Translated by Hilary Keyes
Japanese Encyclopedia: Zabuton (Floor Cushion)
Written by ニコ
Zabuton are floor cushions that can commonly be seen in Japanese inns and hot spring resorts; they come in many sizes and with a great variety of different covers according to their use.
Zabuton are Japanese traditional cushion-like items. While it goes without saying that they are convenient, with many different designs and patterns to choose from, zabuton are also a feast for the eyes.
Differences Between Zabuton and Cushions
Although zabuton and cushions look alike, they have very different uses. While cushions are typically found on chairs and sofas and placed behind your back, zabuton are placed directly on tatami or flooring and are meant to be knelt on, to rest your feet upon or to sit on. They are not only comfortable, but zabuton are meant to prevent lose of body heat that would occur if you were to sit directly on the floor. The depth of zabuton may vary from the very thin to quite thick, but in general they are all square in shape.
Zabuton look like very small futons (Japanese floor bedding). Not only useful when seated or kneeling, zabuton are also commonly used as pillows when lying on the floor or can be used as baby beds during afternoon naps.
Where to Use Zabuton
Zabuton cushions can be found in almost any traditional room: in ryokan inns, spread out on tatami in Japanese restaurants, in cafes that have been built in remodeled old buildings and so on.
In the Nakagyō ward of Kyotoat Omo Cafe or in any of the remodelled machiya, you will have ample opportunities to enjoy relaxing on zabuton.
Zabuton are also an important part of rakugo, the Japanese traditional art of story-telling. On the stage, the story-teller sits on a zabuton and combines the story-telling with wild gestures, creating a truly unique narrative experience.
Zabuton aren't only for people however - they are also often used as seats for ornaments or statues. A popular item kept in many thriving businesses, maneki neko statues are often seated on their own zabuton. Beyond their daily usefulness, zabuton also have an important place in Japanese culture.
Points to Remember
Zabuton are typically used when seating in seiza style, when the tops of your feet rest on the floor and you sit on the soles, but you can also easily switch and sit cross-legged on them.
It is considered to be a breach of etiquette to step on a zabuton, so this should be avoided at all costs, as they are meant to be treated as furniture. It is said that stepping on a zabuton is as rude as stepping on your guest, which is certainly a terribly rude thing to do. For that reason, when seated on a zabuton you should begin in the seiza position and use your hands to move yourself (i.e. pulling or pushing against the floor) in order to change positions rather than standing and moving.
Zabuton are an excellent example of the blending of Japanese culture and modern functionality. If you should happen to see zabuton in a restaurant or hotel, then, keeping the manners you learned here in mind, please try sitting on one. You might really like it.