The futon is one the oldest and most flexible sleep surfaces in the world. Originally part of Japanese culture, the futon has become a popular alternative to the traditional innerspring mattress. The Japanese have long developed ingenious ways to maximize available space and the futon is a perfect example. In America and other parts of the world, the combination of a futon mattress and frame has become a popular alternative to sofa beds and hide beds.
Americans have taken the humble futon as their own. These flexible and decorative sleep systems have become very popular for a number of reasons. College students and others with limited space have made futons a very popular commodity. Furniture designers have developed frames in several different configurations with amenities that have added to the tremendous popularity of the futon.
As an island nation, Japan has a scarcity of available land. Space has always been limited, especially now. The Japanese have always attached a priority to the efficient use of space and for good reason. Today Japan has a population of approximately one hundred and twenty seven million people, all living in an area slightly smaller than the state of California. To put things in perspective, California has a population of around thirty four million and has far more available land than Japan.
In addition to limitations on physical living space, Japan has very little arable land for the cultivation of crops. Crops like cotton need a great deal of space per plant. So materials available for the production of fabric are not very abundant and must be used in the most efficient way possible. These limitations have been overcome by the extraordinary level of cultural discipline exercised by the Japanese people. Even the manufacturing methods used by the Japanese have had a worldwide impact. Concepts like zero inventory and just in time manufacturing have been adopted by companies all over the world.
In comparison to western standards, the traditional Japanese household is quite small. Today, the average American home can be more than two thousand square feet in size. In contrast to the size of the average American home, the average Japanese home might have only one third the space. Rooms may have multiple uses, a living becomes a bedroom, becomes a dining room.
What most of us here in the West refer to as a futon is a shikibuton in Japan. Shikibuton simply means bed in Japanese and is a thin mattress that is usually no more than three or five inches thick. Cotton fiber is the traditional material used the batting or stuffing of the shikibuton. With no foam or spring material used, the batting gives the mattress a very stiff and solid feel. In addition to the traditional shikibuton, a small rug called a tatami is placed on the floor under the mattress. When it is not being used, the shikibuton would be rolled up and stored until it was needed again. This allowed the sleeping space to be used for other purposes.
As with many products introduced to Western culture, there is a natural tendency to adapt the product for Western tastes. As an alternative to the daybed and the sleeper sofa, the combination of a futon mattress and a frame provides both a place to sit and a place to sleep. Far more in the West, it is rare in Japan to find a futon mattress used with any type of bifold or trifold frame. Far more common is the use of a simple, raised wooded platform. The introduction of the futon mattress to the West has been a roaring success. What really made the futon popular in American was the introduction of a frame, sometime in the nineteen seventies. The frames served to add an element of flexibility and Western style to the simple futon mattress.
Roughly equal in size to a standard full size mattress, a standard futon mattress measures approximately seventy five by eighty inches. Like the shikibuton, the futon can be converted into a place to sit during the day and than converted back to a bed at night. American made futons mattresses have taken the Japanese version of the shikibuton a few steps further.
The use of cotton batting or stuffing, though still common, has been augmented by the addition of other types of material. Some American made futon mattresses offer the traditional cotton filling, though the addition of other materials like foam rubber is becoming more prevalent. Another uniquely western innovation is the innerspring futon mattress. Similar to a traditional innerspring mattress, the innerspring futon feels more like a regular mattress. When used as a sitting surface, the innerspring feels more like a couch.
Now many people prefer the feel of a traditional shikibuton, which is very firm. Innovations like springs and foam battings have opened up the futon market to more people. Futon frames have gone from simple metal affairs to very sturdy and attractive wood frames. When shopping for a futon, it is important to look beyond just the price. The basic rule of thumb is that not all futons and futon frames are created equal.
No metal futon frame is indestructible and most will fail if subjected to abuse.
Some retailers offer metal frames that are not built very well and making a purchase based on price alone could prove to be less than cost effective. Flimsy metal frames are prone to breakdown, leaving you no choice but to buy another. Some things to look for in a quality metal frame are solid cross bars and adequate center supports. Wood futon frames have become very popular and are available in many practical and decorative designs.
When making a buying decision, the quality of the futon mattress should not be overlooked. An inexpensive futon mattress may be very thin and will not stay comfortable for long. Look for a futon mattress that is thick and well stuffed. Above all, make sure that you give the mattress a thorough test drive before you buy.