If you’re looking to save space and increase the functionality of your sleeping area, then you might be considering buying a futon or a sofa bed.
But what’s the difference between a futon and a sofa bed?
The main difference between a futon and a sofa bed is that the mattress for a futon is visible both when folded up and extended into a bed, whilst the mattress for a sofa bed is not visible at all when folded up into a sofa.
The rest of this article explains in more detail the difference between a western futon, a Japanese futon, and a sofa bed – to help you decide which one is right for you.
Check out my list of the best futons to buy here to choose from western and Japanese futons, plus some variations like futon bunk beds and futon corner sofas.
Futon vs Sofa Bed – Which One is the Best?
So which one should you buy – a futon or a sofa bed?
A sofa bed is the best option if the primary function will be sitting and only occasionally used for sleeping – since the cushions will be better quality and more comfortable. A western-style futon is the best option if the primary function will be sleeping – due to the thicker mattress profile.
Futons come in either the western ‘sofa sleeper’ style with a frame or the traditional Japanese futon style where no frame is required – but which one is the best?
A traditional Japanese futon is better for minimalists, travelers, and those that want a portable and easily foldable mattress that doesn’t require a frame, whilst a western-style futon is the best option if you want a static bed that can occasionally fold up to become a sofa.
See below for a more detailed explanation of the differences between a Japanese futon, a western futon, and a sofa bed.
What is a Futon? (Japanese v Western)
There are two types of futons:
- A traditional Japanese futon.
- A western-style futon.
The differences between the two are as follows:
Japanese Futons Do NOT (Typically) Fold Up Into a Sofa
A Japanese futon (a traditional Shikibuton or Shiki Futon) is a mattress that can be put directly on the floor and slept on without a frame – a tatami mat may be placed underneath for extra support and comfort – and can NOT typically be folded up into a sofa .
There are some exceptions, however, where the Japanese futon mattress can be folded up to make a loose sofa or chair – although they will lack the upholstered feel of a regular sofa or chair.
Traditional Japanese futons are typically only 2-4 inches thick and are filled with cotton batting so that they can be rolled up, folded, and transported for easy storage – making them popular with minimalists and those who travel a lot.
Just be aware that some futon mattresses are filled with foam and are not typically considered to be true Japanese futons, and whilst the foam may offer more pressure relief and support, the more rigid filling can make it harder to fold them up.
The video below shows you what a traditional Japanese Shikibuton futon looks like and discusses some of the pros and cons:
Western Futons CAN Be Folded Up Into a Sofa
A western futon bed (a futon sofa sleeper) consists of a mattress and a frame that can be folded up to be used as a sofa or chair in the day and then extended for sleeping on at night like a regular bed.
Western-style futon mattresses are typically at least 4-6 inches in thickness, don’t contain springs, and need to be placed on top of a compatible frame.
The video below shows you what a western-style futon bed looks like in the sofa and bed positions:
The Definition of a Futon is Typically That of a Western Futon
The term ‘futon’ typically refers to the western style futon mattress that can be folded up into a sofa when shopping online in the US or UK – make sure to look for the traditional Japanese version if you’re looking for a simple floor mattress that doesn’t require a frame or the ability to fold up to become a sofa.
Western Futons Are Typically More Comfortable Than Japanese Futons
The differences between a traditional Japanese futon and a western futon are that the Japanese futon doesn’t normally fold up into a sofa, is thinner, is easier to move and store; whilst western futons normally fold into a sofa, are thicker, contain foam, and are designed more for comfort than mobility.
Japanese Futon Benefits
- Easy to fold up and store away.
- Can be rolled up and transported easily.
- Very cheap.
- Doesn’t require a frame.
- Easier to clean.
- The thinner mattress profile may increase the firmness that may benefit some front and back sleepers who experience back pain on a softer mattress.
- No box spring required.
Japanese Futon Drawbacks
- Low profile unsuitable for those with mobility problems like hip pain or pregnant women.
- Thinner profile may be uncomfortable for heavy weight sleepers and side sleepers.
- Japanese futons that don’t contain foam may increase pressure points – side sleepers may need a softer mattress.
- Sleeping closer to the floor may feel colder and put you at risk of inhaling dust that could trigger allergies.
- Japanese futons typically can’t be folded up into a sofa or seating arrangement (with some exceptions).
Who Should Buy a Japanese Futon?
Traditional Japanese futons are ideal for minimalists, travelers, and students that need a bed that’s easy to fold up, transport, and store – as long as you don’t mind sleeping on a thinner mattress.
Japanese futons should be avoided by heavier weighted side sleepers who will typically experience discomfort on their hips and shoulders due to the thinner mattress profile and consequent lack of cushioning and pressure relief.
