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The Secrets of the Tatami and Making them for 6 Generations

I had the pleasure to have a talk with Mr. Tsunekawa, a young tatami craftsman. His family has been making tatami for generations in their small, 160 years old workshop in Tokyo. A bit shy at first but soon very talkative, he explained me the qualities that make tatami different from other flooring, and what his job means to him and his community.

What’s a Tatami?

A view of a typical washitu or Japanese-style room

A tatami is a kind of traditional Japanese flooring. The tradition requires that its core, the dodai, is made from rice straw (today piled wood or cheaper materials are also common). It is covered by a mat, the goza, made of woven igusa (soft rush) straw. Most of the time, the edges of the tatami are decorated by a sort of brocade called heri.

Originally, tatami mats were only used by the samurai and the nobility, but they started being used by the common people around the 17th century. Their softness made them the perfect floor to practice martial arts, which is why you will spot them in many Japanese traditional dojos.

Nowadays, most of the houses are supposed to have at least one washitsu, (Japanese-style room) with tatami flooring. But tatami are less and less used by the young Japanese people, influenced by the Westernized home design, and who tend to prefer wood or carpet flooring. Tatami craftsmen have to make extra efforts to reach customers.

 It’s in this context that I decided to interview Mr. Tsunekawa, who is a tatami craftsman in a small, 160 years old workshop of the Yotsuya neighborhood in Tokyo. Mr. Tsunekawa is a good humored and generous person who is helping in many associations. He also donated tatami mats to the victims of the terrible flooding that happened in summer 2018 in the West of Japan.

The Unique Qualities of Tatami Flooring

The author interviewing the soft-spoken Mr. Tsunekawa in his workshop

Could you please introduce yourself to our readers?

Hello. My name is Taihei Tsunekawa from the Takaoka Tsunekawa tatami shop. Our shop has been making tatami for 160 years and I am the sixth generation of craftsmen in our family.

 What’s a tatami, for you?

 A tatami, it’s… (He makes a long pause, pondering). I think a tatami is the ideal flooring for the Japanese environment. In Japan, you have seasons that are very humid, and seasons that are very dry. Tamami flooring breathes. When it’s humid, it will make the room more comfortable because it absorbs the humidity. The opposite is true when it’s dry.

 So during winter, when the air is drier, it acts as a natural humidifier?

 Yes, it will humidify the room.

 I never knew that! But if it absorbs humidity as you say, can it grow mold?

 Well, if there is too much humidity in the room on a constant basis, the tatami will not be able to absorb all of it. It will absorb too much and will be unable to release everything it absorbed. That’s why mold may sometimes grow. In older times, you could judge if a room was comfortable enough to live in by the state of its tatami. If mold started to grow on the tatami, you knew that the room lacked ventilation. Usually, if there is mold on your tatami, you can be sure there is mold in other places in your room. In your chest of drawers for example.

Mr. Tsunekawa showing us the core of his next tatami, traditionally made with rice straw.

Do the tatamis mats have other hidden qualities?

 Well, it works like an air purifier, so you don’t need an air purifier in a Japanese-style room. Also, it is very soft, so if an elderly person or a small child falls over they won’t get hurt. It’s good to live on tatami from 1 to 100 years old (He laughs).

 Is it also good for allergies?

Yes, because, tatami also absorb toxicants and house dust. Let’s take acari for example. There has been some research on the matter, and if you compare the wooden flooring, the bedding, the closets, and the tatami flooring, the place where there is the least acari is the tatami flooring. Of course, there are also people who are allergic to tatami. But except for these people, I think tatami mats are the best.

385Different sorts of woven mats that will become the tatami surface part

What’s the difference between a good tatami and a bad tatami?

 A tatami is made of a dodai, the tatami inside base, and a goza, the woven mat on its surface. A good dodai should last for a long time, and be soft. Of course there is also the quantity of humidity it can absorb. The woven surface is usually made with between 4000 and 6000 igusa plant strings. If it has about 4000 strings, it will be thinner. If it has about 6000, it will wear out more slowly. The quality and the length of the igusa plants themselves also matter. Once the tatami is made, any quality will look beautiful at first. But in our shop, we always show the woven mat before making the tatami itself. We show the customers which mat we think of using, we tell them things like ‘This one is cheaper but with time it will become like this’. In the end, the choice is in up to our customers.

Educating the Modern Generations about Tatami

When I look at how modern Japanese housings and apartments are made, there seems to be less and less Japanese-style rooms, and the younger generation seems to prefer living on wood flooring. Has it become harder to sell tatami in Japan?

 Yes. Before, people used to change their tatami mats every 3 years. They don’t do it anymore. Now they use the same for 20 years, after which they change the surface part only. However, many people living in apartments want to have tatamis when they have small children at home. So they place thin tatamis on top of the wood flooring. Today, we have to sell tatami in many various forms, which was not the case before.

