Quality Japanese Futons Vs. The Foam Futon Mattress

Of course traditionally (for obvious reasons) futon contained no foam.  That said, you might imagine that with the wonders of modern technology that newer products (such as a foam futon mattress) would have many advantages over traditional futons. But experience has proven otherwise.

In the welcome video of our website's Buying Guide, I refer to the futon that are found manufactured for the Western market as "Franken-Futon." Perhaps it is because I live in Japan and see how the original futon is configured and used, when I see all the various versions of Franken-Futon they seem . . . uh . . . to be a bit blunt, just plain crazy. Talk about over-kill! They remind me of that comic strip I used to run across from time to time by Joe Martin: People Unclear on the Concept.
It seems to me that they're missing the whole point of futons—or at least some of the key ones.

The foam futon mattress: Being unclear on the concept of futons

To Foam or Not to Foam

All that said, what I want to address here in this article is one of the biggest blunders of the Franken-Futon crowd: Polyurethane foam pad inserts.

In the beginning, when futon first began to make it to the shores of the USA and other Western markets, they introduced poorly made "knock-offs" manufactured in 3rd world countries. Essentially they were sold as cheap bedding that was great for small dorms and apartments because they could be folded up to (as the Japanese traditionally do) turn sleeping space into living space.

But Westerners who were accustomed to thick mattresses soon discovered these cheap, poorly-made futon became uncomfortable very fast (if they weren't to begin with). These futon were typically simply stuffed with raw cotton which quickly began to migrate in lumps. You may find it surprising that many futons are still made this way . . . with an additional component added in the attempt to remedy these uncomfortable "futons": The foam futon mattress.

The Inside Scoop of Poly  (and Even "Soy-Based") Foam

Before I moved to Japan around 6  years ago, I spent over 22 years working in the packaging industries.  In my work I've sold literally millions of dollars of foam in any number of custom configurations. As the industrial packing material foam can be a near perfect solution.   However a fairly common problem arises with foam:  It is basically a temporary product for temporary solutions. There is an "inverse ratio" with foam products. The longer you need the foam to last, the less soft and pliable the properties of the foam will be.  Polyethylene foam can be quite rugged and fairly long-lasting . . . but it definitely isn't something you'd want to sleep on directly as it is not soft.  On the flip-side, polyurethane foam—the comfy stuff you find in Western so-called "futons"—can be quite comfortable at first . . . but the nature of this foam is it breaks down fairly quickly, loses "memory" and when a load is applied continually (for example your body weight nightly), it simply goes flat.

Bottom Line: The whole concept of putting foam inside a futon is just a bad idea. The foam simply won't hold up and you end up with an uncomfortable futon in just a few months!

Off-Gassing and Other Issues with Foam

Unfortunately, becoming uncomfortable is only part of the problem with poly foam futon mattress. Go wander through a foam factory for a half-hour or so and it won't take long for you to realize there are some nasty chemicals involved in the production of foam. Of course this industry has been forced to make some changes in the chemicals they've used over the years (as the hole in our ozone continued to grow!), but that doesn't mean that this billion-dollar industry just rolled over like a puppy and became "green."  (That's what lobbyists are for, right?)  Frankly, with today's technology that isn't really possible.  But generally, if you're sticking a product in a box with a couple of custom foam end-caps to protect it while it ships, this isn't really that big of a problem.

However . . . does that mean that you're can safely spend every night sleeping on foam? Take a little time doing a Google search for the terms "off-gassing" or "out gassing" as it is also called and you will quickly began to see that poly foam as a bedding choice is not a good idea.

By the way, don't get me wrong, I'm not suggesting that a polyurethane foam pad in your bed is going to single-handedly give you allergy issues, respiratory problems or cancer, but just understand that the effects of off-gassing (out-gassing) is cumulative over time and also as it mixes with all the other chemicals off-gassing in your home and workplace assaulting your body's immune system—all day, every day, it begins to add up. If we're being inundated with these chemicals 24/7/365, why add an additional source in your bedding, especially when it is totally unnecessary!

What About Soy-Based "Natural" Foams?

Even if off-gassing isn't an issue with this foam, my original point certainly applies. If soy-based foams performed better than poly foams, the packing industry would certainly have adopted it.  Once again, adding foam to a futon is a bad idea that will soon come back to haunt you every night in the form of an uncomfortable bed.

What If a Traditional Futon Is Simply Too Firm for Me?

If you discover that you need some additional cushioning with your futon, then the solution definitely is not down the path of Franken-Futons!  Do what the Japanese do: Simply add a second futon, or some other additional cushioning under your futon.  If you must use foam, it makes much more sense to put it under your futon and not in it.  This way your futon retains all the advantages the are innate in futons:

  1. The 100% cotton cushioning "breathes" allowing the futon to remain dry which prevents nasty organisms (aka mold/mildew) from growing in your bedding.
  2. To keep your cotton filling fluffed and comfortable, you can simply hang your futon over a railing, bannister or clothesline, for half a day. Don't forget to gently beat it with a tennis or badminton racket to knock the skin flakes and dust mites out as well.

If It Ain't Broke . . . Don't Fix It!

As I said in my our Buying Guide Welcome video, with the exception of the occasional night in a hotel bed when traveling outside of Japan, I've spent virtually every night sleeping on a traditional Japanese futon.  From my personal experience, an excellent quality futon (exactly like the ones we sell at FutonBedsFromJapan.com) are not "broken" in any way so they don't need to be "fixed"—they simply need to be experienced!