Washi is the name of the traditional paper products made in Japan for over 1300 years, with wa meaning Japanese and shi meaning paper. They first arrived in Japan from China, brought by Buddhist monks who used them to write Sutras.
They are produced from long fiber that generally comes from one of these three plants: the Kozo (Paper Mulberry), which is thick and strong, the Mitsumata, which is soft and graceful, and the Gampi, which is rich and has great longevity.
They can also be made from rice, wheat or bamboo. Widely used for the arts of calligraphy, painting and origami, Washi paper is also used to make fans and all kinds of stationery. As a Japanese craft, it is registered as a UNESCO intangible cultural heritage in 2014.
Paper was originally made in China in the first century, and the art was brought to Japan in 610 AD by Buddhist monks who produced it for writing sutras. By the year 800, Japan's skill in papermaking was unrivalled, and from these ancient beginnings have come papers unbelievable in their range of color, texture and design.
It was not until the 13th century that knowledge of papermaking reached Europe -- 600 years after the Japanese had begun to produce it. By the late 1800's, there were in Japan more than 100,000 families making paper by hand. Then with the introduction from Europe of mechanized papermaking technology and as things "Western" became sought after including curtains and French printmaking papers, production declined until by 1983 only 479 papermaking families were left.
The inner barks of three plants, all native to Japan, are used primarily in the making washi.
Kozo(paper mulberry) is said to be the masculine element, the protector, thick and strong. It is the most widely used fibre, and the strongest. It is grown as a farm crop, and regenerates annually, so no forests are depleted in the process.
Mitsumata is the "feminine element": graceful, delicate, soft and modest. Mitsumata takes longer to grow and is thus a more expensive paper. It is indigenous to Japan and is also grown as a crop.
Gampi was the earliest and is considered to be the noblest fibre, noted for its richness, dignity and longevity. It has an exquisite natural sheen, and is often made into very thin tissues used in book conservation and chine colle printmaking. Gampi has a natural 'sized' finish which does not bleed when written or painted on.
Other fibres such as hemp, abaca, rayon, horsehair, and silver or gold foil are some-times used for paper or mixed in with the other fibres for decorative effect.
METHODS OF PRODUCTION
The inner barks of three plants, all native to Japan, are used primarily in the making washi.
Branches of the (kozo, gampi or mitsumata) bush are trimmed, soaked, the bark removed, and the tough pliant inner bark laboriously separated, cleaned, then pounded and stretched. The addition of the pounded fibre to a liquid solution, combined with tororo-aoi (fermented hibiscus root) as a mucilage, produces a paste-like substance when it is mixed.
It is this "paste" which is tossed until evenly spread on a bamboo mesh screen (called a su) to form each sheet of paper. The sheets are piled up wet, and later laid out to dry on wood in the sun or indoors on a heated dryer.
Warmth -- literally warmer to the touch, washi feels soft and creates a feeling of warmth in the viewer. Its tactile qualities make it wonderful for invitations and books.
Body -- since the fibres are left long and pounded and stretched rather than chopped, washi has a deceptive strength. Pure-fibred washi can even be sewn and was used for armour and kimono-lining in earlier times.
Strength -- the length of the fibres and the nature of the raw materials ensure that washi is highly workable when wet. Thus it is excellent for papier mache, and etching in which the paper must be soaked. These long fibres produce a luxurious deckle edge, the rough edge which marks a handmade paper.
Soft translucency -- kozo and mitsumata are naturally translucent fibres, a quality specific to paper from the East. As such, it is used regularly for the transmission of light.
Absorbency -- the nature of the fibres creates a ready absorption of inks and dyes. Papers that are "pure fibred" and dyed will result in much denser and more vibrant colour when fabric or watercolour dyes are applied.
Flexibility -- since the fibres position themselves at random, there is no real grain to washi. This gives the paper a resistance to creasing, wrinkling and tearing - and means it can be used more like cloth, for covering books, or boxes etc.
Lightness -- washi weighs much less than other papers of equal thickness. As a paper for books, it can create texts of apparent weightlessness.
Low acidity -- traditionally-made Japanese papers are truly acid-free if they are unbleached and unsized. Examples of printed papers exist in perfect condition in Japan from 1000 years ago. Today, papers from the village of Kurotani are among the finest archival papers.
Decoration -- for centuries, colourful designs applied by woodblock or handcut stencils have created vividly characteristic papers, for decorative use. Recently, silkscreened chiyogami (small repeated-patterned paper) is available in an unbelievable range and widely used by craftspeople. Although made by machine, the quality available is about 70% kozo and comes in hundreds of patterns.
