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Tatami Anarchist

Strange things underfoot as artist Kenze Yamada disrupts a 1,300-year-old Japanese tradition

Imagine stepping into a traditional Japanese room laid with tatami mats expecting to see straight lines on the floor, and entering the gaping jaws of a dragon instead. Or walking onto an uncannily realistic portrait of Marilyn Monroe. These are works by Kenze Yamada, a fifth-generation tatami maker with an anarchistic aversion to conformity.

Tatami are rush-covered straw mats. According to records, tatami has been used in Japan since the 700s. Historically, they’ve always been predominantly rectangular and uniform in color—but not Yamada’s unusual creations.

Yamada custom makes his orders in Hashima City, Gifu Prefecture, for buildings like homes, temples and restaurants. He left his construction industry job in 2017 to take over the family business, founded in 1869.

His designs resemble giant jigsaw puzzles. By altering the weave and placing the tatami in different directions instead of one way, he creates the illusion of varying shades even though the mats are all the same hue. Depending on the angle of the light, the layouts change color when viewed from various points.

Today, most tatami are made using machines, but Yamada’s are handcrafted—like his ancestors did long ago—so they can take five times longer to complete. By fusing trailblazing ideas with ancient techniques, he’s reigniting passion for a fading art form. Constant orders stream in from across Japan, and he also exports overseas.

Recently, he even hung tatami vertically as a canvas for wild splashes of Japanese calligraphy. In Japan’s contemporary craft scene, Yamada is the Banksy or Damien Hirst disrupter who compels you to wonder: “Whatever will he do next?”

Kenze Yamada


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