Traditional Culture of Japan - Traditional crafts and culture

The reason why you should never step on the border of a tatami mat

 

Most houses in Japan have at least one traditional Japanese-style room (or “washitsu”). Virtually without exception, the floors in these rooms are covered with tatami mats, which have a surface of woven rush straw. The mats have for centuries been prized for their special fragrance and pleasant feel.

 

In Japan, even today, the size of a room is measured in terms of tatami mats. For example, if the floor of a room can be covered by eight tatami mats, it is called an “eight mat room.”

 

Naturally, the floor of a tea room is covered with tatami mats. The Way of Tea has a rule: one must not step on the border of a tatami mat. You may wonder why. Well, there is, in fact, a definite reason.

 

     

 

  The border of a tatami mat is its “face”
The standard size of a tatami mat varies in different parts of Japan. However, the standard size of tatami used for tea rooms is the one used in Kyoto, about 190 cm × 95 cm.

 

There are also some detailed rules for the way you walk on tatami, such as the size of a step. A tea room is small and it can feel crowded even if only few people enter this room. If a number of people enter this room and walk about without following any rules, it will feel chaotic. It is to avoid this situation that the Way of Tea has an established step size.

 

Tatami mats are woven so that they have parallel strips running the length of the mat, referred to as the “mesh” of the tatami. The width of this mesh is about 1.5 cm. In tea ceremony, the placement of utensils is determined on the basis of the tatami mesh.

 

In other words, the mesh of a tatami mat can be used for measuring lengths, and for positioning objects.

 

The border of a tatami mat is sometimes imprinted with a family crest. To step on an emblem that represents a family would be a serious act of disrespect towards that family's ancestors.

 

In addition, the people seated on the tatami are sometimes placed according to their status or rank, based on the pattern on the tatami border. In this sense, the border of the tatami can be regarded as its face, representing the family and the people. This is why it is said that one should not step on the border of a tatami mat.

 

  Defend yourself, and prevent wear and tear
There are some other reasons why you should not step on the border of a tatami mat. After ninjas crept into a castle, they were able to determine a person's location from changes in the feeble light passing through the cracks between the tatami mats. Then, with suitable timing, they could thrust a sword between the mats.

 

Some samurais did actually die by this method, and it is said that it was to avoid such a fate that the idea developed that one should not step on the border of a tatami mat. Tea ceremony was popular among samurai, and so this custom has been passed down to the present day.

 

In addition, the border of a tatami mat is easily damaged. If people tread on it, the mat will eventually lose shape and become slightly twisted, so that it will become difficult to accurately determine the right place to put tea ceremony utensils and the right place to stand. So, to preserve the structure of the mat as well, you should not step on the border of a tatami mat.

 

There are definite reasons why people should not step on the border of a tatami mat. This taboo cannot be dismissed as an arbitrary rule, or simply something that has always been done that way. It’s important to understand there are sound reasons behind it.


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