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Japanese Things:  The Wonderful World of Washi

What traditional Japanese craft features beautiful colors, infinite textures and patterns, high gloss, durability, and a tradition dating back more than a thousand years?

The kimono? Weaving traditions? Silk. Well, yes, but this is also describes washi, traditional handmade Japanese paper.

Anyone familiar with washi, however, knows that terming it “handmade paper” just doesn’t suffice. Washi can be as smooth as silk, as resilient as cloth, and as colorful as the rainbow. It comes in a multitude of forms, and its history reflects that of Japan itself. 

“Paper really developed in Japan with the introduction of Buddhism more than 1200 years ago,” reveals Yasutaka Morita, a Kyoto-based washi researcher.

When Buddhism arrived in Japan in the sixth century, scholars and monks brought volumes of the Buddha’s teachings and spiritual depictions with them from Korea and China. 

Demand grew for copies of the Buddha’s teachings and illustrations. And as Buddhism flourished in Japan, so did writing and painting … and, therefore, washi production. 

Within a few hundred years, washi was part and parcel of daily Japanese life. Still centuries before the average European knew what paper was, Japanese were covering their windows and doors, making lamps, wrapping gifts, lighting fireworks and creating clothes with washi. Washi was used to make string, rope, umbrellas, raincoats (after being waterproofed, of course), multitudes of containers, and bandages for wounds.

Washi was – and still is – a truly miraculous creation, infinitely functional and aesthetically pleasing to boot.

Morita-san should know about washi. Though recently retired, he worked at his family’s Morita Washi shop in Kyoto for more than 50 years. This experience provided Morita with knowledge of the various kinds of washi, their special characteristics, and how they’re made. 

In the early 1970s Morita also coordinated a bilingual, five-volume opus on Japan’s many washi traditions and techniques, perhaps the most comprehensive single work on this country’s washi. 

“This book records the words and works of one of the last great generations of washi makers and dyers. That was 30 years ago, though – they’ve all passed away now,” he says wistfully. 

The Golden Age of washi, according to Morita, was from the late Edo period to the early Meiji period, a hundred-year stretch from about 1780. 

“There were 100,000 households just making washi then,” he muses. “Today about 350 remain.” 

When he wrote his book in the ‘70s, there were still about 880 households. Why the decline? In a nutshell, our modern conveniences – in the case of washi, cheap mass- production of paper – have a downside. They squeeze the profits of traditional craftspeople until their livelihood is no longer tenable. Fortunately, a clever few are able to adapt and modernize while still working with their traditional craft.

For his own part, Morita-san is not letting changes in the traditional washi world slow him down. He’s now working on his second master tome, the Washi Sōkan, a kind of encyclopedia on contemporary washi.

Part of washi’s problem today, Morita reveals, is that the average Japanese person cannot tell the difference between a piece of washi and a piece of machine-made paper. And the price of machine-made paper is usually one-tenth of washi … or less. 

With fewer consumers willing to pay for artisans’ labors of love, Morita is somewhat pessimistic about washi’s future. The number of households will dwindle to between fifty and one hundred in the next few decades, he predicts. At least fifty will remain, he says, to produce niche washi products, such as fine washi for Japan’s many ardent calligraphers, and for covering traditional sliding doors.

Though the number of traditional papermakers has declined precipitously, it’s remarkable that so many techniques are still employed to make this quintessentially Japanese product. Such traditions include dyeing, painting, printing, marbling, watermarking, wrinkling, and waxing washi to obtain a dazzling array of decorative effects. Washi is spun into string, woven, and even cured.

“Washi is about atmosphere. It is beautiful on it’s own, but if you paint on it, or make it into something, it is even more beautiful. It’s also extremely strong,” Morita explains, relating how only a washi business card can withstand being put through a clothes washing machine!

From another viewpoint, washi may be simply undergoing the growing pangs of metamorphosing into something more modern. Nowadays, artists and designers are appreciating washi anew for its beauty and versatility. It’s considered superior to glass and plastic for its light diffusion qualities, making it an ideal material for lamps and shades. Consequently, after a half-century detour through Western-style lamps, Japan’s most chic interiors now feature modern versions of the historic washi lampshade. 

Washi is also finding fans as a wallpaper, as a material (sometimes lacquered with a clear finish) for anything from serving dishes to jewelry, and as a medium for objets – for example, sculpture and folding screens. 

About ten years ago Morita joined hands with about 500 other international paper-lovers to form the Nihon Kami [Japan Paper] Academy. The group focuses on the development of Japanese washi and other kinds of paper through publications, research, exhibits and prizes. 

Another Academy member is Kyoto-based international washi artist Kyoko Ibe, who was one of the first artists to seize upon washi as a modern artistic medium. She started exhibiting her works in the early ‘70s, with immediate success. 

“The washi world was in decline then. There were no shops specializing in washi and people really only used it to write on or cover their doors. But with my exhibits, I discovered that it wasn’t just me who loved washi, many people did,” Ibe remembers.

Ibe believes that it’s only natural that lots of people would love washi.

