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).

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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.

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Expectations

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.)
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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.”
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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

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

Lettering

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!

Neri (Part 2)

In part 1 of this post, I described neri and spoke of its essential role in sheet-forming. Now, in part 2, I’d like to start by taking a look at some of the common mistakes that are made when referring to neri.

1) Neri is sometimes described as sticky, or a kind of glue or paste, or something that makes the fibres stick together.
The material has similar properties to eggwhites, or to (the substance which exudes from) okra, so I suppose it is sticky in a way. But I don’t advocate the use of the word sticky because it connotes a kind of adhesive, which is not the intended role of neri. Gooey, mucilaginous, viscous, or ropy all seem like more appropriate ways to describe neri. Gooey is pretty spot-on, but unfortunately not particularly grown-up. I think there are two main reasons that neri is misinterpreted as a kind of glue. First, what is now almost universally referered to as neri was historically in certain locations called nori. The fact that nori can also mean “glue” in Japanese, has surely not helped to clarify the role of neri in the papermaking process. And second, while neri is not an adhesive as we normally think of them, it does in fact help the fibres bond to one another on a molecular level. This has to do with hydrogen bonding, the magic behind all papermaking. Neri made from tororo is hydrophilic (having a strong affinity for water), with a negative electro-chemical charge, which is also true of the fibre, leading to strong molecular bonds between the fibre, water, and neri in the vat. As water and neri are forced out of the sheet during the pressing and drying processes, the hydrophillic fibres will seek to replace those bonds they had with water with bonds to other fibres. It is thousands (millions?) of these molecular bonds between fibres that hold the finished sheet together. Remember that neri is essentially absent in the finished sheet. This is key in understanding neri as a formation aid, and not an adhesive. It encourages the hydrogen bonding process during sheet-forming, and in the end “disappears.”

2) Neri is occasionally introduced as a size agent or gum, with the purpose of preventing ink or pigment from bleeding when applied to the finished sheets.
As above, the presence of neri in the sheet-forming process generally leads to sheets with tighter chemical bonds and therefore a less porous surface, but it is not added to the vat with the intention of sizing the paper. To size a paper, the papermaker will not rely on neri, but instead will add a sizing agent, either during or after the sheet-forming process.

CULTIVATION, PROCESSING, AND VARIATIONS
In Japan neri is most commonly derived from the roots of the tororo-aoi plant. In English, the plant seems to be known by many different names, including Sunset Mallow, Sunset Hibiscus, etc. Its scientific name is Abelmoschus manihot, in the Malvaceae (or Mallows) family. Other members of the Malvaceae family include cotton and okra. Indeed, the seed-pods of tororo-aoi can be difficult to distinguish from okra, and okra is sometimes used by hobbyists as a substitute for tororo-aoi. Some papermakers grow their own tororo-aoi, but most order it from a supplier, who grows the roots specifically for the papermaking trade. She prunes back the leaves, stems, and buds of the plant during the growing season to encourage the roots to grow as big as possible. In the fall, she harvests the roots, and ties them into huge bales, and ships them to papermakers across the country. In appearance, the roots somewhat resemble ginger roots.

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At the papermaking studio, the roots are crushed and left to soak in water. The crushing is most often done by hand, with a mallet, but is occasionally completed in some kind of motor-driven stamping device. While soaking over the course of anywhere from a few hours to a few days, the roots will exude a gooey substance. The resultant liquid is strained through a plastic or metal sieve (or historically through cedar  branches!) to remove the roots. Finally, the mucilage is filtered once again through a fine fabric before being added to the papermaking vat.

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Most papermakers in Japan use a solution of a preservative called Creosol to store the roots, and may also use a small amount to preserve any neri that they produce. On rare occasions, the roots are preserved simply by drying them out, but the efficacy of the resultant neri is rather weak. The only papermaker I have met who still preserves his tororo in this way makes gampi paper. He says that since the gampi fibre is shorter in length, and naturally has a bit of its own gooeyness, the reduced efficacy of dried tororo is enough for his purposes.

The most commonly used plant for neri (by far) is tororo-aoi, but some papermakers use nori-utsugi (hydrangea paniculata Sieb) or a combination of the two. Despite its higher price, some papermakers swear by a combination of tororo and nori-utsugi, saying they could not make their characteristic paper if forced to use tororo or nori-utsugi alone. Historically, neri was made from other plants such as ginbaiso (deinanthe bifida), binan-kazura (kazura japonica), and aogiri (firmiana platinafolia), but I have personally only come across one living papermaker who is trying to make and use neri made from these other plants.

As one might expect, synthetic neri is also available. It is a polyacrylamide powder, and when mixed with water, it produces a liquid like that derived from tororo-aoi. Synthetic neri has its advantages, as it is not susceptible to heat, friction, or bacteria in the way that natural neri is. Additionally, the papermaker can store the powder indefinitely under the right conditions, and there are no roots to process or store. However, it does have a variety of disadvantages as well, the most serious of which is that it does not seem to break down and disappear the way that natural neri does. The long-term effects of synthetic neri remaining in sheets, though mostly presumed to be benign, is still not fully understood. Sheets made in the traditional manner (including the use of naturally derived neri) have been shown to last hundreds, even a thousand years or more with little or no degradation. As a selling point, this is an advantage that most papermakers are not willing to cede. Synthetic neri is standard in the machine-made papermaking world, but is still widely frowned upon among hand-papermakers. In the end, however, even the most diligent papermaker may add a small amount of synthetic neri to the vat during the most dogged days of summer.

USAGE
Once the papermaker has prepared his neri (from whatever source), it is ready to be used to set up the vat for papermaking. Once he has mixed the fibre thoroughly with the water in the vat, neri is added. The mixing-in of neri is usually done with a bamboo pole, using long, circular, and sharp strokes. The papermaker will be careful not to mix the solution too long, as neri’s efficacy breaks down with extended manipulation. The papermaker uses his careful understanding of the desired thickness and quality of the paper being made, the base stiffness of the neri, the ambient temperature, the type and quality of the prepared fibre, and possibly other factors, to judge the amount of neri to add, and the length and intensity of mixing. Some papermakers know if they’ve added enough neri based on the sound the bamboo pole makes running through the solution. Others will pick up a handful of solution and tip it back into the vat, observing the condition of the solution as it falls. Some papermakers (especially novices), may need to try forming a sheet to determine if the ratio is just right.

CONCLUSION
I sometimes refer to neri as “the magic ingredient” in the Japanese papermaking process. It really is what allows washi to be washi-like; it gives washi many of its unique characteristics that set it apart from western papers. I hope this description is helpful. Please let me know if you have any ideas or questions about neri by leaving a comment.