Friday, April 04, 2008

Floor culture

The Calico Quilter asked me a simple question. "I am curious as to why so many tasks in life are done on the floor in Japanese culture: sitting, dining, sleeping, even work like ironing." I've been giving it thought, asking people's opinions and checking out Japanese traditions, but so far I'm not real satisfied with my answer. My Japanese friends and husband found it to be a very interesting question and prompted them to lots of thought and introspection.

Why do Japanese do so many activities on the floor? The obvious answer is because that is part of the culture. But why? I came up with three possible reasons but I can find flaws in my own conclusions and I haven't found anything that really backs me up on any of this.

Number one. Japan is a very small country, well, in land scale it may be average size but because of all the mountains, the usable area is limited. This means homes and houses and rooms and space in general is limited. You've heard me moan about my small sewing area and my minuscule kitchen. But actually, I live in a house so I have a lot more space than many people who live in apartments in the big cities. Because of the limited space, one room has to serve multiple purposes so the furniture has to be taken up and moved away so that the room can be used for something else. The bedding is portable and can be put away in a special closet. In it's place, a small table can be set in the same room and used for eating or studying and cushions are used on the floor instead of chairs and sofas. No furniture so people use the floor.

Cleo holding down the bedding that has been folded and put away in the special closet

Number two reason. The flooring in Japan is traditionally made of mats, so any room that has mats in it isn't going to have a lot of furniture in it because the scraping of chair legs would ruin the mats and the legs of tables would produce dents in the cushiony surface. Also because of the mat culture, people remove their shoes before stepping into a house with mats and remove their slippers before stepping onto the mat itself. The mats are thus kept clean and undamaged and are conducive to sitting on the floor (clean and slightly cushiony). I think other cultures where people stay close to the flooring (maybe India and tropical countries) use more of a reed-like matting surface than western cultures. Just spread out a mat and plop down.

The third reason I came up with is that the Japanese people are traditionally very humble. The lower one bows their head, the more humble one appears, the lower you sit on the ground, the more obvious your position in the household, in the company, in the village. Even on Japanese TV programs, when someone has committed some horrendous faux pas they will throw themselves onto the ground with their knees tucked under them and their foreheads touching the ground and apologize profusely. It used to be that the proper Japanese wife would greet all visitors to her household by placing herself on her knees at the high step of the entryway just so that her head wouldn't be above the guest's who are standing on the lower threshold. The lower you go, the more humble you are and this probably stems from some Buddhist teaching that I don't know about.

If I get any more information about the origins of the customs I'll let you know.

My home is very western because we have wooden floors and as of last summer we no longer have a Japanese room with tatami mats. The living room has sofas and chairs and the dining room has a dining room table. Even so, we take off our shoes when we enter the house, sleep on bedding laid out on the carpet and I do activities like teaching English sitting close to the floor. My knees are slowly giving out though and so last month I bought myself a nifty little low stool so that I can sit on it close to the floor without putting my full weight (too much!) on my knees.

Diane asked about what we sleep on. Here is our bedding spread out on the floor and Patora enjoying the thick futons

Velvet keeping my low stool warm for me

And until I made my own sewing room I used to sit on the floor and control the sewing machine with my knee! Even my Japanese friends were amazed at this hidden talent. These days my knees are grateful that I'm up off the floor when I sew!


The Calico Quilter said...

Thank you so much for your answer. It makes me think about the mechanics of living in a different way. We are so used to having separate rooms for different functions; if we had to make a single room perform many ways, we would definitely use more portable furniture. And I had never thought about the limitations of using tatami on the floor. This has been very educational. I appreciate your effort in explaining this for us.

On another subject, the photo of Cleo on the pile of bedding jogged a memory. Two houses ago, I had a niche to display folded quilts. My Sasha often tried to sleep on the stack of quilts but could never jump down without making the stack tumble over!

artfilstitch said...

Thanks for all of the information that you have posted regarding floor/space. I love your country and how the people treat each other with genuine respect. We are spoiled here in this country. My best night of sleep was on a futon at the 5th level on Mt. Fuji. The air was so pure and the sunrise was spectacular. I shall never forget that trip to Japan. Hope your knees stay in good shape.

Denise (Nour) said...

Thank you for explaining about Japanese culture. Take care of those knees!

anne bebbington said...

I can't even begin to think how on earth you managed to control a sewing machine with your knee! I would have ended up with extras in it (namely fingers!)

The Calico Cat said...

Thanks for the lesson. Loved the photos of the kitties. :o) Have we seen that Irish chain in the background of you low stool photo?

DomesticShorthair said...

Very interesting. The third reason sounds the most likely. Thank you for explaining the floor culture, since I never really questioned it, I had no idea why it might be.

Marilyn R said...

Thanks for the insight into Japanese culture. I enjoyed the links you provided to some of your past posts - they were written before I found your blog. I especialy enjoyed the one about your Japanese room transformation. Thanks!

Shelina said...

Great explanations - I too think that the humility explanation is probably the takes the highest percentage of the reason. When we pray, we all sit on the floor. Indians eat on the floor (we didn't unless we wanted to.) I tell my friends that I have been taught to value humility, and they say "yes I have too" but they really don't understand.

Now I think we do as much as possible sitting as high up as possible!

Mary said...

As I try to squeeze my furniture into what I consider a small space - it actually sounds good to me to not have so many things taking up space in a room. We have a king size bed and the frame isn't small - your sleeping mats look pretty good to me right now as I worry about whether my bed will take up the entire master bedroom!

kimiyo said...

That's pretty interesting because Japanese would never think about it. It's like a question that you wonder why rabbit eats carrots. Don't you wonder why Western people use chairs all the time? I think it may come from the way Japanese think. Originally Japanese don't really care too much about privacy so we share rooms together, siblings sleep together, take bath together in family. And it is much convenient to do things together without chairs. Dealing furniture can be pretty annoying. Of course, space saving may be big reason but even farmers who usually have a lot of space had same life style from long time ago. My grandparents had pretty big house but they always had life style of sitting on the floor. If you don't have to sit on your knees, it could be pretty comfortable. I heard that tradition of sitting on knees came from prison. No wonder it's so torturing!

Shakadal said...

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