Futons have been a staple for years - but the Japanese say we've got it all wrong. By Jane Drinkwater
If you said the word "futon" in a word-association game you can guarantee the following would come up - oriental, minimalist, versatile, stylish and good for the back. Fashionable since the Eighties, when nibbling sushi and buying kimono-style dressing gowns was also hip, futon shops are now part of the high street. The Futon Company (0171-978 4498 for mail order and enquiries), Britain's biggest futon manufacturer, was the first to open in 1980, and now has 20 branches across the country. Habitat (0645 334433 for nearest store), Muji (0171-323 2208 for stockists) and Futon Express (0171-833 3945) also stock them. With price tags as low as pounds 99 for a single and pounds 149 for a double, they make financial sense.

According to Dr Peter Skew, a muscular-skeletal physician, well-made futons can be a good option: "They are filled with cotton, they take away sweat quite efficiently, and because there are no springs they keep well." His main concern is that they double up as sofas. "A lot of them are too deep and you don't want a sofa longer than your thigh length because then you slouch, which is bad for the back." A good futon should give the right amount of support to the body.

"Ideally, your futon should be placed on a surface that gives a little bit, rather than the floor or wooden slats," says Skew.

This might be an area for concern. The Japanese use futons with a specific type of floor known as tatami - mats made of straw and woven sea grass - which is yielding and springy to the touch. Shinka Suga, a freelance journalist in London, says: "It is this springiness of the tatami which makes it so comfortable and it is also important in terms of the way it supports the spine. I suppose you could consider placing one directly on the carpet."

James Thompson, a 6ft 4in sports teacher whose backache disappeared during the three years he slept on a futon in Japan, bought a pounds 280 futon with a pine frame when he returned to the UK but was disappointed with it. "It was lumpy and uncomfortable and I was waking up several times during the night."

Taking a British futon back to the shop is no mean feat. While its oriental equivalent is light enough to be thrown around by Japanese housewives, futons here tend to be unwieldy and heavy. Jessica Alexander of the Sleep Council (01756 792327), a body advising on beds and sleep improvement, emphasises the need to make a good choice in the first place. "We encourage people to spend maybe five to 10 minutes trying a bed out." It is a serious purchase and difficult to take back. Once slept on, it is no longer sellable for hygiene reasons. "Futons might be natural and organic but it is always important to have correct spine alignment," advises Alexander.

The futons that Japanese have been sleeping on for centuries are hand- stitched, and made of two or three layers of soft, recycled cotton. They are light and thin and packed carefully to give an even surface. "Sleeping on a new one is like sleeping on a feather bed," says Suga, who is not too impressed by those on sale here. "They are fatter and look like gym mattresses to me. I guess that someone had the idea of making a sofa-bed to save space and gave it the name futon."

The British futon joins the list of "imported and adapted" cultural items alongside curry and tea-drinking. They are five or six layers deep, and packed with a mixture of cotton, wool, and foam. Greg Houlgate of Campus Futon (0181-932 0066) says: "In Europe there is a stigma attached to sleeping on the floor for historical reasons, so we prefer to sleep on a raised surface. As soon as you place a futon on a frame you have to give it extra layers to make it comfortable, so we pad ours with cotton, wool, coir and foam." The Futon Company also adds two layers of foam to its three- seater sofa-beds to provide "extra seating comfort, a firmer surface and extra spring".

Tokuko Hashimoto, editor of The Eikoku News Digest, is intrigued by the wooden frame. "It is totally against the principle of the Japanese futon. They are supposed to be stored away in a cupboard to make space when not being used. People who keep their futons out permanently tend to be frowned on a bit in Japan."

Futon maintenance is taken very seriously in Japan. On a sunny day in Tokyo, it is hard to find an apartment block without futons draped over its balconies. "When I first came to Britain I was wondering how people in this country keep their mattresses dry and aired," says Suga. "Japanese are obsessed about it because the cotton absorbs body sweat overnight, so as well as the airing they send them to be professionally cleaned regularly."

The Futon Company recommends regular turning and rolling because British futons are too heavy to sling over the washing line (and, of course, British weather is not conducive to this practice). Not all futon manufacturers point this out to their customers, however, and it is virtually impossible to buy Japanese futons or tatami mats in this country.

Muji imports its futon mattresses from Japan, but these are made to specific British requirements, and are sold with metal or wooden frames. Satomi Nakagawa-Mason, a Muji sales assistant, confesses: "They are completely different from Japan's, somewhere between a bed and a futon. I would much rather sleep on a proper futon."

Bell Living (0181-991 0334), an organisation trading in Japanese household objects and furniture, has a few for rental, and Campus Futon can import tatami mats (about pounds 85 each) for anyone seriously into Japanese culture.

The other problem in Britain is the floor, according to Tokuko Hashimoto: "In a British home the floor is like an extension of the ground outside, but in Japan the floor is clean and hygienic enough to lie on. All Japanese remove their footwear and put on slippers before entering a house and change to toilet slippers before entering the bathroom."

Good point. Maybe we should stick to the good old wooden slatted frame after all.