Beating the futon

In Japanese, futon has three syllables: fu + to + n. It refers to a combination of two items: a thin mat – the shikibuton – and a thick quilt, or kakebuton. No foldable wooden frame is involved or implied. The only connection between the Japanese futon and American futons is that the former are also foldable. During the day, futon are stored in a closet and the sleeping room becomes a living/dining room.

You can learn a lot about a people by studying where and how they sleep. Although the futon is commonly stored out of sight, there’s nothing shameful or even especially private about it. By contrast, until fairly recently Japanese tended to regard Western-style beds as inescapably sexual in their purpose. When I was in Japan twenty years ago, we foreigners used to snigger at the proliferation of “love hotels” (labu hoteru). But they seemed to be patronized more by married couples wanting to sleep in a bed for a night than by unmarried or illicit couples. The neighbors would gossip if the husband came home too early, but if the wife slipped out to meet him in a labu hoteru, none were the wiser.

Not that a futon isn’t big enough for two – barely. But being spread directly on a tatami (rice mat) floor, it doesn’t provide any special cushioning effect for bodies engaged in vigorous exercise. Plus, the shikibuton is hard to clean, and any unsightly stains would be visible to the neighbors during its regular, back-yard airing. This involves draping the futon over a clothesline and beating the bejeezus out of it with a special stick or a plastic baseball bat. I can’t remember how often we did this – maybe only once a month during the winter – but I do recall it as a somehow deeply satisfying activity on a sunny, breezy day. The stated purpose of beating the futon was to get the lumps out, but it always felt as if it had an apotropaic aspect as well: Begone, foul phantoms of the night! And afterwards that nice, clean, outdoorsy smell permeated one’s bedding. I don’t know what people who live in dense urban areas do.

It always seemed to me that all futon were the same size – I don’t recall seeing child-sized futon, though they must exist. The way sheets were folded around and between top quilt and bottom mat gave the whole arrangement a distinctly marsupial, even womb-like ambiance. The traditional Japanese household is (or was) a female realm. The inner room where the family ate and slept is described with the same word, oku, that’s used to refer to another man’s wife, okusan. Not unlike harim in Arabic, oku in this context is a protected place where female primacy is unchallenged.

Japanese men used to come in for considerable censure if they returned home too soon after work; perhaps they still do. The explanation I always heard for this was that it would look as if they weren’t dedicated to their job if they didn’t go out drinking with their colleagues every day after work, and no doubt that perception did exist. But I think it also made them look like henpecked wimps. Japan was – and probably still is – a very macho society, where uxoriousness was regarded with contempt. The supposed business meetings after work had little to do with business and much to do with male fantasies of power and control – or relinquishing control.

Once under the influence of alcohol, a Japanese man can get away with virtually anything, including telling off his boss. The after-work drinkers thus participate in a ritual inversion of the strict rules and hierarchies that govern their workaday world. Attention-getting performances, discouraged under normal circumstances, are actually rewarded in a bar or nightclub – hence the invention of karaoke. If women are present, they tend to be the unmarried, hyper-feminine entertainers employed by the fancier nightclubs to light men’s cigarettes, pour their drinks, and listen. When I was in Japan, I knew a fellow American exchange student who worked as a nightclub entertainer despite a very limited understanding of the language. “They all say pretty much the same things, and besides, all they expect you to do is look sympathetic and say So de gozaimasu ka? [‘Is that right?’] once in a while,” she told me. I didn’t get the impression that extra-curricular activities, e.g. in a labu hoteru, were a part of her job description.

In 1985, Western-style feminist ideas hadn’t made much of an inroad yet. Few women worked beyond marriage. But they ruled the roost at home, as I’ve mentioned, exercising complete control over finances. Once the first child was born, couples stopped using intimate pronouns for each other in favor of papa and mama. This is less traumatic a transition in Japanese than it would be in English, however. Whereas for us, pronouns connote some measure of permanence and essentiality, Japanese pronouns function more as positional markers. There are multiple ways of saying “you” and “I” depending on the relative status of the speakers.

Japanese pronouns also degrade and fall out of use far more quickly than ours do. A hundred years ago, for example, ware was a commonly used first-person pronoun among social equals; now, one would only refer to oneself as ware when addressing a dog or an enemy. By contrast, over the last five hundred years English has seen just one set of pronouns – thou, thee, thy, thine – fall into disuse, and by an opposite process: what had once been a more familiar form of address gradually came to seem more and more formal, presumably because the translators of the King James Bible used it for conversations between human and deity. As science elbowed in and God came to seem increasingly remote from the day-to-day workings of a clockwork universe, the old familiar second-person pronouns acquired an air of archaic sacrality. In a somewhat analogous manner, once-cozy Japanese vernacular practices such as sleeping in a futon and nestling around a kerosene heater for warmth may come to seem stiff and old-fashioned, fit for preservation mainly as reminders of quasi-mystical Japaneseness.

I came across the results of a non-scientific poll online that suggest that up to 60 percent of Japanese under the age of thirty may sleep in a bed rather than in a futon. This is surprising because students and other young people, being poorer and more peripatetic, would be less likely to use beds than would those with stable households. In addition,

a quite large difference between the genders can be observed, with women preferring Western beds more strongly than men: Among women, as many as 67 percent responded [sic] to sleep in Western style beds, while only 51 percent of men did so. In case of male company workers, the Japanese futon is with 52 percent even more popular than the Western style bed (48%).

The Japanese futon may not be as well suited for nocturnal exercise as a Western bed, but it does have the family values-promoting advantage of being quiet. Despite Japan’s prosperity, it remains a crowded country, and I gather it’s still not uncommon for families to sleep together in the same room – as families do throughout much of the world. Only a bed requires its own room. Even many families wealthy enough to afford houses or apartments with separate bedrooms may still keep several futon for the use of guests. My first homestay family in 1985 gave me a futon and the use of the one Japanese-style room, which they no longer needed because they each had separate bedrooms, and in any case were never home much. The wife worked, and the two teenage boys were always off taking lessons of one sort or another.

I’m sure there’s a strong argument to be made for the health benefits of futon versus too-soft beds. In fact, I remember more than one older Japanese telling me they scorned the comforts of the shikibuton to sleep directly on the floor. Much better for the back, they assured me. Then again, a certain degree of pain and self-deprivation has always been regarded as salubrious in Japan. That’s why the samurai were so taken with Rinzai Zen: only a fierce Zen monk could dish out the beatings they needed. I imagine that a wooden stick brought down hard across thinly clothed shoulders makes the same kind of sound, meets the same soft-but-not-too-soft resistance as a futon hanging from the line.

In fact, isn’t that what beating the futon is really all about? Anything so closely associated with our innermost selves as the bedding we sleep in cannot fail to become almost a shadow-self. In dreams our bodies gain all sorts of intoxicating powers and terrifying vulnerabilities, and even in half-awake fantasies we may give ourselves greater license than in true daydreams. As countless nursery rhymes remind us, beds are like boats, or magic carpets. The greatest mysteries of life – birth, death and sex – transpire in or on them.

Making the bed or folding up the futon is the first and most vital step in our daily accommodation to the exigencies of a diminished world where machines and abstractions rule. That accommodation no longer seems as automatic as it once might have been, however. Many of my friends tell me they also spend a great deal of their waking time in bed, reading, writing, blogging, watching movies. It’s no wonder the hyper-modern Japanese increasingly crave beds and privacy, as they, like us, seek more permanent refuges from an ever-more-disembodied world.

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