Western Futon Benefits
- Can be folded up into a sofa or seating arrangement.
- Typically at least 6 inches thick for more pressure relief and comfort.
- Usually made from foam to provide more pressure relief for side sleepers.
- The frame can provide more floor clearance to guard against allergies caused by dust.
- A taller frame can make accessibility easier.
- More portable than a thicker, regular mattress.
- Cheaper than regular mattresses.
- Excellent for saving space.
Western Futon Drawbacks
- Requires a frame – making them more expensive than Japanese futons.
- May not be as comfortable as a thicker mattress or a thicker sofa.
Who Should Buy a Western Futon?
Western futons are ideal for those with guest rooms or those that need to save space and maximize seating functionality but can’t afford or have the means to accommodate a wall bed with a sofa – plus the thicker mattress profile and tendency to use foam makes them more comfortable for a wider range of sleeping styles (such as side sleepers).
Western futons should be avoided by those that need a highly portable mattress (like travelers) and don’t want a bed with a frame – whilst heavier weighted sleepers over 230 lbs (especially side sleepers) will likely require a thicker mattress with more pressure relief.
What is a Sofa Bed?
A sofa bed looks like a sofa when it’s folded up but can be transformed into a complete bed when the metal frame is extended.
The mattress that comes with a sofa bed is typically around 4 or 5 inches thick – which is slightly thicker than a traditional Japanese futon mattress but slightly thinner than a western-style futon mattress.
The video below shows you what a sofa bed looks like when in the sofa position and when fully extended to work as a bed:
Sofa Bed Benefits
- Looks like a sofa when folded up – no signs that it’s also a bed.
- Very stylish – match with your decor.
- May be cheaper than a regular mattress and frame.
- Increases the functionality of a room whilst saving space.
- Better quality and more comfortable cushions than a Japanese futon.
- Much more affordable than a Murphy bed.
Sofa Bed Drawbacks
- Typically more expensive than a Japanese futon.
- Heavy and cannot be moved.
- The relatively thin mattress may be unsuitable for heavier weighted sleepers over 230 lbs (especially side sleepers) due to the lack of support and pressure relief.
- Harder to clean than a Japanese futon.
Who Should Buy a Sofa Bed?
Sofa beds are ideal for those who desire a stylish looking sofa that doesn’t obviously also look like a bed – yet has the capacity to become a bed and save space whilst adding functionality to your room.
Sofa beds should be avoided by heavier weighted sleepers over 230 lbs (especially side sleepers) that require more cushioning and support since the mattresses that are contained in a sofa bed are typically relatively thin at just 4-5 inches in height.
Conclusion: Choose the Right Functionality
Choosing between a western-style futon, a Japanese futon, and a sofa bed depends on the primary function that you require as follows:
- If you are looking for a very simple and minimalist sleeping setup that can be transported easily and you don’t need any seating functionality, then a Japanese futon is the best choice.
- If you want some seating functionality but will be mostly using the furniture for sleeping, then a western-style futon is the best choice.
- If seating is going to be the primary use of the furniture and only occasionally used for sleeping, then a sofa bed is the best choice.
Alternatively: if you specifically want a bed that folds up against the wall or into a freestanding cabinet then you should consider a Murphy bed instead – click the button below to learn more.
Sources and References
 Wikipedia – Futon. Accessed 2/2/21.
Image Attribution and Licencing
Main image: ‘Spacious Living Room With Modern Decor’ by Studio Light and Shade (Getty Images Pro) used with permission under the terms of Canva’s One Design Use License Agreement.
Dan is the founder and head content creator at Bedroom Style Reviews.
He has been working as a professional online product reviewer since 2015 and was inspired to start this website when he ended up sleeping on a memory foam mattress that was too soft and gave him backache.
Through in-depth research and analysis, Dan’s goal with this website is to help others avoid such pitfalls by creating the best online resource for helping you find your ideal mattress, bedding, and bedroom furniture.
Dan is a qualified NVQ Level 2 Fitness Instructor with 6 years’ experience helping clients improve their health through diet, exercise, and proper sleep hygiene.
He also holds several college and university-level qualifications in health sciences, psychology, mathematics, art, and digital media creation – which helps him to publish well researched and informative product reviews as well as articles on sleep, health, wellbeing, and home decor.
Dan also has direct personal experience with insomnia, anxiety, misophonia (hypersensitivity to sounds), and pain from both acute and long-standing sporting injuries – he enjoys writing insightful articles around these subjects to help fellow sufferers of such conditions.
Learn more about Dan here.