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The making of Washi and its uniqueness

Japanese Paper, historically, and to date, has played a very important role in the life of the Japanese people. Although they are not credited with its invention, it seems that they learned the process, perfected it, and created paper that is unequalled in beauty, strength and quite difficult to duplicate.

Washi (the word for Japanese paper), is also revered in Japan. So important is paper to the Japanese that the pronunciation of the word “paper” in their language is identical to that of the word “god”.

While, it is a symbol of purity and traditionally has been used in the Japanese home to create shoji screens, thus allowing sun to filter through. It is used for ceremonial occasions, gifts, gift wrapping, clothing and kites. Lacquered, it produces some of the most beautiful boxes, trays and hats. It is the material of books and book overs, the vehicle for artistic expression, be it a screen print, a wood cut or a collage. It is present at every festival, and even adorns fruit punch glasses by the mere presence of a paper umbrella. It is a source of light as used in making lanterns. As origami, it is folded into animal and other toy shapes for children, and even grown ups.

The making of Washi is one of the most labor intensive processes in the world and has no parallel. The materials it uses produce sheets of incredible resilience which have gained the wonder and admiration of not only artists, by papermakers around the world.

As with all papermaking, some basic ingredients are needed. Fiber, water, chemicals, vats, beaters (hand beating is preferred to the use of a hollander beater, as it does not shorten the fiber, as with cotton linters for instance) and dryers (sun, loft or heated plates).

In Japan, papermakers strip the bark from which they extract three principal fibers for making Washi. Kozo, or better known to us as “mulberry”, is a very long and the strongest of the fibered plants which grow in Japan, and from which papers like “Hosho” are made. There are different varieties of Kozo plants which can be found throughout the country, not all yielding the same properties. We often hear of paper made of first grade quality Kozo, or paper made of second grade quality Kozo.

Gampi, also existing in more than one variety, is a very long, fine and shiny fiber. It is also extremely tough. For instance, if you examine a sheet of Gampi white, you will immediately notice the sheen on the surface of the paper. It is a medium weight sheet and can be used for Western style calligraphy, an exception to most papers made in the Orient. On the other hand, another sheet we know called “Sekishu Torinoko Gampi”is tissue thin, and yet possesses incredible strength and archival properties. Here again, the luster in the paper can be easily detected. Gampi has inherent properties which repel insects, and thus can be considered pure and impervious to decay. Gampi is a difficult fiber to obtain, and papers which contain it are expensive.

Mitsumata is also a strong and soft fiber. It is not as long as Kozo or Gampi, but definitely has a slightly colored luster to it. Mitsumata is also difficult to obtain and a plant can yield 4 to 6 harvests before rendered useless. Like the others, Mitsumata exists in different grades and is sometimes is mixed with wood pulp which is imported from the U.S. and other countries.

The Japanese use other fibers in their papers which are of lesser importance, such as hemp. More and more are we seeing papers made of the principal three fibers mixed with sulphite (wood pulp) to keep up with increasing demand and maintain price competitiveness.

Water is essential. Better quality paper is usually made in the winter, because the colder the water, the better the paper. It is not unusual to see papermakers bleaching their papersin streams of extremely cold water, or even snow. This produces a strong, crisp sheet of paper as opposed to paper which is made in the summer where the humidity can cause rotting of the fibers, or in other cases, the yielding paper will be limp. The Japanese have taken measures against the forces of nature imposed against them to ensure round-the-year production.

Another very important and almost mysterious ingredient in the making of Washi is Tororo. This is also extracted from a plant and is a very sticky, almost slimy material which is introduced in the vat together with the pulp. Tororo’s properties are that which prevent individual sheets of Washi from sticking to each other when they are stacked in posts of 500 – 600 sheets each. It is also instrumental to the papermaker in the peeling off process of the sheets before the final drying process. The mystery is that it leaves no trace of itself in the final product.

Unlike Western papermakers, the Japanese do not use felts to separate sheets. A piece of straw or string is placed between the wet sheets as the pile of wet paper is left oudoos for drying. On the day of the final drying, the sheets are removed with the aid of the straw and/or string and brushed onto boards for sun drying.

Unfortunately, weather conditions do not always permit outdoor drying, and for this reason, the Japanese have had to resort to drying indoors, sometimes using hot plates to speed up the process. Modern methods ahve been introduced in Japan for papermaking: there are nevertheless about 350 families, some independent papermakers, others as part of a cooperative or prefecture, such as Fukui, that still make Washi by traditional methods.

That woman plays an important role in the family or papermakers. She seems to have better tolerance to the inclement weather conditions, and we have heard of some that have permanently damaged and cracked hands from immersion into cold water, as well as the constant hand beating of the fibers, which take several hours, sometimes into the early hours of the morning.

In summation, to make Washi, fiber must be collected, the bark must be stripped (outer bark is used to make the Washi), boiled in a lye solution to soften it, (other stronger and quicker acting chemicals are being used today, such as caustic soda, which unfortunately tend to weaken the fiber), rinsed in cold water or snow to remove the chemical from the fiber, and beaten preferably with a wooden club (although it is not unusual to find Japanese papermakers using hollander beaters now) for many years, turning the stack every so often so that the fiber is evenly separated to the point that the papermaker decides it is good enough for his pulp.

The screen or mat which is used to form a sheet (called “Su” in Japanese) is then dipped into the slurry and lifted by a quick scooping of the hands. The “su” is then shaken evenly in all directions so that the fibers will interlock in a random fashion. The papermaker can repaet scoopings until he has achieved the thickness of the paper he wishes to make: it is interesting to note that there is no science to this but rather determined by the senses. The deckle (“keta” in Japanese) remains on the “su” during this process. Subsequent sheets are made and pressed gradually so as not to cause them to form a “blob” of paper.

Japanese papers, whether made by hand or by machine are so distinctive that they cannot be mistaken in origin. Machinemade papers are being used more frequently now because of market demands for large quantities and speedy deliveries. No matter the method used: the papers are all incredibly beautiful.

National Treasure, an honor that is bestowed on any Japanese for achieving excellence in his/her field, was given to one papermaker named Ichibei Iwano from Fukui Prefecture He always used the best available materials, took no short cuts, and used the traditional methods for making Washi. He died in 1976. Same honor has recently been given to another papermaker, Sachio Hamada from Kochi prefecture also. He makes “Tosa Tengujo” which is widely famous and used for conservation, collage and many other purposes now.

There is so much more that can be said about Washi. We have been witnessing a tremendous growth in the use of Washi in the world in many old and new markets. The usage is infinite – that is the attraction of Washi and what makes it so different from other kinds of papers in the world.

Part of this material is provided by ANW Crestwood.