If you've ever had the opportunity to see the interior of a traditional Japanese house, you may have been struck by one detail: the absence of a chair. Or at least the absence of chairs as we know them in the West. Indeed, in Japan we do not find chairs raised on four legs or high tables in the living room, but often very low tables and what we call zabutons as chairs.
What are zabutons, traditional Japanese cushions, really?
As you can see in the photo, zabutons are cushions, generally square, ranging in size from 50 to 70 centimeters that are placed on the ground to sit on. They are often used in tandem with a zaisu , a chair without legs to which a zabuton is added to make it more comfortable.
Origin of zabutons
Sitting on the floor on a cushion is not new in Japan. It's a habit that has been around for centuries, during the Muromachi period (1336-1392), when Japanese architecture developed and began to incorporate tatami mats into homes. From this new architecture was born a new way of sitting on the ground called seiza , as well as cushions (zabutons) to make this position more comfortable.
How to sit on a zabuton?
You are probably aware that Japan is a very respectful country and that there are many rules to know in order to behave well. The Japanese had also illustrated their good manners during the 2018 Football World Cup by cleaning the stadium stands behind them. The players took the time to clean their locker room and leave a note on which was written “thank you” in Russian as well as origami as a symbol of peace. So the Japanese have rules for eating and speaking courteously just like we do, but it turns out they also have rules for sitting properly.
In Japan certain sitting positions have been deemed inappropriate while others have been adopted. Among these, seiza, the sitting position that we mentioned just above and which is used to sit on a zabuton.
To sit in the seiza position, start by kneeling on the floor with your legs bent. Take care to rest your buttocks on your heels and turn your ankles slightly outwards. Once seated, place one of your big toes on top of the other and rest your hands on your knees. You are now in seiza position!
If you have taken the time to experiment, you will quickly notice that this position is not natural to us and that it even becomes annoying after a few minutes. In fact, before you can sit in the seiza position you will need a few hours of practice behind you and it is precisely to make this position more comfortable that zabutons exist. However, you are free to sit as you please on a zabuton as long as it is in your home. The main thing is to feel comfortable there. There are even some for the little ones like this kawaii teddy bear in the shape of a Japanese zabuton.
The use of zabutons in Japanese culture
In Japanese culture, zabutons are not only used for eating, reading or watching television in a home. These traditional Japanese cushions have since spread widely beyond the borders of the home and are used in many cases such as for meditation.
Zabutons in meditation
Perhaps you knew this, but Japan is a country that practices meditation a lot due to its strong influence of Buddhist and Shinto religions. Therefore, practitioners often use meditation cushions to make the practice more enjoyable and easier to focus attention.
These cushions are therefore generally zabutons because they have the advantage of being comfortable and not taking up too much space. In addition, they make it easier to stabilize yourself and therefore keep your back straight during meditative practice.
Zabutons in Japanese wrestling
When you are a sumo wrestler in Japan, there is one item that you particularly covet. This object is the shimenawa , a sacred rope made of twists of rice straw that only the yokozuna is authorized to wear. Yokozuna is the highest rank that a sumo can achieve, there have only been 72 since 1789. But what is the relationship between a yokozuna and a zabuton?
During a fight between the yokozuna and another sumo opponent, the spectators had the habit of throwing the zabuton into the ring which served as a chair in the event of the yokozuna's defeat. However, this tradition was abolished around ten years ago and the zabutons are now tied together to prevent them from being thrown away. This decision was made because this practice was seen as a sort of public humiliation for the defeated yokozuna, rather than a gratification for the winning sumo.
Zabutons in Japanese comic theater
Perhaps you have already heard of rakugo , this Japanese theater which emerged during the Edo period (1603-1868) which consists of miming and telling a funny story in the form of a monologue.
The only handicap for the speaker is that he must remain seated on a zabuton from the beginning to the end of his story. He is often dressed in a kimono and only has a fan and a small towel called tenugui to mime his story and make his audience laugh. If you are interested in rakugo, there are still yose in Tokyo today which are the places where these shows take place and where you can attend them.
Zabutons in prisons
Very little information circulates on this subject because what happens in Japanese prisons often remains quite far from our European ears (except for Mr. Ghosn). However, it would be common for fellow inmates in a cell to give their zabuton to the leader, probably as a token of respect or submission.
How to integrate zabutons into your interior decoration?
After seeing what zabutons were and what their place was in Japanese culture, it is legitimate to wonder how it would be possible to integrate these Japanese cushions into a decoration which is not originally intended to accommodate them. . That is to say a decoration which is not necessarily adapted to the arrival of these cushions and which therefore does not have a coffee table as a dining table, nor even a tatami to accommodate the cushions on the floor.
Desymbolize the zabutons
It is quite unnatural to want to lose the symbolism and cultural image that zabuton has acquired over the last few centuries in Japan after having spent our time giving interest to it. However, as we have just seen, one of the major characteristics of zabutons remains their ability to be useful in many cases and in many situations. Indeed, it is a cushion and therefore a cushion is not a single-use object, it can be used in several places.
So, it would be interesting to look even further and try to broaden the range of possibilities of what could be done with these cushions. By this we mean that zabutons should no longer be confined to being conventional cushions on which one must sit with knees bent, ankles turned outwards and hands placed on the knees. We must of course not try to forget this traditional culture which embodies the rules of Japanese politeness and which is one of the main beauties of this country. But without wanting to kill these good manners, it may be appropriate to seek to moderate them in order to introduce other cultures to objects like the zabuton.
Because although it is possible to popularize a product from one culture to another if both find a common interest in it. However, it is much more difficult to get a culture to adopt a set of habits and rules to follow regarding this same object. This is the idea that we are trying to convey through zabuton. This cushion could indeed find many fans in the West, not for its primary function as a chair cushion and its codified use. But simply by simple attraction towards the product to which many diverse and varied uses could emerge according to the needs of each person.
Some ideas for adopting zabutons at home
It is obvious that some will already have a greater or lesser attraction towards the product because they will see it as an object in total agreement with Zen culture, which also allows you to delicately create a relaxing atmosphere in a room. Additionally, someone who practices meditation regularly will naturally find it useful to own a zabuton, and someone who does not have a lot of space in their home will not have the decorative freedom that someone with a house with space.
However, it is certain that zabutons, for the little space they occupy, always find their place in an apartment or a house and can add a little touch of personality and comfort to a living space. Adopting one at home allows you to break up the traditional decorations with chairs, tables, furniture and shelves and give an informal and warm side to a room, whether it is a living room or a bedroom.
Firstly, although we do not use coffee tables for lunch and dinner as the Japanese do, they are still quite widespread and present in our homes. Therefore, it is not difficult to place a few zabutons around which can be used as chairs, without necessarily sitting there formally, while decorating the room and adding a little Japanese touch. Be careful, however, to keep the floor clean to ensure that the cushions do not become dust nests. To overcome this problem, the Japanese never enter a house with shoes, which allows the floor (tatami) to be kept impeccably clean.
Other than the living room, zabutons can also find their place in a bedroom to temporarily store clothes. But also to serve as a headrest for reading in the evening or watching television, or even for sleeping on it a cat who would undoubtedly enjoy sleeping on it and leaving lots of hair there.
In this way, zabutons are no longer limited to their primary use as a simple traditional chair. But they become real cushions for everyday life that can be used in many situations, all while giving our little home a warm touch reflecting Japanese culture.