YAMAGATA – Tatami makers, for years in retreat before the march toward Westernization, are now trying to reverse the trend and capitalize on the merits of a traditional home lifestyle, from the dining room to the living room to the bedroom.
Although houses still tend to have one or two tatami rooms, they are a far cry from some of the homes of old in which the entire floor was covered with the mats. And today, condominiums consisting entirely of Western-style rooms are becoming dominant.
Shipments of tatami have been dropping, and in the last decade the number of tatami stores has almost been halved to about 12,000.
Kumamoto Prefecture used to account for 90 percent of the domestic production of rush, the main material used to make tatami. However, due partially to the influx of low-priced rush from China, the number of farm households growing the plant for mats had nosedived to about 800 last year from about 10,000 in 1975, according to the Kumamoto Prefectural Government.
Various efforts are under way to revive the industry.
Riding on a back-to-Japanese boom, a tatami rental conference room opened in a shopping-amusement area in Shibuya Ward, Tokyo, last October. Named the “conference in tatami,” it has a sizable tatami room equipped with light fixtures and square-shaped cushions made of “washi” paper.
To evoke a relaxed atmosphere at conferences or consultations, users of the meeting room are provided with burning incense and green tea.
T’s Group, the rental room company that opened the conference hall, said it has received a “very favorable reaction.” Some companies rent the room to train new employees by having them sit in the traditional style, it said.
People in real estate say consumers are rediscovering the tatami.
An official at a large real estate company said many residents of condominiums try to create a “Japanese-style harmony” by putting square-shaped tatami mats in their living room.
“They probably want to lie down on tatami when they are tired and are seeking a carefree time,” he said. About 5 million such mats have been sold in the past few years.
The Japan Tatami Industry Promotion Association, based in Kyoto, is striving to restructure the industry.
“The key to reshaping the industry is to tap new markets,” said 71-year-old Koichi Kanbe, chairman of the association. He said problems confronting tatami makers include shaking the image that the mats are obsolete and trying to encourage young people to use them.
The association established a team last year to develop new markets and has since unveiled such prototypes as a tatami toilet cover, necktie, guitar and even car seats.
Tatami firm TTN Corp. has transformed itself into a 24-hour operator in Itami, Hyogo Prefecture, and succeeded in increasing sales by getting orders from hotels and pubs that want to renew their tatami in the middle of the night.
Managing Director Yoshihide Tsujino said the firm came up with the idea of running 24 hours a day five years ago when demand was sluggish.
In Yamagata Prefecture, tatami manufacturers themselves have launched their own study group to improve the industry.
Yoshiaki Kagami, president of Kagami Tatami in Sagae, Yamagata Prefecture, started up the group in October to explore using pesticide-free rush to produce tatami mats. Manufacturers from 10 stores in various parts of the country, including Miyagi, Chiba and Ishikawa prefectures, have joined the group.
“If nothing is done about reversing the current situation surrounding tatami, the product might well be history within 100 years,” Kagami said.
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