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Japan’s Tatami: Down, But not Out
By Brad Frischkorn

Japan’s rapid industrialization and embrace of Western lifestyle have spelled the gradual, decades-long decline of the traditional tatami mat. But is it due for a comeback?

Tatami makers in Kumamoto Prefecture are hopeful. Located in Japan’s southern Kyushu island chain, Kumamoto is home to over 90% of the nation’s tatami industry – and probably the most ardent supporters of the most iconic of all Japanese home fixtures.

Gozakura Jubei, headquartered in Kumamoto’s Uki City (population: 60,406), is one of them. The company has continued to pump out machine-woven tatamis while the industry has slowly collapsed.

But it is holding out for a resurrection of sorts.

“The industry is really on the ropes, but that’s nothing new,” says Yasuto Hatano, one of the company’s tatami artisans, at a Tokyo trade fair for building materials. “At the peak, over 5,000 hectares of land were devoted to growing igusa (soft rush, used to cover the mat), but we’re down to 10% of that now. It’s a sign of the times, I suppose.”

Traditionally made of a rice straw core, tatami were originally a luxury item for the nobility, and gradually seeped into common use about 300 years ago. Springy but firm, and ideal for sitting, sleeping, and general use, the traditional washitsu (Japanese-style room) is nothing without a tatami floor and its alluring, natural aroma.

But they’re also relatively costly, a hassle to care for, and simply not in line with the faster-paced, convenience-centered urban lifestyle that has evolved, particularly since the end of World War II, when Japan rebuilt itself as an industrial society. Cheaper tatami substitutes from China and Taiwan have also combined to crush the home industry.

Despite the fact that new Japanese homes still often contain one tatami room, overall demand for the mats has fallen by about two-thirds over the last 25 years or so, and the number of vendors has fallen by half.

Mr. Hatano remains hopeful that the industry will turn around, however. Or at least stop contracting.

“There are too many good things about a made-in-Japan tatami to make predicting its extinction premature. The materials are all natural, contain no chemicals, and they can last for a long time with proper care,” he says. “At some point the pendulum of opinion will start to swing the other way.”

Tatami need to be ‘flipped’ to the unused side every five years or so, and eventually need replacing in 10 to 15 years. Prices at Gozakura Jubei typically range from 5,000 yen to 15,000 yen per 180cm x 90cm mat, depending on the choice of materials and the workmanship. 

Contrary to some myths, very few craftsmen produce tatami manually these days, since the development of tatami mat weaving machine and other automated devices such as the nail gun.

 Ironically, room sizes in homes and apartments are still usually quoted in terms of tatami area, or jo. A room reserved for ceremonial tea serving is typically “4.5 jo,” or 270cm x 270cm. Land area in Japan is also measured in tsubo — a two tatami mat space, or about 3.3 square meters.

Part of the problem with the industry may be that the tatami is so distinctly Japanese, say some critics. Viable overseas markets do not exist, meaning that unlike automobiles, consumer electronics, or many kinds of agricultural products, no broad economies of scale can be realized in manufacturing them.

As a result, lowering costs is difficult. Many Japanese are averse to paying double the price for a domestically made tatami when cheaper Chinese or Taiwanese models are available.

Mr. Hatano stands by his optimism, however, citing a rise in orders at his company for various types of tatami.

“We don’t stand on tradition so much that we don’t embrace the power of the internet and its ability to help educate and inform consumers about the tatami,” he says. “Sales are improving, but a lot of the equation still comes down to cost. With in-bound tourism at an all-time high now, more foreigners can come to experience the tatami for themselves. And maybe the 2020 Tokyo Olympics will provide a good promotional forum.”

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Tatami weaving machine

“There are too many good things about a made-in-Japan tatami to make predicting its extinction premature. The materials are all natural, contain no chemicals, and they can last for a long time with proper care.” -- Yasuto Hatano

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