Of course my own room is so small that I can warm the entire space by vigorously consulting a dictionary

We have officially entered the cold time of year here in Tokyo, when to wear a hat is to feel as one normally does without a hat and to not wear a hat is to feel as one who wears a hat of ice. What I'm saying is I need to buy a hat.

One of the most enduring symbols of winter in Japan is the kotatsu*, an ingenious invention comprising a table, a heater underneath it, and a blanket on top to keep the heat in. Other countries may have invented and/or adopted methods like central heating and insulation to stay warm during the cold months, but a surprising number of my Japanese acquaintances are passionately attached to the "under the kotatsu is warm, everywhere else is cold" housekeeping system.

I suppose much affection will attach to any national method of not freezing to death with such a long history -- the Muromachi Period seems to be the generally accepted kick-off of the Japanese kotatsu (inspired by certain Chinese contrivances brought back to Japan by Zen monks**), which would make it a little younger than the European chimney, and indeed it does have similar connotations to the whitey fireplace: home, family, lazing. What it lacks are the connotations of romance and bearskin rugs; lovers sharing a kotatsu is a cozy image, not a passionate one, and for structural reasons it is far more difficult to make out with someone while you warm yourselves at a kotatsu than it is to perform a similar feat at a fireplace.

Speaking from personal experience I can say that it is so very warm within the kotatsu that the chill beyond its blanketic scope seems even harsher, setting up a terrible feedback loop and giving the device a certain comfy menace. Like a wily fairy, it offers what you want, and takes in return your ability to do without it.

Obligatory language note: According to the 日本語源大辞典, the kanji used to write kotatsu (炬燵, 火燵, etc.) are all ateji. It is most likely a direct borrowing from Chinese 火榻子, pronunced kwatahusi in Japanese at the time, which makes sense if it was originally a Chinese invention brought to Japan by those notorious foreign jargon importers the Buddhists.

Since the Great Importation, kotatsu have been too cozy for their own linguistic good -- they're now used as a mocking, disparaging element in words like kotatsu-byouhou ("kotatsu [military] tactics" -- pure theory, never tested in the real world) and kotatsu-benkei (basically the same thing as an uchi-benkei: someone who is meek and submissive while out in the world, but turns into a Benkei-like tough guy at home).

* Optional Wikipedia Warning Link: scatological jabber.
** "We may be ascetic, but we're not stupid".

Popularity factor: 5


Care to speculate on how kwatafusi became kotatsu? : )

The "aroma" edit on Wikipedia was good for a unexpected chuckle; reminded me of a grade-school joke about an author named Hu Flengpu.

The IP address resolves to cpe-144-136-124-34.nsw.bigpond.net.au. The only other contribution from the same address is a similar bit of silliness (involving sex slaves?) at the High-speed rail entry.

The person who reverted that edit termed it "juvenile", so maybe grade-school is about right?

I personally recommend a hot carpet over a kotatsu...much more room for maneuvering if things get "frisky".


I recently bought a kotatsu secondhand from a Japanese friend who was moving back. My house has no central heat, just a fireplace... As it gets colder and colder here, I'm definitely beginning to appreciate the finer points of kotatsu.


"they're now used as a mocking, disparaging element in words like kotatsu-byouhou ("kotatsu [military] tactics" -- pure theory, never tested in the real world)"

So kotatsu kind of takes on the connotation that we would use "armchair" for in English (Armchair quarterback, etc)?



Don't forget the mikan. Can't have a kotatsu without a bucket of mikan.



My hypothesis for the change process goes something like this:

kwatafusi -> (magic) -> kotatsu

(Basically, that book is so unwilling to commit to any particular side that when it does come down on one I'm inclined to believe that they know what they're talking about.)

Morgan: I'm sure that kotatsu could be sold overseas, and not just to Japanophiles... they really are awfully pleasant.

Aaron: Indeed! Good point. I wonder if there's a culture somewhere that associates comfort with wisdom and power instead of worthlessness.

Daniel: Another indeed. A kotatsu without mikan is like sushi without soy sauce. Except not as tasty.

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