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  • Gaby Doman

Tatami for the 21st Century

How One Japanese Artisan Adapted His Craft for Contemporary Living

A man sits on a floor piecing together tatami mat pieces into the shape of a dragon face

Photo credit: Kenzi Yamada Tatami

When you think of a traditional Japanese room, no doubt you think of tatami mats. These thick, woven straw mats were so commonly used that many rooms are still measured in tatami mats. Their origins are in the Muromachi Period (1338 – 1573) and in 2020, UNESCO designated tatami-making as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

Though they’re still commonly seen in houses as well as temples, ryokan and teahouses, the rise in modern apartments mean their popularity has waned. But Japanese artisan, Yamada Kenji, a fifth-generation tatami maker doesn’t think the mats have reached their full potential.

Tatami mat heptagons create a pixelated Marilyn Monroe face

Photo credit: Kenzi Yamada Tatami

His family business, Yamada Hajime Tatami-ten, a tatami shop in Hashima, Gifu Prefecture, is adding artistic flair to the traditional Japanese art. His innovative designs use tatami-like mosaic tiles, creating images and patterns with each piece – a process that can take up to five times longer than making standard rectangles. To create the illusion of tones and colour he adjusts the weave to reflect light differently. His flooring designs have included dragon heads, cars and even Marilyn Monroe’s face.

In a time when tatami sales are dwindling, Yamada Hajime Tatami-ten receives a steady supply of orders within Japan and from across the world.


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