Traditional Washi Paper: From Japan to the World

Traditional Washi Paper: From Japan to the World

   Washi is the traditional Japanese paper that has been used in the daily lives of Japanese people since ancient times, in things like shoji sliding doors and lanterns. Washi can be used to give spaces a subtle ambience because of the way it softens the quality of the light and sound that passes through it and moderates the room temperature. Not only that, washi is also very durable — we still have some documents that were written on washi 1000 years ago!

The Unique Japanese Nagashi-Suki Method: Then and Now

   Japanese paper-making techniques are said to have been passed down for around 1500 years, culminating in the unique nagashi-suki method, which makes use of the natural resources of Japan. In modern times, the same traditional techniques are preserved, though the process has been adapted to use machinery for spreading the pulp into sheets of paper. The nagashi-suki method requires three things: water, raw materials and neri, a sticky, plant-based substance. Of these, the water is particularly important, as Ishikawa Hiroshi, Advisor to the All Japan Handmade Washi Association, explains: “The process requires pure, clear water with no impurities. This is usually obtained by filtering spring or river water.” The raw material used to make washi is the bark of deciduous shrubs: usually the paper mulberry, the Oriental paper bush and the gampi. Washi is made by pulping the bark, adding the neri and then sloshing the mixture around repeatedly to cause the fibers to intertwine.

The nagashi-suki method involves repeatedly scooping up the pulp from this liquid mixture using a bamboo mat set in a wooden frame.

   Washi is produced in various places dotted across Japan, but the three best-known washi producers are Echizen Washi, in Echizen City, Fukui Prefecture, Mino-Washi, in Mino City, Gifu Prefecture, and Tosa Washi, in Tosa City, Kochi Prefecture. Each place uses their own special combination of raw materials, water and methods, giving rise to slightly different final products. But they all have one thing in common: the paper that they produce is superb.

A type of washi called Sekishu-banshi, produced in the Iwami region (also known as Sekishu) in western Shimane Prefecture. The washi is drying in the sun.

Harnessing the Power of Washi to Create New Products

   Washi, and items made from it, are commonplace in modern-day Japan. Japanese bills are made of a special type of washi that is so strong that it doesn't tear, even when wet. They also feature an anti-counterfeit watermark that becomes visible when held up to the light, a feature that's rooted in the techniques used to manufacture washi.
   Nowadays there are also new products on the market that are made using washi. Decorative masking tape made from washi has become extremely popular with girls and young women. It is thin and durable, and you can write on it, making it perfect for decorating and customizing stationery like notebooks and diaries. Technology has also been developed to turn washi into textiles, meaning that there is now clothing that takes advantage of washi's antibacterial and deodorizing properties. Traditional Japanese tatami floor mats are conventionally made from rushes, but now similar mats made from washi are also getting popular. Washi tatami mats are good at conditioning the moisture in the air, and are renowned for keeping the floor at your feet dry and comfortable.

Astronaut Yamazaki Naoko even wore ankle socks made from washi fiber during her visit to space in 2010! Washi fibers also greatly encourage the activity of microorganisms in the soil, so worn-out washi garments can be returned to the earth, where they can be put to good use in agriculture. Photos courtesy of Curetex.

Japanese decorative masking tape was inspired by medical adhesive bandages. Washi and adhesives have improved over time, resulting in a new stationery product that is well designed, easy to use, and extremely popular. Photos courtesy of Kamoi Kakoshi.

Washi tatami mats were developed as a means of preserving a staple of traditional Japanese culture in the face of a drop in the supply of rushes. With washi, you can use colorful patterns to accent an interior space. Photos courtesy of Daiken Corporation.

Saving Cultural Treasures Using Washi

   “In recent years, more and more inkjet paper made from washi has been exported. It seems that people are choosing washi for art projects because of its durability,” says Ishikawa.
   Washi is also indispensable in the restoration of important cultural works in Japan and overseas. Particularly notable is the world's thinnest washi, called Tengujo-shi. It's created using technology that only one company in the entire world, based in Japan's Kochi Prefecture, has access to. The paper is a mere 0.02 mm thick, and it has been used in the restoration of a number of world-famous artworks and documents of historical significance, including The Last Judgment, a fresco by Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City. In this way, the Japanese tradition of washi is stretching forward into the future and being used around the world.

Michelangelo's The Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel.

L: Restoration of a document at the Norfolk Record Office in the UK. R: Restoration of the “Ungyo” statue at Senso-ji temple's Hozo-mon Gate in Tokyo. Photos courtesy of Hidaka Washi.