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Kumiko Woodwork - Matsuo Tanaka

Shoji (sliding paper door) and Ranma (transom) are crucial to the design of traditional Japanese rooms. Kumiko is a decorative woodcraft that complements these sliding doors. Without using a single nail, miniscule pieces of wood are hand crafted and joined to create over 200 kinds of patterns. This traditional craft embodies the beauty of Japanese household architecture. Born into a carpenter family, Matsuo Tanaka taught himself Kumiko techniques and is a master craftsman with over 52 years of experience. He continues to innovate new crafts in which he can apply the traditional Kumiko technique.

I heard you entered this field after graduating junior high school.

"I am the third son of a carpenter but considering I'm afraid of heights, I didn't think I could follow in my father's footsteps. When my father died suddenly during the war, my family struggled financially. Because we were poverty stricken and I was the third son, I could not be a burden on my family. That is why I decided to move to Tokyo after graduating junior high school and enter an apprenticeship as a fixture carpenter."

What got you into Kumiko woodcrafts?

"The fixture carpenter I was being trained at primarily created fixtures with engravings and rarely made fixtures with Kumiko woodcraft. Willing to do any work to earn enough money to eat, I came up with the idea of learning how to craft Kumiko and taught myself through books. After studying the art of Kumiko woodcrafts, I started my own business at the age of 39. I am the first generation owner of the Tatematsu brand."

How many patterns can you make?

"About 250 patterns. I mainly craft hemp leaves, sesame, cherry blossoms, and diamond patterns, but I can also create lattices with evenly spaced vertical timber bars or hexagonal shapes. I also craft my own original design by rearranging existing patterns. Once I made a starfish pattern, which was inspired by a starfish I caught on a fishing trip. Including all the various forms of Hamono (flowers) I can probably craft about 300 patterns."

Which is the most difficult process?

"The most difficult part of making Kumiko woodcrafts is creating a straight line. Because there are countless, miniscule pieces that need to be crafted together, cutting lines that are accurate to the millimeter are very important. Using a compass may seemingly make things easier, but it will always lead to misalignments. I have invented my own secret Sumizuke process to mark the lines. Another important process is crafting the Kude, which is the jointing section on the wooden pieces. It is extremely difficult to make pieces that smoothly fit in together. If the pieces do not join together easily, they will get crooked in the end. It took decades of experience to perfect this skill. Another challenge is that the quality of wood changes throughout the seasons and you need to be able to cut them accordingly. Regardless of how small each piece is, I make sure to make perfectly sized slits in order that they fit into one another smoothly. Only through this delicate process can I make a straight line."

You also use your sophisticated skills to craft unusual materials.

"Most Kumiko woodcrafts are made with Kiso Hinoki Cypress, Jindai Sugi Cedar, and Yakusugi Cedar. All of these different types of wood are used to make Senbon Koshi (latticework). Finding this conventional approach boring, I decided to use bamboo instead. Because bamboo is an unusual material for Kumiko, it is not an idea that many people would come up with. Turned out that this idea was very popular. I'm thinking of using it in my next exhibition. As for some of my newer projects, I'm creating small pieces of furniture such as tables, TV stands, lanterns, and other small items."

Has the use of fixtures become less common in recent years?

"The demand for Shoji and Ranma, which used many fixtures, has plummeted due to changing Japanese housing styles. There are even houses that do not have a Tatami room. Although I originally crafted only Ranma, I cannot earn a living by only making fixtures. That is why I now create new products that incorporate Kumiko woodcrafts into the various requests of my customers. This is also why I started making accessories for women."

Accessories? That's interesting.

"I regularly demonstrate and sell my Kumiko woodcrafts at department stores. One day, a female customer suggested I create items for women. Being the stubborn craftsman that I am, I was initially hesitant. Deciding to give it a try, however, I started making earrings, necklaces, and clip-on earrings. I was surprised at how popular these items became. Since then, I have made small mirrors, toothpick cases, and eight-sided Saibashi (chopsticks used to prepare Japanese cuisine). The Saibashi are a recent hit that easily sell more than a hundred at department stores."

What kind of Kumiko woodcrafts would you like to make in the future?

"I want to create new products that respond to my customer's requests while preserving traditional styles. This applies to the type of wood I use, too. I try to use materials other than the typical evergreen trees, such as cypress and cedar. Using rosewood and ebony, for example, would add value to smaller Kumiko woodcraft items. I really like wood. I want to expand my revenue by expanding my product lineup and creating furniture, smaller items, and set items."

Picture: Yasuko Okamura
Organized by: Yoko Tamura


Matsuo Tanaka

1957: Born Into a Carpenter Family. Went to Tokyo at the Age of 15 to be an Apprentice at a Fixture Carpenter.
1982: Independently Founded the Tatematsu Brand.
Specializing in Kumiko woodcrafts, he has created many Shoji and Ranma.
He is one of the few craftsmen who creates and polishes is work by hand and refuses to join the trend of using machinery.
1986: Won the Ward Mayor Prize at the Edogawa Traditional Crafts Exhibition
2006: Certified as an Intangible Cultural Property of Edogawa City.

Matsuo Tanaka's Masterpiece "Folding Screen – Yonkyoku Isso"

Matsuo Tanaka creates a variety of woodcraft by utilizing his sophisticated, high-quality skills. This four-panel folding screen is one of his most prolific works of art.
Select from a wide range of Kumiko patterns and Matsuo Tanaka will custom design your own unique Kumiko woodcraft. Specially ordered products can also be made with his Kumiko woodcraft technique.
In recent years, Matsuo Tanaka has made tables, TV stands, and even shoe racks that incorporate Kumiko designs. He also enjoys making wood products along with his son Takahiro.