“We get so much from high-quality paper, it’s so good to have it in our lives. There’s a good feeling we always get from fine paper, which we can’t get from other materials,” she explains. It’s hard to argue with her. At home, she’s surrounded by washi -- washi wallpaper, washi artwork, lamps made of washi, and more. And it feels great.

Ibe’s oeuvres blossom from her original adaptations of washi materials, including surprising elements like shredded office paper (which she proudly calls “recycling”). To create her massive works requires the skilled manipulation of tons upon tons of water and washi fibers, so her workshop is equipped with suitable heavy lifting apparatus. 

In addition to bringing out both the beauty and the tactile appeal of the washi, Ibe’s works highlight a philosophical or spiritual dimension. They’re exquisite to look at, and almost call out to be touched, or – in the case of her large installations – walked through, letting the washi pieces or fibers cascade over and around one’s body. 

Ibe’s works also introduce a sense of the forces of nature and space, which are inherent in traditional washi but somehow obscured by its standard two-dimensional form. 

“I’m doing alchemy, with fiber, water, bamboo and earth. The largest part of my work is up to natural forces. I just create an environment for the elements to come together,” she asserts.

She’s not exaggerating. Some of her works are brick-colored from oxidized soil, or black from carbon. Though she sometimes uses silver leaf, some of her other pieces sparkle with flecks of the mineral mica interspersed with the washi fibers. 

Ibe is particularly inspired by natural movement – such as the wind and clouds.

“As a human, I’m just one part of nature. The best is when nature’s movements just move through me to create work. Washi might be the best medium for this, since it’s so close to nature -- it’s just fiber and water,” she reflects.

Besides the aesthetically pleasing aspects and versatility of washi, it’s a practical medium for someone with clients and exhibits all over the globe.

“Logistically speaking, washi’s strength and softness help me a lot. I can just roll it up, send it abroad, and stretch it to remount, and the wrinkles from the shipping all come right out,” she laughs. 

The original techniques that Ibe uses are as unorthodox as the works themselves. For example, Ibe pours the pulp directly onto a bamboo screen, rather than repeatedly dipping the screen into a water- and fiber-filled tub, as traditional craftspeople do. These unconventional practices and their results might cause a more traditional washi artisan to refuse to call Ibe’s work “washi” at all.

Morita, for one, laughs off such censure.

“Washi is’nt the same today as it was way back when. It changes over the ages, and this is only natural. Today we appreciate washi made in the Nara period [645-794 AD] because it’s so old, but if we wanted to use it as paper, we wouldn’t think it’s good at all. We certainly wouldn’t want to make it,” he chuckles, pointing out that washi in the Nara era was polished with boar’s tusks – no other implement would do.

Ibe was originally trained as a designer, a boon when she decided to explore the possibilities of washi in interiors and other design areas, as well as in art. The fruit is her international design company, Shion, written with the Chinese characters for “paper” and “blessing.” Shion specializes in, naturally, washi products. These range from lamps and wallpaper to serving plates and accessories -- Ibe proudly boasts that her product line has included over 200 items made from washi! 

“Fine art and crafts are usually separated, but I don’t understand why. Human beings are blessed with so many abilities, I think we should explore and share all of them,” she reasons.

A crash course in traditional washi production

Most washi is made from the fibers of the kozo (mulberry), ganpi or mitsumata plants. Branches are steamed, then the bark is stripped from the wood by hand and left to dry in the sun. Later the bark is soaked to loosen its layers, and then the rough, outer black layer of bark is removed from the inner, green and white layers with a knife. 

The fibers are then boiled in an alkali solution and further rinsed and picked through by hand to remove foreign particles. This prepares the fibers for beating, and, though these stages are terribly unglamorous, they are nonetheless considered the secret to producing good paper. The remaining fibers are pounded into a pulp with large wooden mallets. 

Next comes the actual making of the sheets of paper. The pounded fibers are placed into a wooden tub filled with water and a viscous agent, tororo root, which helps the fibers stay suspended in the water without sinking to the bottom. Using a large bamboo screen fit within a wooden frame, the papermaker scoops up framefuls of the water and fiber mix, then deftly manipulates the frame to spread the fibers evenly across the screen, finally sloshing the remaining water out back into the tub. This process is repeated several times. 

In one smooth, masterful motion, the papermaker removes the bamboo screen from the wooden frame, and lays it paper side face-down on the growing stack of sheets of wet, freshly produced washi. Peeling the bamboo screen away, the papermaker returns to the tub for the next sheet. Later the stack of sheets of washi will be pressed to remove excess water. Ultimately each sheet will be carefully separated and lightly brushed onto either wooden boards in the sun, or a steam-heated metal. 

To say that each of these jobs is labor-intensive is something of an understatement. In his book Japanese Papermaking, American washi expert Timothy Barrett estimates that seventy percent of the total working hours needed to make Japanese paper goes into fiber preparation. More astonishing, he surmises that 100 kilograms of branches yield only five kilograms of finished paper.

No wonder it feels insufficient to just call it simply, “handmade paper.”


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