Nice Magazine Article

jp012Washi is featured in volume 35 (Spring/Summer 2015) of Kateigaho International Japan Edition, a luxurious, super-glossy magazine detailing different aspects of Japanese art and culture. The article is relatively brief, but is a mostly fine introduction to washi, especially for beginners. Unfortunately, there are a few factual errors and what I imagine are errors in translation, as the article was originally written in Japanese. It’s too bad, as the article has such potential and is accompanied by really beautiful photography.

The article is written in celebration of the fact that “last November [2014], washi-making techniques were included on UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list.” This has been something of a big deal here, and I have failed to address it on this blog until now. I think it’s still too early to tell what kind of an impact the designation will have – if any – on local papermakers. I’d love for it to spark renewed interest in and increased use of washi both in Japan and internationally, but my instinct is that there will be a small bump in interest followed by a return to status quo (which is decidedly dire).


Because I did find errors, I need to fact-check the following before accepting them entirely, but these are some discovery points for me in the article:

In the section on Sekishu Banshi:
• “What characterizes this washi is its resistance to tearing, due to the long, thick fibers of the Sekishu kozo grown in local fields for three years before harvesting. The bark fibers have a robust yet pliant quality.” I’ve never heard of kozo being harvested after three years. Ganpi and mitsumata, after three to five (or more) years growth, but kozo, always after one. I wonder if the article is correct, as I would think that the fibre would be extremely tough and gnarly after three years. I have it on good authority that even the bark from the base of the plant after *one* year is sub-optimal in terms of its toughness and lack of pliancy (also that the top part of the plant is mostly useless, leaving the middle section as Grade AAA). Three-year kozo is a very interesting tidbit if it is true!

In the section on papers made across Japan:
• The number of papermaking studios in Japan is listed as “nearly 200”. The number I have heard over and over again here over the last 10+ years is “about 300,” though in recent years I have heard people begin to question that number as too high, so maybe this number is the new standard. The “washi specialist” listed for the article is someone I know and respect, so I have ultimate faith in the numbers, though it’s a bit depressing to think that the number has sunk that low.
• Mitsumata is translated as “paper birch.” This is the first time for me to see it translated this way. I suspect that this is likely an error, but I need to do some research!

And finally:
• “Geography and the human hand impart unique traits to each of these Japanese papers.” Nice turn of phrase.



There’s a great passage in the equally great article “The Man Who Sailed His House” about expectations and work, which says a lot, I think, about the Japanese work ethic.
After hellos, you take your place in the first shed, running tree trunks through the table saw to make rough boards, the fanged blade in ceaseless rotation, throwing sawdust and the good, clean scent of cedar. Not an hour into the shift and your callused hands are chapped red. But even this is familiar, an unspoken lesson taught decades before by your father in the rice fields: Work without complaint. Apply one’s mind to the task at hand until everything else has been obliterated.” (Do take a bit of time to read the whole article; it’s well worth it.)

When I first read this, I immediately thought of my time working in a papermaking studio in Oguni for two years. The author is talking about the protagonist of his story, but also about the Japanese, and what’s expected of them. In Oguni, I always felt a certain pressure, an unspoken expectation of me to keep at my work, without complaint, no matter the job, until it was completely finished (obliterated). I wasn’t being held to a higher standard because I am a foreigner, or because I was the new guy, or because I was in a pseudo-apprenticeship position. All of those things may have contributed, but in the end I was held to the same standard as anyone else in the studio: work diligently until you are done. I wonder if I have always been a bit lazy (or a lot!), and that made me feel this difference more keenly than others might; someone with a better work ethic might not have felt as sharp a contrast. I believe it changed me, and changed me for the better.

Old Ream of Handmade Paper

I just love this object from the Suntory Museum exhibition “Washi: The Timeless Beauty of Japanese Paper.”
What you are looking at is an antique (Meiji period, so at least 150 years old) ream of Japanese paper, with straw thread between sheets to count them, topped with a sheet of chirigami to protect the bundle, and finally bundled with straw rope. I don’t know much more about the object, but I’ve been smitten with it from the minute I first saw it at the exhibit about five years ago, and wanted to share it with you now.


