Pliable and comfortable, in many regions, cotton mattresses have been used as bedding for millennia; but it was in Japan that the art of crafting a versatile, durable, cozy sleeper was perfected. Japanese beds, also known as shikifuton, have endured through centuries of technological advancements. Today, the simplistic design of a shikifuton still ranks among the most comfortable, health-promoting bed types in the world.

The Earliest Futons

The ancient Egyptian, Mesopotamian and Babylonian civilizations used cotton mattresses for beds. The Japanese found cotton mattresses especially convenient since their homes were often comprised of a couple of multi-purpose great rooms. Any given room in a traditional Japanese house could be transformed into a bedroom, dining room or work area. Made of sturdy long staple cotton, traditional Japanese beds lasted—and still do—for decades.

Parts of a Traditional Japanese Shikifuton Bed

Just as many American homes are covered in carpet, in days of yore, the floors of most Japanese houses were covered in tatami mats. Practical and durable, they could be easily cleaned and folded when not needed. When bedtime arrived, the shikifuton—or mattress—was brought out and laid atop an already present tatami mat. A kakebuton—or comforter—was used as the cover and a makura—a pillow made of buckwheat chaff—was commonly used.

The Brouwer Bed

In the 1970s, furniture designer, William Brouwer, had a flash of genius. Impressed with the portability and comfort of Japanese style beds, Brouwer set about developing a western shikifuton. Knowing that Americans and most westerners preferred to sleep off the ground, Brouwer created a wood frame for his invention. He then created a slightly thicker mattress that folded in the center.

His invention became known as the Brouwer Bed. Others saw the brilliance in Brouwer’s hybrid futon and in factories across the world, cheaper knock-offs were put into production. At first only a staple of the avante-garde, western-style futons were primarily thought of as cheap, space-savers. But a 1987 New York Times article—Where to Find It; The Futon’s Comfort is Winning Converts—heralded in the western futon boom. The lifestyle piece talked about increasing interest in Japanese bedding and outlined places in the city that sold the trendy contraptions.

The Late 90s Futon Boom

By the end of the 1990s, multiple futon shops existed in every major city. No longer only disposable dorm furniture, western style shikifutons could be found in doctor’s offices, guest bedrooms and sunrooms. There were high-end futons and super-cheap versions.

Futons are Making a 21st Century Comeback

The beginning of the 21st century was marked by mass interest in self-help, healthy living and anything—the ideal combination of events, which, once again, sparked interest in traditional shikifuton bedding. Studies were published which extolled the virtues of the traditional Japanese style bed.

They’re have been small adjustments and tweaks made to the shiki futon, but for the most part, it is one of the longest lasting cultural artefacts still in use today; one could argue that it’s divine technology—a simple design that has managed to stand the test of 5,000 years.

Where Can I Get a Shiki Futon?

We did our research to find the merchants selling the best quality shiki futons. Check out our list of recommended stores so you can order your own shiki futon and experience sleeping the Japanese way. Learn more »

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