The Japanese Futon

The word "futon" (布団) comes from Japanese and means "bedding". The Japanese use the word "Shikibuton" (敷き布団) to describe the mattress we in the West call a "futon". Today, Japan is the only Asian country to have so widely adopted this type of bedding, and to have integrated it into a tradition of overall home design.

In traditional Japanese interiors, the floor is entirely covered with tatami (planks of rice straw and woven rush matting). Room sizes are often calculated according to the number of tatami mats with fixed dimensions. The futon is unrolled on the tatami every night at bedtime, and put away in a sliding-door cupboard called an oshiire (押し入れ) when you get up, to free up the living area. 

It's a flat mattress made of cotton fibers, 5 to 10 cm thick and covered with a cotton or synthetic fabric, or both. It is often sold in a set comprising the shikibuton, a comforter (kakebuton:掛け布団) and sometimes, a pillow (makura:枕). Pillows are traditionally filled with beans or plastic beads.

The Japanese history of the shikibuton, futon mattress

During the Nara period (710-794), falling asleep on a bed was a luxury enjoyed only by the nobility. Peasants generally slept on piles of straw, mats made from straw and rice plants, or directly on the ground. The oldest known mattresses arrived in Japan from China at this time. At the same time, tatami flooring also began to develop.

During the Heian period (794-1185), the bedding of the upper classes consisted of several tatami mats stacked on top of each other, called yaedatami (八重畳). These layers were proportional to the rank of the person in question. As for the pillow, it was a smaller piece made from the same material. According to historical references and illustrations of the time, tatami did not cover the entire wooden floor and served only as a resting surface.

Cotton has been grown in Japan since the Heian era, but in the early days its cultivation didn't give good results, so cotton was a luxury material and its cultivation was underdeveloped.

During the Sengoku period (1467-1615), demand for cotton exploded, but cultivation was not sufficiently developed to meet it. Cotton was still expensive and difficult to produce, so it was mainly used for war material, which was very much in evidence at the time. It was used for explosive fuses for bombs, and for slow-burning cords to light rifles. It was also used for flags and soldiers' clothing. Its use as a textile material for normal clothing was rather anecdotal, as was its use for shikibuton.

With the onset of the calmer Edo period (1603-1868), the demand for cotton for war diminished. As a result, the use of cotton gradually began to spread among the population. To sleep, ordinary people used futons known as senbei (煎餅布団), which contained so little cotton that they easily became hard and rigid. Hence the name senbei, a humorous homage to the Japanese rice crackers of the same name. It was to accompany these futons that, at the same time, as it was customary to sleep naked or simply covered with the same clothes worn during the day, the increasing use of cotton led to the development of padded kimonos for sleeping on senbei. These early pyjamas were called kaimaki futon (掻巻布団) and were sometimes also made from linen. Beautifully quilted and upholstered futons remained exclusively handcrafted and very luxurious. They were accessible only to the upper classes of society or to the most expensive courtesans.

Today, everyone has a cotton shikibuton, and straw mattresses are a thing of the past.

Futons arrive in North America

In the 1970s, an American furniture designer, William Brouwer, decided to adapt the futon concept brought back from Japan by soldiers. This was the birth of the Brouwer Bed, which replaced the hide-a-way bed, the only convertible bed available at the time, which was uncomfortable and difficult to handle. These beds were used in small homes where there was a lack of bedrooms, and were transformed into daytime sofas for the living area. The futon mattress offers superior comfort and better spinal alignment than the hide-a-way mattress. Placed on a podium of wooden slats so as not to sleep on the floor, and articulated in several parts so as to fold up into a sofa, the Brouwer Bed made it possible to offer a daytime divan with perfect seating. This adaptation made it possible to equip the small apartments in Brouwer's Boston neighborhood. The Brouwer Bed took its place in American society, responding to the demands of low prices, lack of space in the city and the comfort habits of Americans.

At the same time, mattresses based on cotton tablecloths made from the lower part of cotton flowers were studied, as these were much less expensive than cotton tablecloths for textiles.

Soon afterwards, designers in America and Europe were designing and producing other variants of the Brouwer 3-fold bed, as well as 2-fold systems similar to the convertibles we use today.


Today's futon in Europe

The futon was introduced in France in the late 1980s.

Cotton mattresses have come a long way since then, and authentic 100% cotton futons are now the basis for a wider range of products aimed at a more diversified clientele. Different combinations of futons (composed of cotton and intermediate layers of foam, latex or coir) have created different degrees of support and elasticity, according to individual needs. Advances in manufacturing also mean that futons can retain their natural qualities for many years to come.

Today, the purchase of a futon is no longer simply a question of budget or space limitations, but also and above all an enlightened choice for a certain type of bedding, natural and beneficial to the body. As a real alternative to mattresses, futons have found their place on a complete bed base (slatted base and tatami mats), for the most demanding customers in terms of comfort and sleep quality.


In the western world, unlike in Japan, futons are more than just mattresses - they're comfortable beds, living rooms made up of armchairs, benches and convertible sofas that have become everyday items in western homes. They combine sobriety and aesthetics with real high-end bedding qualities.

In France and many other European countries, the best bed orientation is with the head to the north. However, in Japan, the futon is not orientated with the head to the north, as this is reserved for the position of the dead during home wake ceremonies. In the East, the futon is oriented towards the east, because according to Feng Shui principles, this direction brings more energy and makes waking up easier.