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Miniature artist from Japan making it big overseas

Miniature artist Tomo Tanaka is seen in Osaka's Chuo Ward on April 25, 2023. (Mainichi/Maiko Umeda)=Click/tap photo for more images.

OSAKA -- An artist based in this west Japan city is making a big splash on social media internationally as the creator of tiny objects that look and feel just like the real things.

    Tomo Tanaka, a 43-year-old native of Osaka Prefecture, handcrafts extremely small versions of things, such as 8-millimeter-diameter hamburgers and 4-millimeter "takoyaki," or fried octopus balls. In close-up photos, the detailed recreations appear so realistic that they can easily be mistaken for their full-size counterparts.

    "It would be better with a little less salt," a Japanese chef commented on a photo of a roughly 2-centimeter-wide dish of thoroughly salt-grilled "sanma," or Pacific saury. While tiny, Tanaka's works are so precise as to receive feedback on their accuracy from specialists. "I'm happy when experts and enthusiasts of respective genres respond to my works. It helps me learn," commented the artist.

    Tanaka has enjoyed using his hands since he was very young. At one point, he got the idea to make an item from the video game series "Dragon Quest." Looking closely at a strategy guide illustrated by Akira Toriyama, he was unsure how to fully form the objects from papier-mache. "I wonder what the sides and back are like," he wondered. But, using his imagination, he forged three-dimensional versions of the drawings. Although it was challenging, that was when Tanaka started to understand the fun of creating things using his imagination.

    "Looking back, that sparked my interest in crafting miniatures, and you could say that Toriyama is my mentor," Tanaka said with a smile.

    Around 2001, Tanaka bought some doll house furniture from overseas at a flea market. Taking an interest in the items, he thought, "Why not try making other small things?" and began to create more miniatures. He worked on them in the passenger seat of the truck he drove for a transportation company on breaks, and continued quietly crafting them on a table at home.

    A tiny plate of salt-grilled "sanma," or Pacific saury -- one of the creations by miniature artist Tomo Tanaka -- is seen in Osaka's Chuo Ward on April 25, 2023. (Mainichi/Maiko Umeda)=Click/tap photo for more images.

    Tanaka assembles everything from scratch without using pre-made parts. Each grain of rice is made by stretching clay resin to 0.3 millimeters in thickness, and he presses them one by one using the tip of a 0.5-millimeter-diameter mechanical pencil. To make transparent things such as jam jars, he shaves sticks of acrylic. Using his own brainpower, he honed his skills through trial and error, reaching the point where his works became marketable.

    Since around 2007, he has taught classes at cultural centers in Osaka and Tokyo. In 2011, he established his own workshop where he also teaches his craft.

    To squeeze in more time to spend on his art, Tanaka changed jobs, working for construction and food manufacturing companies. "I've been able to put my experiences into my work, starting with the details such as the structure and wiring of homes and their window sashes, to seeing up close a large variety of food ingredients."

    Now, Tanaka owns a brand called Nunu's House, derived from the French word for teddy bear, "nounours." He has also authored four books, including, "Tomo Tanaka no Miniature Selection," or The Selected Miniatures of Tomo Tanaka.

    As a professional creator, he knows the value of putting one's knowledge into creative works. "By knowing the real objects, a sense of depth comes through the works. I also value understanding the 'average' of different sorts of things," he said.

    For example, he visited an established bakery to get a direct feel for the stoves and freshly baked bread. He also takes notes on readymade bread, and ties this experience to his common-sense understanding when crafting objects like these. "Making miniature versions of these common things has wowed and amused people," Tanaka stressed.

    As he does not limit himself to a particular genre, Tanaka has received requests from businesses and local governments far and wide. He worked for the city of Toba, Mie Prefecture, on miniatures of their regional produce, pearls, along with the small tools used by their famous "Ama" pearl divers. He also worked on a space-themed project for a Taiwanese candy maker. Tanaka spares no efforts in his work. "Since they pay me for these jobs, I always want to keep my skills sharp and ready," he said.

    In an era when anyone can sell their creations online, Tanaka takes pride in being a professional. While advising a middle school student attending one of his workshops that, "The important things are to value all your different experiences, wonder 'how does this go,' and observe things," he added, "By allowing them to make it as miniaturists, I want to support the future of today's youths."

    In addition to his workshops in Osaka and Tokyo, Tanaka teaches his methods online. His Instagram page can be found at @nunus_house and his Twitter account is @miniature_MH.

    (Japanese original by Mayu Maemoto, Osaka Regional News Department)

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