Chicago Shimpo
Tatami Mat Craftsmen Bring Revitalizing Skills to Anderson Japanese Gardens

• Five experienced craftsmen were invited from Japan May 23-28 to replace the old tatami mats in the structures of Rockford’s Anderson Japanese Gardens, educating visitors about the traditional Japanese floor matting while demonstrating the craft.

• A tatami mat, consisting of rush grass (“igusa”) woven surface, has been used in Japan for centuries as a flooring material. The Anderson Garden’s Guest House and Tea House, both built in the traditional Japanese style, have tatami floors. Fifty of those tatami mats had been in need of replacement.

• The 35,000-dollar replacement project was initiated by the Gardens’ staff, who saw a group of tatami craftsmen from Japan work on the floors of the Japan House at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign two years ago. The same group – consisting of Yoshiaki Kagami (Kagami Tatami Co. in Yamagata), Yuichi Yoshino (Ebina Tatami in Kanagawa), Kazuyuki Oshima (Oshima Tatami Industry in Tochigi), Kazuki Onodera (Misono Tatami in Iwate) and Takuya Nakashima (Nakashima Tatami in Kagoshima) – were asked to work on the Anderson Gardens’ project.
• The Japanese Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Chicago (“JCCC”), Rockford-based TH Foods Inc. and Kimitaka Sekiguchi were among the supporters of the project.

• The five craftsmen are part of the network of tatami mat craftsmen in Japan led by Kagami, who has been nursing a sense of crisis about the future of the industry.
• Along with the change in lifestyle in Japan and the assault from cheap Chinese-made products, the number of tatami craftsmen as well as igusa growers has been in rapid decline over the recent years. The sense of urgency moved Kagami to establish a networking organization Tatamiyadojo Co., Ltd. in 2007, after sending direct emails to fellow craftsmen nationwide. The organization is now actively involved in an effort to turn around the downward trend in domestic igusa production and to revitalize the industry.
• When they work, the members of Tatamiyadojo wear a T-shirt with a logo that reads “TATAMI-TO” on it. Designed by designer Kazunari Hattori, the logo means “tatami and something,” symbolizing the group’s aspiration for a possible collaboration between tatami and any other genres in today’s culture.

• On the first day of work, masters Yoshino, Oshima and Onodera were seen working on the tatami surface in the space adjacent to the Guest House, where the five craftsmen were staying along with Jotaro Kashiwakura (a volunteer chef from Yamagata who accompanied the group to feed the hardworking craftsmen).

• As he continued to work, Yoshino explained that only 20% of tatami surface material (igusa) is now produced in Japan (the rest comes from China), and 98% of the domestic products comes from the city of Yatsushiro, Kumamoto Prefecture.
• They are using the highest-quality woven surface called Hinosarasa produced by Shingo Kojima for this project, said Yoshino, the brand that won the Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Award last year.
• Accounting for only 5% of the domestically produced tatami surface, the precious Hinosarasa brand is finely woven using thin, high-quality igusa and has a soft, silky feel.

Presentation: Tatami and Its Future

• On the first day, Kagami made a presentation about his organization’s activities and the future prospect of the industry, and Oshima demonstrated tatami making skills.

• Kagami began by explaining how uninterested tatami craftsmen used to be as to where the tatami surface came from – they simply accepted what was provided by the wholesaler.
• In 2006, Kagami experienced the actual growing of igusa plant for the first time at an igusa farm in Yatsushiro.
• Igusa is planted in a paddy similar to rice in December. Harvesting is done in July, during the pre-dawn hours when the plant retains most moisture. The harvested igusa is heat-dried for 16 hours, and then is covered with dirt to mature.
• The matured igusa then will be sorted for the length and thickness and woven into a tatami surface. A typical tatami mat uses approximately 7,000 igusa straws.
• From the planting to weaving, the entire process takes almost two years.

• The back-breaking hard work of igusa farmers opened Kagami’s eyes.
• “It’s almost like an ascetic training [of a monk]. I learned for the first time how hard work and passion on the side of the igusa growers produces high-quality products,” he said.
• Tatamiyadojo requires its members to stay with an igusa grower and experience the tatami surface production process. It’s Kagami’s belief that knowing the igusa producer enables tatami craftsmen to become a story teller to have customers buy domestically grown materials.

• Kagami’s organization also revised the existing distribution system of tatami. Its members now purchase the tatami surface directly from the producer, skipping the middlemen and wholesalers who are part of the established system. The igusa producers were asked to form a cooperative so that Kagami and fellow craftsmen can negotiate the price with them directly. This way, they successfully eliminated the cost added to the final sale price, so that the igusa producers are able to increase their profits.
• The number of Igusa growers in Japan has plummeted from 6,000 in 1989 to 399 today. The financial incentive would lead to a better hope for the survival of the igusa producers into the next generation and beyond, Kagami said.

• Igusa grass grown in Japan is known for its high density and suppleness that results in high durability as a tatami surface. Kagami hopes to appeal such uniqueness of made-in-Japan tatami products to consumers.
• Furthermore, he and his organization are seeking new applications of tatami as an optional home décor that matches our modern life.
• A chair using “igusa rolls” (rolled-up igusa mats) exhibited at the Japan House in Paris is one of such applications. In addition, they have provided new tatami mats to temples and churches (yes, churches), collaborated with an Indian architect in introducing tatami, and engaged in a joint project with a Japanese architect to develop new ways to use tatami.
• They also launched a new size of tatami mat (one quarter of the regular size) in May, added Kagami. The light and portable mat is expected to be used in a variety of ways in today’s Westernized Japanese homes – for instance, as a mat for a nap or a temporary space for tea ceremony.

One-quarter-size tatami mats enable to hold a tea ceremony in a in a wooden floor room.

New ideas of tatami mat usage are introduced in Japan.

Yuichi Yoshino (L), Kazuyuki Oshima (C), and Kazuki Onodera work for tatami restoration in the Anderson Japanese Gardens in Rockford.

Tatami mat restoration is under way in the House in the Anderson Gardens.

The certificate labels tell where the product came from
as well as the name of the producer.

Tatamiyadojo's logo on a T-shirt

Kazuyuki Oshima (R) demonstrates how to make a tatami mat as Yoshiaki Kagami (L2) and Takuya Nakashima (L4) explains about Tatami.

A scene from an igusa farmer family. It takes 2 years to complete a series of process
to weave tatami surface, final product of an igusa farmer (from Kagami's presentation)

New tatami products were displayed in Paris.

New tatami products were displayed in India.