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7 min read

If you have ever had the opportunity to see a traditional Japanese house from the inside, you may have been struck by a detail : the absence of a chair. Or at least the absence of chairs as we know them in our country. Indeed, in Japan we don't find raised chairs on four legs nor a high table in the living room, but they often have very low tables and what we call zabutons as a chair.

What are really zabutons, the traditional Japanese cushions ?

As you can see on the picture, zabutons are cushions, usually square, between 50 and 70 centimeters in size, which are placed on the floor to sit on. They are often used in combination with a zaisu, a chair without legs to which a zabuton is added to make it more comfortable.

Zabuton Cushion


Origin of zabutons

Sitting on the floor on a cushion is not new in Japan. It is a habit that has been taken for centuries, during the Muromachi period (1336-1392), when Japanese architecture developed and began to incorporate tatami into houses. From this new architecture was born a new way of sitting on the floor called seiza, as well as cushions (zabutons) to make this position more comfortable.

How to sit on a zabuton ?

As you know, Japan is a very respectful country and there are a lot of rules to know in order to behave well. In fact, the Japanese illustrated their good manners during the 2018 soccer world cup by cleaning the stadium stands behind them. The players took the time to clean their locker room and left a note with "thank you" in Russian and origami as a symbol of peace. So the Japanese have rules for eating and expressing themselves with courtesy just like we do, but it turns out they also have rules for sitting properly.

In Japan, certain seated positions have been deemed inappropriate while others have been adopted. Among these is seiza, the sitting position we mentioned just above, which is used to sit on a zabuton.

To sit in the seiza position start by kneeling on the floor and bending your legs. Take care to rest your buttocks on your heels and turn your ankles slightly outward. Once seated, place one of your big toes on top of the other and rest your hands on your knees. You are now in the seiza position !

If you have taken the time to experiment, you will quickly realize that this position is not natural for us and that it can even be uncomfortable after a few minutes. Indeed, 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. Nevertheless, you are quite free to sit as you like on a zabuton as long as it is at home. The main thing is to feel comfortable !

seiza sit on japanese cushion

The use of zabutons in Japanese culture

In Japanese culture, zabutons are not only used to eat, read or watch TV in a house. These traditional Japanese cushions have since spread widely beyond the boundaries of the home and are used in many situations such as meditation.

Zabutons in meditation

Maybe you knew it, but Japan is a country that practices a lot of meditation because of its strong influence of the Buddhist and Shintoist religions. As a result, practitioners often use meditation cushions to make the practice more enjoyable and to make it easier to focus one's attention.

These cushions there are thus generally zabutons because they have the advantage of being comfortable and not taking up too much space. Moreover, they allow to stabilize more easily and thus to keep the back straight during the meditation practice.

japanese meditation

The zabutons in Japanese wrestling

When you are a sumo wrestler in Japan, there is one object that you particularly covet. This object is the shimenawa, a sacred rope made of twisted rice straw that only the yokozuna is allowed to wear. The yokozuna is the highest rank a sumo can reach, there have been only 72 since 1789. But what is the relationship between a yokozuna and a zabuton ?

During a fight between a yokozuna and another sumo opponent, spectators used to throw the zabuton in the ring as a chair in case the yokozuna was defeated. However, this tradition was abolished about ten years ago and zabutons are now tied together to prevent them from being thrown. This decision was taken because this practice was seen as a kind of public humiliation for the defeated yokozuna, rather than as a reward for the winning sumo wrestler.

Zabutons in Japanese comic theater

Perhaps you have already heard of rakugo, the Japanese theater that 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 has to sit on a zabuton from the beginning to the end of his story. He is often dressed in a kimono and has only a fan and a small towel called a 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.

Zabutons in prisons

There is very little information on this subject because what happens in the Japanese prison environment often remains quite far from our country. However, it would be common practice for fellow inmates of a cell to give their zabuton to the chief, probably as a token of respect or submission.

How to integrate zabutons in your interior decoration ?

After seeing what zabutons were and what their place was in Japanese culture, it is legitimate to ask how it would be possible to integrate these Japanese cushions into a decoration that is not basically intended to accommodate them. That is to say a decoration which is not necessarily adapted to the coming of these cushions and which thus does not have a coffee table as a dining table, nor even a tatami to receive the cushions on the floor.

Zabuton Home decor

Desymbolize 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 it interest. However, as we have just seen, one of the major characteristics of zabutons is their ability to be useful in many situations and situations. Indeed, it is a cushion and therefore a cushion does not happen to be a single-use object, it can be used in many places.

So it would be interesting to look further and try to widen the scope 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 has to sit with bent knees, ankles turned outwards and hands resting on the knees. Of course, we should 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 try to moderate them precisely to be able to make other cultures discover objects like zabuton.

For although it is possible to popularize a product from one culture to another if both find a common interest in it. It is nevertheless much more difficult to make a culture adopt a set of habits and rules to be followed with regard to the same object. This is the idea we are trying to get across in zabuton. This cushion could indeed find many adepts in the West, not for its primary function as a chair cushion and its codified use. But simply by simple attraction to the product to which many different and varied uses could emerge according to the needs of each one.

Some ideas to adopt zabutons at home

It is obvious that some people will already have a greater or lesser attraction to the product because they will see it as an object in total harmony with the Zen culture, which also makes it possible to delicately create a relaxing atmosphere in a room. In addition, someone who practices meditation regularly will naturally find it useful to own a zabuton, and someone who does not have a lot of space at home will not have the decorative freedom that someone with a house with space has.

However, it is certain that the zabutons, for the little space they occupy, always find their place in an apartment or a house and allow to add a small touch of personality and comfort to a living space. Adopting them at home allows you to break away from the traditional decorations with chairs, tables, furniture and shelves and give a warm and informal side to a room, whether it is a living room or a bedroom.

First of all, although we do not use coffee tables for lunch and dinner as Japanese people do, they are still quite common and present in our homes. Therefore, it is not difficult to come and place some zabutons around them that can be used as chairs, without necessarily sitting on them formally, while decorating the room and adding a little Japanese touch. But be careful to keep the floor clean so that the cushions don't become dust nests. To overcome this problem, Japanese people never bring shoes into a house, which allows to keep the floor (tatami) impeccably clean.

Other than the living room, zabutons can also find their place in a bedroom to put clothes in temporarily. But also to be used as a headrest to read in the evening or watch television, or even to make a cat sleep there, which would undoubtedly have a clever pleasure to sleep on it and leave a lot of hair on it.

In this way, zabutons no longer limit their primary use to being just a 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 of Japanese culture.

Where to buy Japanese cushions?

If you want to redecorate or redesign your living room, bedroom or children's playroom, take a look at our collection of Japanese cushions.

Japanese Cushion

The Japanese Temple offers you cushions of all sizes and shapes with various colors and patterns to match your current decoration. We also offer you a customer service at your disposal, a guaranteed satisfaction and shipping costs are offered to you.