Sugeta is the name for the two-piece tool used to create sheets of Japanese paper in the traditional nagashizuki method; the tool corresponds to the western mould and deckle, but is a little different in its construction. The two pieces of the sugeta are the su and the keta. The keta is a double frame (upper and lower), hinged on the back side along the long dimension, with clasps usually on the front to close the sugeta. The su is a flexible screen or mat of fine bamboo splints woven with silk thread, which fits between the upper and lower pieces of the keta and is held in place by closing the clasps on the front of the keta.
The top side of the su is where the paper is made by allowing water to drain through the su, leaving the matted fibre on the surface of the su. The su is usually made of bamboo splints which have been shaved down to around a millimetre in diameter, but su made of kaya (micanthus reed) were historically often made by farmers who could not afford to have a bamboo tool made, and these kayazu are still seen on occasion. To imitate the “antique” look afforded by a kayazu, special su are woven with bamboo splints of varying sizes. To minimize the appearance of shadows and laid lines, a sha may be attached to the top side of the su; a sha is an extremely finely woven mesh screen, usually made of silk thread, and treated with kaki-shibu (persimmon tannin) to make it waterproof.
The keta is usually made of hinoki (Japanese Cypress), and finely crafted to prevent bowing or sagging when full with fibre solution. At smaller sizes (approximately 20x30cm or less), ribs on the lower keta to support the su are not necessary, but at larger sizes they will usually be present, about 15cm apart, running the short direction. Ribs may be simple pieces of wood shaped to a point on the top side, but are most often pieces of wood with metal wire runners along the top, to minimize shadows in the finished paper. At sizes larger than approximately 30x40cm, nigiri-bo (handles) may be attached, running the short direction from the front to the back of the upper keta. Also for larger tools there is usually  a suspension system, to aid the papermaker in supporting the weight of the tool once filled with fibre solution. Larger tools may produce one large sheet, or the keta may be divided by pieces of wood into a number of smaller frames, allowing the papermaker to make more than one sheet at a time.
sake labels

The author using a specially constructed sugeta to make eighteen sake labels at a time.


When I was a young man — a teenager, I guess — I just about lived to letter. I decorated my school binders with logos of bands I liked (either official logos or ones I made up myself). I bought calligraphy pens and nibs and learned some basic calligraphy. And I was a Letraset nut, buying lots of new and interesting Letraset pages to embellish my drawings and doodles. As an adult, that mostly went away. I’m not sure where or exactly when it went, but it went, the only vestige being a slight sense of pride in my regular handwriting (when I try!). I continued to be interested in using letters, but making letters became something that experts do, not something I spent much time on, if any. I recently started using Pinterest. I’ve started playing with a creative project, and I wanted to have a place to store images to use for inspiration. Pinterest seemed too frilly (not to mention too social) for me and I looked at a lot of different software and web apps to do the job. In the end I came back to Pinterest, mainly because of it’s ubiquity. One of the boards I soon found myself making was for letterforms. Looking at all that letter work, has in turn inspired me to start trying my hand at hand lettering once again (after a 20+ year break!). I was pleasantly surprised at how quickly and relatively painlessly I was able to achieve reasonable results — I expected it would be a long time before I produced anything I might want to actually show anybody. I still have a long way to go, having just taken the first step, but I’m feeling good about having taken those first steps. With this in mind, I’ve decided to start a portfolio to show my practice and have a record of my (eventual) progress. That portfolio is here.

150130a-misconception-crop 150129b-lethargic-crop 150210-ochre-crop Let me state unambiguously that these are sketches, made by a hack amateur, and are not intended to be compared to masters’ works. I’m not posting these because I think they’re fantastic examples. I’m posting them because they’re the best I’ve personally done on any given day and I’m hoping that over time they’ll get better and better and I’ll eventually be able to post fantastic examples!

What is Washi?

I started writing a post about washi tape, but realised that before I get to that I’ve got to take a closer look at washi itself. I’ve encountered the discussion of “what is washi” repeatedly over the last few years, and I’d like to examine the origin, meaning, and usage of the word washi.

So, what is washi? Screen Shot 2015-03-26 at 3.09.15 PM

Let’s start with the kanji characters. wa (和) =Japan, and shi (紙) = paper, so washi (和紙) is Japanese paper. So far, so good.

So then, what is washi (Japanese Paper)?

If you asked 10 random people to describe washi, you’d get back 5 or more different answers. For some individuals, the word washi conjures up images of thin, soft, delicate sheets of natural-coloured handmade paper. Others might imagine richly coloured sheets, made with various natural dyes and pigments in varied patterns. For others the same word means papers in a variety of boldly coloured, often intricately detailed, heavily printed papers. Still others think of paper used for origami, the craft of paper folding, or of machine-made papers of innovative design and subtle sensibility. Another possibility is thin papers patterned to look like a kind of lace. The list goes on.

