A zabuton (Japanese cushion) is an item of furnishing for placing under the legs or bottom when sitting on the floor or tatami. A zabuton is a square shape with each side being approximately tens of centimeters long and several centimeters thick and they are similar in form to futon mattresses only smaller.
There are different names for zabuton of different sizes including chasekiban (43cmx47cm), momenban (51cmx55cm), meisenban (55cmx59cm), hattanban (59cmx63cm), donsuban (63cmx68cm), and meotoban (67cmx72cm). Furthermore, according to the Japan Industrial Standards (JIS), Momenban is designated S size, Meisenban is M size and Hattanban is L size. Among these, the most commonly used zabuton are the Meisenban (so-called 'apartment block size') and Hattanban (so-called 'old fashioned size').
The products used in everyday life in Japan are made by filling cloth bags with cushioning material such as cotton or sponge, and they do not need to have the elasticity often seen in Western cushions, as they are mainly put directly on the floor or tatami and serve to prevent the sitter from becoming cold when sitting on the floor. Cushions in the West are different not only as they must have the aforementioned elasticity but they are also used in a different way.
Zabuton are not only used for sitting, but these simple items are used in a number of ways, including folding in half to make a simple pillow, or as an alternative to a small futon for putting babies to sleep, or as protective gear for protecting the head from falling objects. In recent years, with the changes in lifestyle of Japanese people, zabuton have been made to put on chairs, and many small products created to fit the shape of chairs have come into use.
The origin of zabuton dates back to the Kamakura Period, and they became the shape we know today in the middle of the Edo Period when they became widely used among ordinary people, although prior to that they had been symbols of the power of high priests and other powerful people. As a result, they are sometimes referred to in the honorific 'go-zabuton', although in this case the term 'go-zabuton' sometimes indicates zabuton used by priests in religious rites and these are decorated and have special elasticity.
In the Kamakura Period a small square cushion called a shitone made of tatami and covered with decorative material was used; and pictures of this can be seen today in the picture cards used in the card game called Hyakunin Isshu. These subsequently evolved into round portable cushions woven from rush or straw into round spiral shapes and then in the middle of the Edo Period zabuton made from cotton stuffed into material bags were created.
Basically, zabuton have a long history originating in the items used as symbols of power. Given this background, it is a matter of etiquette in Japan that even today a guest must be given a zabuton in order to show respect. On the guest's part, it is impolite to sit on a zabuton before it is offered by the host. Until the zabuton is offered, the guest should remain standing or kneel in a semi-kneeling position on the tatami. After greetings are over and the host offers the zabuton, the guest thanks the host and then sits down.
Zabuton are used as part of the hospitality towards a guest and declining this is a lack of courtesy. However, there are situations such as in Summer or other season when it would be better not to use a zabuton, and the host may refrain from insisting on offering a zabuton after considering the will of the guest, therefore thoughtful handling is required.
The etiquette for a normal Japanese room is to place the zabuton with the seamless side up. Thesedays, zabuton often have zipped covers and it is preferable to put the zipped side facing behind the person to be seated.
The top and bottom of a zabuton can be distinguished by the seam with the top being the side with the central thread tuft protruding and the bottom being the side on which only the seam can be seen
For zabuton on which the top and bottom cannot be distinguished in this way, they are used for everyday use and it may be necessary to have on hand both zabuton for everyday use and zabuton specially for guests.
Etiquette for sitting on a zabuton includes not standing on the zabuton, and first of all kneel on the zabuton on the side away from the seat of honor and use one's knees to pivot 45 degrees in the direction of the zabuton. Move knees to the center of the zabuton, put legs together and kneel. If there is not enough space beside the zabuton, it is all right to sit on the zabuton by approaching from the front. Moving the position of the zabuton appears to criticise the preparation of the host, so it is a good idea to avoid moving a zabuton which has been originally properly placed in position. It is preferable to sit in the position the zabuton has been placed in accordance with the invititation of the host.
