, and fortune, and they are followed in most Japanese homes which still use tatami mats. The straw mats are usually found in traditionally styled rooms, although they may be blended with Western rooms and furniture.

Caring for tatami properly is important. It can mold or become damaged if not handled properly. As a general rule, tatami mats are taken out every three to six months so that they can be beaten, aired, rotated, and replaced if necessary. By tradition, shoes are not worn in Japanese homes, and this cuts down on dirt and potential damage. Tatami mats also cannot get wet, and measures should be taken to dry mats after spills.

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Discussion Comments


Some of our good friends had a foreign exchange student from Japan stay with them for a year. When we were visiting with her, she explained what Japanese tatami mats were used for.

This was the first time I had heard of them, but this was something that she missed from home. They went online and found one that was affordable.

She kept this tatami mat in her room the rest of the time she was in the country. I don't know how often she used it, but just having one in her room reminded her of home.


The hotel I stayed at when went to Japan had tatami mats and I realized soon after that this is the traditional 'carpeting' in Japan. I saw some people sitting on these mats and even sleeping on them. They put a thin mattress called a futon on the mats and sleep on it.

I actually got to sleep on one for a night and it wasn't bad at all. It was a little harder than my bed because the mattress is very thin but I did get a good night's sleep.

I think tatami mats have become very popular in Japan because the Japanese do utilize the floor much more than we do. It's totally normal in Japanese culture to just sit on the floor and eat on the floor with a bowl of food in your hand. So it probably became necessary to place something between the floor and you for cleanliness and also as protection from the cold floor.

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