So, what is washi, really?

Let’s start with the beginning. Tsai Lun supposedly invented papermaking in China 1900 years ago (likely a non-truth, but that’s another story for another time). Was this Washi? No, of course not. It was Chinese paper. Ok, next. Priest Doncho brought papermaking from Korea to Japan 1400 years ago. Was this washi? Well, when it first entered Japan it couldn’t have been Japanese paper yet, so no. How about 100 years down the road? Finally, we’re getting close, something we can sink our teeth into — maybe this was Japanese paper, but it was still not called “washi” by anyone, so can we say it was washi? Hmm, not sure. Next we have the development of nagashizuki, what is usually considered the prototypical Japanese paper production method, probably about 1200 years ago. Was this washi? … Probably. In my mind paper from this period is the easiest thing to call Japanese paper (because its particular way of being made was developed in Japan by Japanese for Japanese), but the word washi still didn’t exist yet! The word paper (kami 紙) existed, but not washi. Jumping forward to paper made in the period *just before* the opening of the country to trade, around 150 years ago — was it washi? It had to be, right? With no outside influence this had to be quintessentially Japanese paper. But it still wasn’t called washi yet! So, next we have the official opening of the country around 1850, and around the same time the widespread introduction of foreign paper and soon thereafter western papermaking technology. The need for a name for Japan-made paper, as opposed to foreign-made, arose at this time, and the word washi came into use. Of course initially, this was hand-made, exclusively of traditional Japanese bast fibres kozo, mitsumata and gampi, but in time papers made with other fibres and even on papermaking machines also came to be called washi. Recently, even papers made outside of Japan that have a certain look or feel have been spotted labeled as washi.

It’d be nice if we could just say “paper made in Japan”, but it’s just not as simple as that. Let’s look at some different papers and try to decide which is washi and which is not. We’ll start with some relatively easy ones, and work our way into some more difficult ones:

• Machine made in Japan from Japanese kozo? Does the machine-made aspect disqualify it from being “real washi”?

• Handmade by Japanese craftspeople in Africa using local mulberry (kozo)? In today’s global climate, does location of manufacture or provenance of materials matter?

• Handmade by Taiwanese in Taiwan but to the specifications of a Japanese studio (and sent back to Japan to be sold in Japan or other markets as “Japanese paper”)? Does the maker’s nationality have an effect?

• Machine made from a blend of (imported) wood pulp and kozo, in Japan by a 500 year old Japanese company, using a combination of production methods, some of which are “ancient” or “traditional”? Where do you draw the line?

• Handmade using strictly traditional methods, but using kozo grown in South America?

• Handmade by a Living National Treasure papermaker, but using non-local kozo?

• Cooked in ash, and produced using strictly traditional methods, but dried on heated stainless steel?

The interesting thing here is that there are people on both sides of every one of the above cases, all of which are real, by the way. Some will say it is washi and some will say it is not.

It’s more or less impossible to agree on whether each of these are “real washi” or not! Sadly, even Japanese papermakers don’t have a ready answer. In the end, it looks as though we’ll have to go forward without a clear distinction of what washi is. That makes things difficult for those trying to save it, work with it, or even talk about it, but arriving at a consensus is proving to be even more difficult.

What does the word washi mean to you? Let me know in the comments!

Tōhoku Kirigami

I went last weekend to see an exhibit here in Tokyo about a special kind of kirigami (paper-cutting), as practiced in Tōhoku, the northern area of Honshū (the main island of Japan).


There’s a connection to the sacred here that I don’t understand well enough to write about, but these cut paper objects were traditionally (and to some extent still are) displayed in shrines and homes, as dedication to the gods. Although it includes some relatively fine cutting, this is really quite different from katagami stencil cutting, which I believe is more widely known in the west. That kind of hyper-precise and intricately delicate technique is not the point here. I would say that this cutting falls more in the Mingei realm. Mingei Undō is usually rendered in English as the Japanese Folk Art Movement, and espouses the realisation of beauty in everyday, utilitarian objects that have been made by nameless and unknown craftspeople. At the same time, it is not Mingei, strictly speaking.

Along with the exhibit, there was a demonstration of the cutting in the museum (image below). I wasn’t able to get a very good picture, but it looks like the catalogue has some good images; the catalogue is on order, and when it arrives, I’ll post some more images in a new post, linking back to here.


photo 2