The traditional Japanese crafts have been recognized by the whole world as being intangible cultural heirlooms. The art of making washi, or traditional Japanese paper, is one of these crafts, and, today, we’re going to take a look at the history, manufacturing process, and common uses of washi paper.
First and foremost,
1. What is washi?
Side note: although it is sometimes referred to as ‘washi paper’ in English, the notion is slightly redundant, as the word ‘washi’ itself means ‘Japanese paper.’ The ‘wa’ stands for ‘Japanese,’ and ‘shi’ for ‘paper.’
This being said, washi is the traditional Japanese way of making paper. As opposed to the paper we are used to in the west, the most representative type of washi is a bit thicker, and has a pleasant rugged texture. However, it can also come in thinner and smoother textures – most origami paper and washi tape is made of a more delicate type. OK, you got that – washi is traditional Japanese paper. But how exactly is it different from what we have in the West?
2. How is washi made?
Truth is, the main difference between washi and regular paper is in the manufacturing process. To produce washi, the Japanese use either ganpishi, kozogami (paper mulberry), or mitsumatagami fibers. They say that almost any plant can be transformed into washi, but these three are preferred due to their specific properties. For instance, mitsumatagami fibers are sturdier and have an ivory hue, making them perfect for use in traditional arts like shodo or Sumi-e. On the other hand, ganpishi is used to produce smoother and whiter washi, which is perfect for printing on.
The manufacturing process itself is fascinating too. It started off as a wintertime activity, mostly done by farmers as an additional source of income. The plant of choice would be boiled first, so as to remove the bark, dried, and boiled again with lye. The fibers were then soaked in cold running water for a long time (usually in nearby rivers) in order to lighten their color, and remove the lye and any impurities. After that, the softened fibers would be mixed with water once again, and the resulting paste would become washi.
3. But what is washi used for?
In all honesty, it’s harder to point out a thing washi was NOT used for in Japan. First and foremost though, they would use it for traditional arts. Calligraphy, performed both as a recreational activity and a sacred ritual in temples, required vast quantities of washi. The famous ukiyo-e prints that were so popular during the Edo period also needed washi. Naturally, it is also used as the main material for origami – the Japanese art of paper folding.
Besides the arts, washi has some more practical uses as well. For instance, is was, and still is used for shoji (Japanese folding screens) and indoor lamps. It is also sometimes used for making parasols. Once more thing – washi is still used to this day for printing banknotes in Japan.
4. How can I get my hands on washi?
Some of us in the West might be most familiar with washi tape – a type of masking tape that comes in all sorts of colors, patterns, and motifs. It’s a very trendy and kawaii piece of stationery to cutify your study notebooks, calendars, or whatnot, loved by Japanese and Western women alike. Washi stickers are another huge industry right now – they’re available pretty much anywhere in Japan (or online), and are popular, inexpensive souvenirs to bring home from your trip. Another type of washi you can easily get is origami paper, as it is often sold as a souvenir at many representative locations throughout Japan.
5. Why is Japanese paper so famous?
Well, aside from the huge range of uses and superior quality, Japanese washi has been included in the UNESCO list of intangible cultural heritage – meaning that it was recognized by experts as a unique craft practiced only in Japan. This recognition encourages washi artisans to pass on their knowledge and skill – thus making sure that this fantastic traditional art does not die with the change of times.
Bet you’ve never imagined that paper can have such a long and fascinating history! However, it’s washi that we’re talking about here – a craft that started off as a source of income for Japanese farmers and made its way up to an intangible cultural heritage element of the world.
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