The most important rooms of a «ryokan», a traditional Japanese inn, are so structured that they can be perfectly covered with a row of standardised «tatami» (rice-straw mats). So much so that it seems as if one first buys some carpets of a particular size and then proceeds to construct a house that precisely fits the size of these carpets. However, the dimensions of a wall-to-wall carpet are generally user-defined, while the dimensions of a tatami are, more often than not, random.
With a standard length (which varies a bit according to the region) of 170-191 cm and a width of 85-95 cm, the tatami is roughly the size required by a human body to sleep in – without feeling cramped. The basic element of Japanese architecture is thus effectively the human comfort zone, the minimal individual space. That brings to mind the much-discussed idea (since the Renaissance in Europe) of an architecture that is oriented towards the size of the human being.
One can see the larger meaning of this tatami-minimal space in Japanese culture as being contradictory to the widely held western notion that, in Japanese society, the needs of the collective populace are considered more important than the interests of an individual. Conversely, one can speak also of the standardisation of minimal space – and see this as a sign of how difficult the going is for all things individual in this culture. As always. In any event, the security of the individual space can well be considered a basic prerequisite for the successful organisation of a collective. That is certainly as valid for Japan as it is for our western societies. Only, do we know of any expression for this minimal space based on body-size that can compare favourably or compete with the iconic power of the tatami?
First Publication: 23-4-2013