Wait, so we’re actually supposed to change the tatami flooring every 3 years?

 Yes, theoretically. It’s better for the house.

The sticker of the Tatami de Omotenashi Project proudly displayed on the workshop’s door

You’re part of the Tatami de Omotenashi Project, a group of tatami craftsmen whose objective is to promote the Japanese tatami culture. Can you explain what you do?

 To give you a concrete example, at the moment we are thinking of making the tatami for the Olympic Village for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics. Well, that’s what the people at the top of this organization are trying to do, I’m just at the bottom (He laughs). There was an event at Tokyo Big Sight called ‘Architecture+Construction Materials’ earlier this year, where we tried to get people interested in the tatami and we also taught people how to make mini tatami mats as decorative items.

Are you doing this because the Japanese people have forgotten the qualities of the tatami?

Well, today there are so many kinds of tatami, people don’t know anything about it. We show them the variety of tatami types, the many kinds of pretty tatami borders that exist.

A small glimpse at some of the tatami borders available at Mr. Tsunekawa’s workshop.

While working in your tatami shop, you are also taking part in many festivals and exhibitions, you teach people how to make objects based on tatami… this must require a lot of energy! How do you manage?

I receive most of my energy from the neighborhood. Every time I go to the convenience store at the corner over there, at least three different people will come and greet me! It really makes me happy that previous customers will just come and say hi. I get a lot of energy from these people. And during events, I want to show the best of myself because I represent this place, with a history of 160 years on my shoulders! I do it for the people who live here. But most of all, I do it because it’s fun.

Protecting the Family Legacy

What are the happiest and the most difficult aspects of this job?

Personally, I think that the simple fact that customers will give me money in exchange for my craft, and thank me on top of that, it’s really huge. It makes me really happy. The work in itself is pretty hard. It requires some strength; the workshop can be dirty or dusty. But when my customers tell me ‘You made my tatami pretty again, thank you so much!’, I’m happy. The hard part of the job is that is requires stamina. Tatami can be very heavy or dirty. That may be why there are so few women in the business. I only know two tatami craftswomen. Sometimes the customer’s house is so full of chests and wardrobes I have a hard time taking them out! Also, the senior craftsmen from the tatami guild can be really strict and scary (he laughs). Whether I serve them the dishes or not, they scold me either way* (he laughs again).

 *In Japan it is customary for younger members of the same group to put food in the plates of their senior members during gatherings.

The six generations of the Tsunekawa tatami workshop as displayed on the official website

As you said earlier, your shop has an history of 160 years. I have seen the pictures on your website and it’s impressive to see the faces of the six generations of craftsmen who worked here. What’s your family’s secret for being in the tatami business for so long?

I’m not sure. But maybe it’s because we have always taken part in the local matsuri (the Japanese traditional festivals). We are members of the local Seinenbu*. My father is also a member of many associations and groups in our neighborhood, Yotsuya Yonchome. We are really involved in volunteering for these associations, sometimes presiding over some of them, or being the treasurers. When I think about it, I had no time to rest this summer. I have spent all my Sundays taking care of the associations. Thanks to these activities, everyone knows us in the neighborhood. Some of the grandmothers here know who I am but I have no clue who they are! (He laughs).

 *Seinenbu: A kind of neighborhood association mostly composed of people between 30 and 50 years old.

You’re the sixth generation making tatamis in this shop. I guess you had no choice but to become a craftsman. When you were a child, did you want to be something else, like being an astronaut?

Well, as a child I dreamt to be a soccer player. After that I didn’t dream about anything special.

 So, you have never wanted to try a different job?

Now that you ask me there may be things I would have wanted to do. To tell the truth I have never thought about it. But if you ask me if I really wanted to make tatamis, it’s not the case either. I never thought much about these things.

 Was it sort of a natural process for you?

 I had a serious talk with my elder brother once. He told me he didn’t want to make tatamis. So I said, ‘All right, I’ll be the one to make them.’

 Is there something you would like everyone to know?

I’m not saying this because I’m a tatami craftsman, but I truly believe that tatamis are wonderful! The fact that they absorb humidity or toxicants for example. They can be used for sleeping or for sitting. When you take all of this into consideration, tatami flooring is actually quite cheap. Everyone, please know that tatamis are really cool!

 One last word for our readers please?

Thank you very much for your interest and for reading this interview.

 Thank you!

In front of the workshop

Born in France, I've been living in Japan since 2011. I'm curious about everything, and living in Japan has allowed me to expand my vision of the world through a broad range of new activities, experiences, and encounters. As a writer, what I love most is listening to people's personal stories and share them with our readers.