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Futons and the futon mattress - protect your back, Japanese-style
The traditional Japanese futon mattress is a little different to that which you might find marketed in the US or Europe, where a futon is generally recommended as an occasional use sofa bed.
In traditional Japan, the futon mattress would have been used since the 17th and 18th centuries, placed directly on the floor mat (tatami), and during the daytime rolled away for storage. This allowed for multiple uses of the same space. What we think of as the futon mattress is really a shikibuton (bottom mattress) and a kakebuton (thick quilted bedcover), both thin and easily rollable for daytime storage, out of site behind a panel or screen. As well as making economical use of space, the tatami was made from natural grass fibers, which required daily airing. They were only a couple of inches thick, made from tough and durable cotton matting, densely packed and stitched.
Western futons are normally manufactured and sold with some kind of metal or wood frame, which is normally upright as a sofa but reclines to make a bed. Futon mattresses are typically thicker than the old-style Japanese ones, because they are not designed to be folded away.
They are often used in a similar context to the traditional, in places where space is at a premium – student bedrooms, starter homes, guest rooms, and so on. Many sofa beds marketed for occasional use actually provide a very poor night’s sleep, but because futons mattresses tend to be of very solid construction, and don’t deform after being sat on regularly. Some people find them uncomfortably firm, if accustomed to a Western-style soft sprung mattress, but it is said that those of traditional Eastern populations are less likely to suffer with back and other postural problems, so perhaps this is just something worth getting used to? If firmness is a problem, some US manufacturers are now making futon mattresses that, whilst still much thinner than a traditional flat mattress, do incorporate some springs and coils for added comfort. As with most things, you get what you pay for as well, in terms of durability and comfort.
Lots of futon enthusiasts indeed claim significant relief from pre-existing back pain though, and they also cite the ease with which the futon can be converted into comfortable, minimalist seating, and also the fact that the futon mattress itself is easily portable, compared to a traditional mattress – it can easily be moved to different rooms, stowed in the back of the car for sleepovers, or moved out of doors for a good airing.
Many more Westerners have fond memories of sleeping on futons, during their space-tight student days, or the stylistically minimalist 80s. Most of them will make no correlation between their little aches and pains they didn't have in those days, and the sumptuously deep and soft bedding they now enjoy... But the Japanese get a lot of things right, that easily pass our Western cultures by.