FutonsFutons have been a traditional form of bedding in Japan for centuries. During the 1980s they were "discovered" by the West and have become increasingly popular. Early Western futon beds had a well-deserved reputation for being uncomfortable and - as with much of '80s culture - were often more of a fashion statement than a sensible choice of furniture.
Things have moved on a long way since then and the best of the modern futon beds you buy today can be both convenient and comfortable as well as stylish.
What is a Futon?What we think of as a modern futon bed in the West is very different from the original usage of the term in Japan. Western futons have little in common with Eastern ones other than the mattress.
EasternThe original Japanese futons arose in part from the need to make the most of limited space. They are in essence a thin mattress - little more than a pad - that is laid on the floor for sleeping then rolled up and put away to store during the day. This allows the same space to be used both for sleeping at night and for living during the day. At night you just take your bed out of the closet and roll it out on the floor.
WesternIn the West, the term futon has come to refer to a particular style of convertible sofa-bed. They usually consist of a wood or metal frame and a thin mattress with a cover. The frame can be configured either for use as a bed at night or as a sofa (couch). You can also buy a futon chair which seats and sleeps one. The best known design, whatever the size, is probably the A frame.
It's the space-saving versatility of futons that makes them so popular as an alternative to a conventional bed, even here in the West where pressures of space are less extreme than in Japan. They're usually bought as a spare bed but some people like them so much that they use them all the time. They're also popular in situations where space is tight, for example student flats.
Another Western innovation is the futon bunk bed. This usually consists of a futon on the bottom that is used as a couch during the day and an ordinary bed above.
ShikiBecause the term futon became so associated with the 1980's futon bed in the West, suppliers and manufacturers have recently begun referring to the mattress itself by the more specific name of shiki futon. This term derives from the Japanese term shikibuton for the mattress.
A shiki futon mattress is normally thicker than that associated with the Western futon bed since it's designed to be used for floor sleeping. As such it's much more like the original Japanese sleeping format.
Recently this authentic Japanese style Shiki Futon has been gaining in popularity in the West, partly because of the ease of buying online.
ChoosingEarly Western futon mattresses tended to be thin and cheaply filled, hence their reputation as uncomfortable. Since then the market has matured with improved quality mattresses, both those sold for wooden beds and for floor sleeping shiki.
A good quality futon mattress today will still tend to be rather thin but will be filled and/or sprung as well as a conventional mattress. Many futon mattresses today are foam filled, some even contain memory foam.
As always, shop and buy for quality not just price. Make sure you know what you're getting for the money - are you buying a full set of futon with mattress and cover? Or is it simply the bare frame for sale? Do you need accessories such as matching pillows? How about spare parts? Research your purchase and read the reviews!