Washi is generally tougher than ordinary paper made from wood pulp, and is used in many traditional arts. Origami, Shodo, and Ukiyo-e were all produced using washi. Washi was also used to make various everyday goods like clothes, household goods, and toys, as well as vestments and ritual objects for Shinto priests and statues of Buddha. It was even used to make wreaths that were given to winners in the 1998 Winter Paralympics. Several kinds of washi, referred to collectively as Japanese tissue, are used in the conservation and mending of books.
Printing -- the special absorbency, strength and texture of washi results in unique images. Traditional Japanese printing was done by woodblock, but washi is also effectively used for wood engraving, linoblock, or letterpress techniques. It responds well to embossing, and can be used effectively for multi-colour lithographs and chine-colle (etching). Rembrandt often used Japanese paper for his fine etchings, David Milne painted on gampi tissue, and Canadian Inuit have for some years used washi to elicit the best results in their stone and stencil prints.
Collage -- The broad range of textures, colours and patterns of the paper, and its wet strength, make washi a highly appropriate material for collage. Chiri papers, with their bark fragments and chiyogami are favourites for collage though all washi is suitable. In recent years, artists often paint watercolour over richly collaged "canvases".
Lighting -- Washi has been used traditionally in screens and lamps and more recently in shutters and blinds to utilize its translucency. Mino, 'silk', seikaiha and unryu are commonly used. After being moistened, washi will shrink slightly when it dries, thereby tightening it more securely on a frame.
Bookbinding -- Washi's strength and flexibility make it excellent for book covers and end papers or for book sleeves and boxes. Its wet strength makes it ideal repair tissue. Kyoseishi, ungei heavy, 'silk', chiri and chiyogami are among those strong enough for book covers. Usumino and Kurotani #16 make especially strong repair tissue, but tengu, mino, and yame are also suitable.
Sumi-e and Shodo -- Japanese printing and brush-writing using sumi, a natural carbon-based ink, are at their best on washi. Ise, kai, mino and all Kurotani papers are a few particular favourites for this use.
Many traditional uses of the paper have endured: origami, kites, doll and umbrella-making and unparalleled packaging. Today, its uses are limitless: paper jewellery; to cover mats in framing; used as a background for photography and to develop photographs on; to cover walls and furniture; to produce memorable wedding invitations and for a host of graphic design and public relations promotions.
Depending on different regions, there are different washi produced. For Kanto, there’s Edo Karakami and Edo Chiyogami, and we also have Inshu-washi and Sekishu-Banshi Paper for Chugoku, Tosa Washi for Shikoku, Echizen Paper for Hokuriku Shin-Etsu, Gifu Lanterns and Honmino-Shi Paper for Chubu.
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Edo karakami paper is a government-designated traditional craft made by adding designs and decorations to washi, Japanese handmade paper. As the name implies, it was developed in Edo (today’s Tokyo), and reflects a townspeople’s culture established by craftsmen and merchants who worked in the city during the Edo Period (1603-1868). The craft features free and fluid designs, many depicting familiar objects and scenes from daily life at the time, as well as natural subjects that give a rich sense of the seasons.
The origins of Edo karakami can be traced back to the Heian Period (794-1185), when patterned mon-toshi paper was introduced from Tang dynasty China. This paper was used as a model for the first karakami paper.As the city of Edo grew under the Tokugawa government, both demand and uses for karakami paper expanded. As need for the paper increased, the various decorating techniques and designs of Edo karakami came into being, developing into the unique and original forms that came to distinguish the art.
Methods of production
Karakami was handmade using wooden blocks engraved with designs and decorative materials such as mica powder or gofun, a whitewash made from ground shells. Interestingly, with the change of light, the Edo karakami will also change color, revealing the noble and mysterious changes of light or dark.
There are two key traditions of Edo karakami decoration, each building off an ancient style. One is a technique that embellishes works such as Buddhist scriptures with gold and silver powders, used since the Nara (710-794) and Heian Periods (794-1185). The masterpiece of this style is known as the Heike Nokyo, a series of 33 Buddhist scrolls dedicated to Hiroshima’s Itsukushima Shrine in the hope of bringing prosperity to the Heike clan. The other technique is that of ryoshi writing paper decoration, which centers around a wooden karakami block that adds decorations to eiso paper. Its masterpiece is said to be the Nishi-Honganji Collection of Thirty-six Anthologies (Nishi-Honganji-bon Sanju-rokunin-kashu), a collection of the work of 36 waka poets assembled at the end of the Heian Period.
At first, this paper was used as eiso – paper for transcribing poetry, such as short tanka poems or haikai linked verse – but as time passed, its use spread to wallpaper, byobu room partitions, fusuma heavy sliding doors and shoji, traditional light-weight sliding doors with translucent paper screens.
If you are interested in Karakami, please also see this special page!