The Tatami Maker Reshaping Traditional Japanese Flooring

Lifestyle Design

A fifth-generation tatami manufacturer is breaking with tradition to produce flooring mats in unique shapes and patterns. Driven by a belief that tatami has not reached its full potential, he is working on breathtaking designs, aiming to launch overseas in 2021.

Flooring Craftsman’s Orders Are Through the Roof

Japan is seeing a drift away from detached housing and growth in high-rise apartments. Consequently, there are now fewer dwellings with washitsu (traditional-style rooms), resulting in less demand for tatami mats, the rush straw floor-covering of the older Japanese home. Japan’s Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries reported that tatami production in the main manufacturing centers of Fukuoka and Kumamoto fell 4% from 2018 to 2019, to just 2.5 million mats. By comparison, 3.4 million mats were produced in 2013.

Despite this, Yamada Hajime Tatami-ten, a tatami shop in the city of Hashima, Gifu Prefecture, enjoys a constant stream of orders from all over Japan. Founded in 1869, the business has recently attracted attention with its unique tatami designs. Tatami are generally rectangular, but Yamada Hajime Tatami-ten produces hexagonal and curved mats, creating fantastic mosaic floor designs.

A Buddhist altar room featuring a dramatic dragon tatami montage.
A Buddhist altar room featuring a dramatic dragon tatami montage.

The man behind these creations is 36-year-old Yamada Kenji, a fifth-generation tatami manufacturer. Previously, he worked at a construction company in Tokyo, but three years ago, when he inherited the family business, he began thinking about ways to innovate the traditional tatami form. The unique creations he came up with suit both traditional washitsu and modern Western-style rooms, generating ongoing demand.

We asked Yamada how he conceived the ideas for his unmatched matting, and about the survival of the tatami industry.

Inspiration in an Unusual Request

Yamada reveals that the motivation for his unique designs came when he quit his company job in 2017. At that time, a friend commissioned him to install tatami in the back of a van—an unusual request that called for unconventionally shaped mats. This led Yamada to sense greater potential in tatami, and in 2018, he set out to pioneer even more outlandish designs.

Tatami flooring that Yamada designed for his friend’s van.
Tatami flooring that Yamada designed for his friend’s van.

According to Yamada, demand for home tatami replacement is just 30% what it was 20 years ago. “Modern flooring materials have decimated the tatami market—the industry can’t compete,” he sighs.

His customers include regular households, around 70% of his work, and businesses such as ryokan (inns) and restaurants. Yamada admits that many of them have very particular tastes.

Most tatami are rectangular. How hard is it to depart from this standard and manufacture curved edged mats? According to Yamada, he already knew the basics of tatami-making when he took over the business, and has never found it particularly challenging to produce unusual shapes—although it can take over five times as long.

Compared to the mats needed for a small, square room 4.5 rectangular tatami in size, which require one or two days’ work to craft and install, the curved tatami that Yamada produces take over two weeks. For such commissions, he starts by making paper models to fit the room. Because the equipment typically used can only make rectangular tatami, Yamada weaves his tatami from rush straw by hand.

A fish-scale pattern created with tatami.
A fish-scale pattern created with tatami.

A Varied Weave for the Illusion of Different Colors

Yamada explains that the inspiration for his innovations came while working on the tatami for his friend’s van. Originally, he thought that it was only possible to make rectangular tatami, but when he realized he could produce other shapes, he began creating designs that use rooms as a giant canvas.

Japanese tatami are said to date back to around 700 AD, and have been rectangular throughout their history. But after Yamada learned that he could make other shapes, new ideas just kept coming.

One key idea was in the area of color. Blue and black tatami have long existed, but are made from precrafted goza, or woven mats. Yamada sticks to the standard straw in most traditional tatami, but employs special techniques to create color variations using those rushes. Adjustments to the weave reflect the light differently, creating the illusion of color change.

Varying the weave direction creates the illusion of different colors, although the mats are all the same hue.
Varying the weave direction creates the illusion of different colors, although the mats are all the same hue.

Later, he struck upon the idea of designs using hexagonal tatami. Because the direction of the tatami weave results in an apparent color change when light reflects off of them, by spinning them around, Yamada can create countless designs.

Yamada plans designs that combine hexagonal tatami.
Yamada plans designs that combine hexagonal tatami.

He hopes to create a tatami mosaic of Marilyn Monroe, as well as wall-hangings.

Yamada’s design for a Marilyn Monroe tatami mosaic.
Yamada’s design for a Marilyn Monroe tatami mosaic.

New Designs to Break Into Overseas Markets

Yamada is keen to launch his products overseas, an ambition of his ever since he entered the tatami trade, and aims to do so in 2021. He created an English website in 2018, generating inquiries from outside of Japan, but soon realized he would need more designs to sustain the business over the longer term. Yamada therefore decided to lay the groundwork for his global expansion by focusing first on the potential of tatami in Japan.

Yamada has made considerable progress since then, creating angular and round tatami, as well as producing night-sky and dragon designs using the mats. When he completes his Marilyn Monroe creation in late 2020, he will have achieved his initial goals. Thereafter, he hopes to stage a live performance where the designs change in synchronization with music. His launch of his overseas business in earnest will build on this momentum.

It is inevitable that some tatami makers will not survive, says Yamada, but he believes that he has yet to realize the full potential of the mats that are his trade, which drives him to continue his creative efforts. Tatami are rarely seen outside of Japan—a challenge that excites the craftsman.

The artisan crafting his tatami.
The artisan crafting his tatami.

Yamada’s creations cost around three times as much as ordinary tatami, depending on the design. Nevertheless, he enjoys a constant influx of orders in Japan, confirming his belief in the potential of the industry. The expansion of his business overseas promises to be an exciting new chapter in his story.

(Originally published in Japanese on FNN’s Prime Online on April 14, 2020. Translated and edited by Nippon.com.)

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