Japanese paper, or washi, is one of Japan’s most fundamental and often overlooked artistic products. Over 1,300 years of production it has formed the backbone of many other Japanese art forms
In fact, washi paper is so ingrained in Japanese culture that there are literally cities built around washi paper making.
In basic terms, washi paper simply means traditional Japanese paper, wa (和) meaning Japanese and shi (紙) meaning paper
From its eclectic history, to its many uses, to top travel destinations in Japan, there are many fascinating things to learn and much to say about this historically rich and still relevant art. Here we’ll cover everything you need to know about Japanese washi paper
Brief history of Japanese paper
Although today it is an iconic cultural element of Japan, the roots of Japanese washi paper production can be traced back to China. Around 610 CE, Buddhist monks brought the handmade papermaking technique to Japan to write the sacred sutras.
To add another international twist to the origins of washi paper, the Nihon Shoki, also known as The Chronicles of Japan, one of the oldest books of classical Japanese history (written in 720), states that this Chinese influence came to the country through the Korean Buddhist priest Doncho, who introduced ink-making techniques at the same time.
As it has done so well throughout history, Japan adopted this method of papermaking and improved upon it, adding more textile-type materials to the papermaking process, such as kozo (mulberry) and gampi fibers, as a way to strengthen the paper, prolong its longevity and increase its versatility.
Since Japanese papermaking relied on natural materials, washi paper production, like other agricultural activities, became a seasonal activity. Winter was considered the best time for papermaking, as the weather was too cold for farmers to be in their fields doing other work
The washi makers could also take advantage of the winter ice, which they thawed to ensure that the water they used was free of impurities and did not discolor the paper.
This style of Japanese handmade paper remained in place until the Meiji period (1868 – 1912), when Japan underwent a process of westernization. With Western influence came what is known as yoshi paper; essentially mass-produced, machine-made paper. From this period on, Japanese paper began to take a back seat, and its role was relegated from everyday use to more artisanal and traditional purposes.
How is Japanese paper made?
The ideal time to make Japanese washi paper is the end of winter, when the water is naturally frozen and free of impurities, offering the freshest and most natural ingredients for papermaking
Methods and materials vary depending on the style of washi to be made, as different regions of Japan have slightly different techniques
Harvesting: First, the materials for the paper need to be obtained. Most washi papers use kozo and mitsumata, two shrubs that are usually cultivated, and gampi, which is usually wild. They are usually harvested during the colder months of December and January.
Steaming, peeling and sorting: To separate the plant parts needed, first steam the branches. Once they are soft and ready to be peeled, the bark is carefully removed and dried. The dried bark is then boiled and the impurities are stained and removed. The pre-paper solution is then beaten by hand to loosen the fibers before it becomes a sheet.
Laminating: This is probably the most recognizable part of the Japanese papermaking process. This is when the pulp paper solution begins to take its final, albeit very loose, form. From here, the pulp paper is spread out on a mat and the mat is shaken to help the fibers interlock. Once the desired size and thickness is reached, the excess water from the solution is poured off.
Final Steps: After being left to dry overnight, the nearly ready-to-use sheets undergo a few more aesthetic steps before reaching their final washi shape. The paper is pressed to remove excess water, the sheets are separated, brushed to remove any intrusive texture, and left again to complete the sun-drying process. These large dried sheets form the base from which the washi is cut.
What is Japanese paper or washi used for?
In days gone by, Japanese paper was used for virtually everything that modern machine-made paper is used for. Obviously, being a handmade product, washi is more expensive than regular paper, so today it has been displaced from some areas
Printing and writing: Thanks to its thicker, more absorbent texture, washi is an excellent base for linoblock printing, color lithography , color lithography, color lithography, color lithography, color lithography, color lithography, color lithography, color lithography, color lithography, and color lithography letterpress, washi embossing and, in more contemporary times, the digital printing
Cards and wedding invitations, for example, are incomparably more attractive when printed on Japanese washi.
Art: Many traditional art forms in Japan are based on washi. In Nihonga painting you will see that the use of washi instead of canvas or modern paper is one of the defining elements of this characteristically Japanese style
The particular texture of Japanese washi paper is also essential for sumi-e (ink painting), as it allows the correct flow and absorption of the aqueous ink. For some artists, such as Tetsuya Nagata, the washi paper itself is the art in these incredible pressed washi sculptures.
Binding: Japan is a literature-loving nation, so it’s no wonder that washi and publishing go hand in hand. Instead of being used on the inside pages, washi is often used on book covers because of its durability and flexibility.
Origami: Because of its resistant and more malleable texture, washi paper is an excellent tool for the origami. It retains its shape much better than other thinner origami papers. And, of course, the unique look of washi lends added beauty and appeal to the finished object.
Interior design: Because of its interesting, almost earthy textures and unique quality that makes the light softly translucent, Japanese paper has long been recognized as an ideal material for lamps, interior lampshades and, more recently, blinds and shades. Its organic, natural feel is much more visually appealing than mass-produced sterile paper or other artificial materials.