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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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Reshaping Japan's tatami tradition

Mar. 9, 2018

People in Japan have been sitting on tatami mats for centuries. The smell and the touch remind Japanese people of home and domestic comfort. But as lifestyles become more westernized, fewer houses have tatami rooms. Young people are less aware of this Japanese tradition.

One man is trying to reverse this trend. He runs a company in a city that was hard hit by the earthquake and tsunami seven years ago.

Traditional tatami mats have borders and are all the same rectangular shape.

But a new type of mat is borderless and comes in assorted shapes and patterns. It can also be easily arranged in a variety of ways, making it adaptable to the modern home.

It was developed by Soshinsa, a company based in the city of Ishinomaki, in Miyagi Prefecture. Hisashi Takahashi is the company president.

Takahashi designed these mats using traditional methods. He hopes this combination of new and old will appeal to all generations.

The mats are available in 1centimeter increments and can be used for different purposes.

"It changes color depending on the angle of the light," says Takahashi. "I think this is precisely what makes this truly Japanese flooring: even though each mat is made of the same material, they can look totally different depending on how they’re arranged, and they still always look natural."

Takahashi’s company takes pride in making tatami from natural materials, like rice plants and rush.

The company makes the tatami mats used at Osaki Hachiman Shrine, a designated National Treasure. In fact, Soshinsha supplies tatami mats for more than 200 historical shrines and temples.

"Tatami is an important building material, steeped in Japan’s ancient history and culture," says Inami Onome of Osaki Hachiman Shrine. "Soshinsha has been preserving this traditional product."

The company faced a major challenge after the 2011 Earthquake and Tsunami in northeastern Japan.

Takahashi’s home was completely destroyed. His tatami factory was damaged, and many of his customers lost their homes.

Takahashi also lost one of his closest friends. He says the death has inspired him to live life to the fullest.

"The friend I was with the morning of the disaster drowned in the tsunami," says Takahashi. "I asked myself what I could do to leave a legacy, and realized that I was in the perfect position to carry on tradition. This firm sense of mission motivated me."

Takahashi got back to work right after the disaster. He and his friends delivered tatami mats to more than 8,000 temporary housing units, though he says he faced some internal conflict about doing so.

"The tatami in that temporary housing isn’t authentic; it’s made from styrofoam, and we made and delivered it in large quantities primarily as a way of keeping cold air out," Takahashi says. "It ran through my mind that more and more people would lose their connection to real tatami, but it was my job, so I did it."

Cheap, imported tatami made from plastic or paper has become popular in recent years, and fewer people get to experience the traditional kind.

Takahashi thought about how he could bring traditional tatami to more people. He came up with the idea of making the mats in unique shapes, using traditional methods and materials.

Takahashi is currently attending trade shows around Japan to give people a chance to experience his new designs.

"Traditional tatami can be really attractive and modern when you arrange it in designs like this," says one show visitor. "I want to incorporate it into my home."

"It has a playful quality," says another. "If I had some in my house, I think it would be a topic of conversation and my guests would complement it." "For a long time, I wondered what I should do with my gift of life after the disaster," says Takahashi. "Then I decided that as a Japanese person, I wanted to be of service to the mission of keeping tatami as part of our culture."