Regarding the positions for sitting within a room, generally the closer to the door, the lower the rank of the person and the position in the room away from the door and near a decorative feature such as an alcove called a Tokonoma is the place of honor. Usually if there is a hierachical relationship in the seating arrangements, it is common to wait until the person in the place of honor or other superiors have sat before sitting down, however this may not necessarily be the case if the person is arriving late. Indiscreetly ignoring the invitation of the host and sitting in a seat nearer the door may be interpreted as a sign that you do not appreciate the host's locale and wish to leave soon so care needs to be taken.
Standing should be done in the opposite way to sitting. It is also necessary to avoid standing on the zabuton when standing up. A zabuton is for sitting on, so let's just say that standing on one is much like standing on a chair, and this is not aesthetically pleasing.
Of course, in an informal situation this kind of consideration is not necessary however practicing everyday will help you learn naturally and so avoid making mistakes when it is really important.
When showing extraordinary appreciation or apology, sometimes a person removes a zabuton before prostrating themselves on the floor.
As mentioned in the outline, while zabuton are very simple items they are used in a variety of ways. In recent years the lifestyle of Japanese people has become westernized, and the opportunities to sit on tatami have become fewer while the use of chairs has increased however zabuton are often used to supplement the function of chairs particularly if the seat or backrest is hard or the seat is cold. Many products have an elastic band added for fixing the zabuton to a seat.
In addition, towards the end of World War II, Japan was subject to large scale air raids nationwide and one protective measure taken was to use two zabuton together make an 'air raid hood' to protect the head and neck from falling objects
These 'air raid hoods' could be soaked in water to protect the head from fire and heat and they were reintroduced in 1970's as a disaster prevention hood for protection in disasters such as earthquakes and fires. These days disaster prevention hoods with tough, fire resistant synthetic fiber are common and the colors are mainly bright orange-yellow.
A variety of zabuton
Grand sumo tournament
A zabuton used by ranking sumo wrestlers in the Grand Sumo tournament when they are waiting beside the ring. Top division wrestlers are permitted to have their own special zabuton and they have their ring names dyed on colorful material. They especially use the thicker Meotoban zabuton which are the biggest zabuton, and it is traditonal to fold them in half before sitting on them.
If a yokozuna (grand champion) loses to a lower ranked wrestler in a Grand Sumo tournament, the audience members sitting in the ringside seats throw their zabuton towards the ring to express disappointment with the yokozuna and praise the wrestler who won. Originally this only happened when rank-and-file wrestlers in sumo's highest division won against a yokozuna however recently it happens almost without exception even if the yokozuna loses to a ranking wrestler in the senior division. Moreover, conversely it fairly infrequently happens that zabuton are thrown even if the yokozuna wins. However, the practice is officially prohibited for safety reasons.
Rakugo (traditional comic storytelling)
In Rakugo, the most simple and most important piece of stage equipment is the lone zabuton sitting in the middle of the stage. The zabuton used on stage is the largest size zabuton, or Meotoban so that the rakugo storyteller can feel comfortable even when telling a story using a lot of gesturing.
Ogiri' (shoten) Pile of Zabuton
Ogiri' is the name of a popular segment on the long-running television show "Shoten" broadcast by Nihon TV, in which rakugo storytellers must give a witty reply to a question and get some laughs. The storyteller with the best reply is given not points but zabuton, and when they collect ten zabuton they receive a luxurious prize. Conversely, if a boring reply is given a zabuton may be taken away. In order to prevent the storyteller sitting on ten zabuton from falling over, the zabuton are specially made and are thin but heavy, with nearly twice the amount of cotton stuffing as well as another smaller zabuton inside. As a result, even a new zabuton weighs two kilograms. The more the zabuton is used, the more moisture it absorbs and some zabuton in use may weigh around three kilograms. The size is also a little wider than the usual Meotoban, measuring 67cmx77cm, in order to further improve the stability. On the television program 'TV Ojamanbo' broadcast by Nihon TV, a person has been shown sitting on sixteen of these zabuton.
Moreover, due to the influence of this television program, the expression 'have a zabuton!' can be heard in ordinary conversation when someone says something funny.