Kumamoto in rush to take games to the mat

by Yasushi Kakizaki

Kyodo

Kumamoto Prefecture, the nation’s biggest producer of rush but battling through sluggish demand, has gotten some welcome news: A ranking member of the Abe administration has suggested tatami mats may be used in the athletes’ village for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

“It’s a blessing,” said Kazuhiko Tanaka, 43, head of the agricultural product division in the Yatsushiro Municipal Government.

Yatsushiro is the largest rush production area in Kumamoto.

Tanaka cited a Sept. 18 newspaper article quoting Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi that the central government plans to build Japanese-style rooms using wood and tatami mats in the Olympic Village.

Government data show that Japan produced roughly 100,000 tons of rush around 1964, when the previous Tokyo Summer Olympics took place, but the amount had plunged to just 10 percent of that amount, or 10,000 tons, by 2011 due to dwindling use of tatami and increased imports of rush.

Yields in Okayama, Hiroshima and other prefectures that once produced substantial volumes of rush have declined sharply, leaving Kumamoto to account for 96 percent of all domestic production, Tanaka said.

Even in Kumamoto, the number of households that engage in growing rush has dropped to about 600 from the peak of 10,000, according to the prefectural government.

The prefecture has grown high-quality varieties and has reinforced its original brands, but it has struggled to find young people interested in carrying on the business.

As part of its efforts to promote rush and tatami, Yatsushiro Mayor Hiroo Nakamura gave a tapestry made of rush to farm minister Hayashi, while calling on the ministry of education and sports and the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, which are administering the Olympics, to use tatami mats in the housing that will be used by the world’s greatest athletes.

“Although the Olympics will be held in Tokyo, the event provides other regions a chance to make contributions,” Tanaka said, adding that his city is planning to launch a bigger promotion campaign involving neighboring cities as well as the prefectural government.

Many rush farmers engage in the entire process for producing tatami — from planting to harvesting and making mats out of rush — on their own, a process that entails a considerable financial burden for all the necessary equipment.

To stimulate demand, one farmer in Yatsushiro took on a new challenge.

Minoru Tabuchi, 50, embarked two years ago on developing water-repellent tatami mats in collaboration with tatami sellers in Kyoto.

Tabuchi said the recent stagnation in the rush industry can be attributed largely to the increased use in restaurants and apartments of stain-resistant tatami mats made of chemical fibers.

He has succeeded in developing water-repellent rush tatami mats, using natural solvent medium. Wine or juice can easily be wiped off the trial product, leaving no stains.

Tabuchi said that the upcoming Tokyo Olympics have become the major focus of his aspirations to commercialize the stain-resistant natural tatami mats.

“If we do nothing, the future for rush farmers will remain dark,” Tabuchi said. “I hope that water-repellent tatami mats of Kumamoto origin will be used at the Tokyo Olympics.”