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Japanese Paper - Washi

Sheets of strength and beauty

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The exhibition SUBTLE: Delicate or Infinitesimal was on display at Japan House London 13 November ‒ 24 December 2018 with the intention of reawakening our senses to the limitless possibilities of what can be done with fine paper.

The objects in the SUBTLE exhibition are made with Western-style paper by Takeo, a Tokyo-based specialty paper company. To broaden guests’ experience with paper during the exhibition, Japan House London also presented a display of Echizen washi by Sugihara Shoten in The Shop.

What is washi?

Washi – literally ‘Japanese paper’ – is made from three different plants: kōzo (mulberry), mitsumata and ganpi, the long fibres of which create incredibly durable papers. With a 1500-year old history, the largest washi-making area in Japan is a cluster of five villages in Echizen in Fukui Prefecture. The high quality paper was used for many things including official documents and even the first Japanese banknotes.
Sugihara Shoten, a washi wholesalers, was established in 1871 by Sugihara Hanjirō. It supplies high-quality paper from all around Echizen including the work of the regional industry’s ‘Living National Treasure’ Iwano Ichibei IX. Some of Ichibei IX’s work was on display in The Shop at Japan House London to coincide with the exhibition SUBTLE: Delicate or Infinitesimal. Read on to find out more about the history of washi in Japan and the many ways it is used.

How is washi made?

There are two methods of making paper, tame-zuki and nagashi-zuki. The tame-zuki paper making method was passed to Japan from ancient China. It involves placing the pulp mixture made from plant fibres and water onto a wire-netted frame screen that is kept horizontal and shaken back and forth, left to right, to mingle the fibres well. The fibres used are short and the resulting paper is less dense.
Washi is most commonly made using the nagashi-zuki method developed in Japan about 1,000 years ago. Using this method a viscous substance made from plants is added to the pulp mixture, and a bamboo-netted frame screen is rocked back and forth and from side to side so that the mixture flows over the screen. This allows the paper to be made with longer fibres, which become tightly interwoven, resulting in a stronger product.

This strong, thin paper is used not only for books, drawings, and paintings, but also as a material for architecture and everyday items including sliding paper screens and partitions (shoji and fusuma), umbrellas, andon lamps, and garments. When machine-made paper from the West began to be imported into Japan during the Meiji Period (1868–1912), people referred to Japanese paper as washi in order to distinguish it from Western paper. Washi (和紙) literally means 'Japanese paper'. 和 (wa/Japan) + 紙 (shi/paper) = washi, handmade Japanese paper.


Where is washi made?

Although washi has been made throughout Japan for centuries, there are certain production centres famous for quality – including Echizen, Mino, Sekishu, Tosa, and Inshu – that continue to make washi today. One of these in particular, Echizen washi has been highly valued throughout history for its quality and ingenious design. Examples include Echizen-hosho and Echizen-torinoko paper, which were used by the samurai and nobility for official purposes.

Echizen washi by Sugihara Shoten at Japan House London

Echizen washi was on display in The Shop at Japan House London until 10 January 2019. Echizen City in Fukui Prefecture is well-known as a special production area for washi and also urushi lacquerware. Uruwashi is a term coined for works that use urushi (漆 urushi lacquer) and washi (和紙 Japanese paper) to create objects made out of Japanese paper with urushi lacquer coating.
A range of Echizen washi products were available to purchase including pieces of washi to be framed as wall art, washi greeting cards and stationery and uruwashi business card holders. It is possible to order tailor-made pieces of Echizen washi from Sugihara Shoten for interior design use. Please speak to a member of staff in The Shop to find out more.

Living National Treasure Iwano Ichibei IX

Born in 1933, Iwano’s father, Iwano Ichibei VIII, was also a National Treasure, prized for his washi making skills. The Iwano family has been keeping the Japanese art of making washi alive in Echizen, by passing down the traditions and skills across generations.

Iwano makes washi by hand, without the aid of machinery, using 100% Japanese kozo (mulberry). He mainly makes hosho paper, a high-quality kozo paper, which is strong and absorbent. It does not shrink or tear easily, making it a good paper for woodblock or lino printing. His work is renowned for its texture and quality which enables the art works of others to last.
Iwano's dedication to his craft is strong. He said, 'This is my lifework, I don't know why but I need to tell people about Echizen...'

Kadoide washi

During the Taisho Period (1912–1926), there were around 40 washi papermakers in the Kadoide area of Niigata Prefecture, but by 1973, only Kadoide washi remained. Washi is still made here today, beginning with the cultivation of paper mulberries (kozo), which are the main raw material for washi. The labels for the Kubota brand of Japanese sake are produced here. For Japan House São Paulo, Kadoide washi artisan Kobayashi Yasuo produced an innovative room partition made by coating a metal mesh with paper mulberry fibres. 

Awagami Factory

In addition to continuing the tradition of making washi, Awagami Factory develops new techniques and conducts research into materials. Listening carefully to the needs of washi users, the factory produces washi oriented towards modern-day uses and living spaces. The continued evolution of washi is demonstrated by the present-day demand for washi that is untrimmed, leaving edges that can be used, and innovations such as washi that is compatible with offset printing and inkjet printing.

Paper tableware | WASARA

Manufactured using moulded pulp, WASARA tableware is superbly designed, enabling dishes to be beautifully presented on environmentally-friendly, biodegradable paper plates and bowls ideal for parties, picnics, barbeques and catered events. Conceived expressly for holding as you eat, WASARA tableware allows you to enjoy the delight of paper in subtle ways: how lightweight it is and how it feels in your hands, or on your lips. WASARA is made from fast growing, sustainable bamboo, and bagasse – a by-product of extracting the juice from sugar cane that is usually wasted. It fully compostable, leaving zero waste. A wide range of WASARA products are available in The Shop at Japan House London. 

Pochi-bukuro gift envelopes | Kamisoe

Pochi-bukuro gift envelopes, writing paper, and envelopes created with washi from Echizen, Mino, Sekishu, and Kyoto are dyed using mica, before being printed with patterns using shell-based gofun pigment. Incorporating mica into the washi gives the paper an elegant style. The white gofun printing communicates the careful handcraftsmanship of the product. Note the aesthetic sense of putting different whites – mica and gofun – together with the white of the washi paper.