Washi—Japan’s Ancient Handmade Paper
By Awake! correspondent in Japan
WHEN you enter a traditional Japanese home, you go through a neat, latticed sliding door. Once inside, you will probably see a decorated folding screen. In the room, you may see other decorations, such as dolls, hanging scrolls with paintings or calligraphy, lampshades, fancy containers or boxes. All these varied items have one thing in common—they are made of washi—the versatile Japanese handmade paper.
A Long History
The Japanese imported the art of papermaking from China in the seventh century C.E. For more than a thousand years, handmade washi reigned supreme as Japan’s only paper. In some areas, entire villages built their livelihood around papermaking; some of them became famous in their own right for the fine paper they produced.
By the latter half of the 19th century, papermaking had reached its golden age in Japan. About a thousand paper factories flourished throughout the country. With the advent of the industrial revolution, however, washi making, along with other hand industries, began to decline. Yet, even today the tradition of handmade washi is still being kept alive in certain areas for its artistic qualities.
How Washi Is Made
The Chinese made their paper from silk, linen, old cotton rags, fishing nets, and the bark of the mulberry tree. At first, the Japanese papermakers used these same ingredients. Later, they experimented with materials readily available to them, such as the inner bark of the mitsumata (paper mulberry) tree, gampi (a Japanese mountain plant), and even bamboo.
The raw material must first be reduced to a fibrous pulp. This is a laborious and painstaking process involving beating, steaming, scraping, soaking, stripping, and other treatments. The resulting pulp is mixed with water to allow the fibers to float freely.
In a typical workshop where gampi is used, women squat around large wooden tubs filled with water. Working with their hands, they clean and separate the gampi fibers in the water until a uniform suspension is formed.
Into this watery mixture another worker dips a large, fine sieve fitted in a stiff wooden frame. As the frame is lifted, the water drains away, leaving the fine fibers on the sieve to mat together to form a sheet of washi. The real expert will point out that a good sheet is made by dipping the sieve several times in a thin mixture rather than making it in one step from a thick soup.
The sieve is then inverted onto a large table. Picking up the closest edge of the sieve, the worker carefully lifts it away, leaving the wet sheet of washi on the table. The dipping process is repeated, and a new sheet is laid right on top of the first one. One by one the sheets are made, and soon a dripping pile of wet paper is produced.
To prevent the sheets from sticking to one another, a slimy substance called tororo, made from the roots of a certain kind of hibiscus, is added to the water. The additive also increases the viscosity of the water, thus slowing down the drainage through the sieve. This allows for better webbing of the fibers. An experienced washi maker can tell by the feel when the consistency is just right.
In the old days, the sheets were laid out individually on boards and dried in the sun. Although this method is still used, most washi factories dry their paper on heated sheets of stainless steel.
A Lingering Tradition
Though washi is no longer the principal medium for writing in Japan, it still has its place in the artistic realm. In fact, it is often referred to as art paper because of the many traditional and artistic paper products made from it.
Delicate pictures of flowers, trees, birds, landscapes, and other designs are made by pasting together strips of washi in different colors. Block-printed scenes on washi by famous Japanese artists, such as Hiroshige and Hokusai, are well-known around the world. Washi is also used in another form of painting called nihonga. A powdered mixture of stone and colored glass in a watery paste is brushed on sheets of washi six feet [1.8 m] square or larger, made specially for this kind of painting. This unique paper is also used to make handbags, purses, fans, umbrellas, kites, lanterns, and paper dolls, along with larger items such as partitions and screens. To promote interest in this art form, there are popular exhibitions, and modern washi makers conduct craft classes.
The golden age of Japanese washi is now part of history. Yet, the tradition lingers on to enrich the lives of people in a busy, modernized society.
[Pictures on page 23-25]
Typical “washi” items:
page 23, mountain design in envelope paper;
page 24, paper dolls, chopsticks decorated with “washi,” and bookmarks;
page 25, origami bird, fan, and kimono decorations