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Washi – Japanese Handcraft Paper – Too Good for Notepad


538 AC is a significant date in Japanese history.  This year, Buddhism, the religion that shaped the culture, first reached Japan.  It did not arrive just as a chant or a lecture.  It came with a collection of scrolls.

Paper and ink were commodities crucial for spreading ideas.

Importance of Paper for Founding the Nation

Paper existed in Japan, in the form of letters and textbooks sent from China and Korea.  But it was only in 610 AC that a Korean monk taught Japanese people how to make paper and ink.

Paper from abroad was mainly made of hemp and old fabric. They were difficult to make as woody fibres needed softening, the surface was rough, and they were very quickly infested by worms.  The Japanese government took the initiative by setting up a department that managed the production of better quality paper in quantity.  This was a big success.

In 701 AC, Washi was accepted as a form taxation, Chou.  There is a record of about twenty paper-producing areas around Japan, and a document written on locally produced Washi of this period remains in Shoso-in, the original official archive.

As a mean of tax payment, there was clear incentive to improve quality, making them stronger, whiter, and thinner.

Stronger Paper Made by Mother Nature

The bark of indigenous plants, having long fibre, such as that from the Ganpi tree and Kouzo bush, gave great strength to paper. Strands of fibre are picked, mixed with cold water and extract of Aibika (Abelmoschus Manihot), a fast reaction glue, and tipped into a special screen.  In a pool of clean cold water, the mixture spreads over as the screen is manually tilted back and forth to make sure that the fibres twine well around each other, to create a very fine mesh.  This meticulous handcraft, Nagashi zuki, is the secret of thin and durable paper.

Washi paper production relies on the ample supply of clean cold running water, as well as of tree/bush branches and barks.  The producers are located higher on the mountain, close to major streams.  Without the geographical characteristics of Japan, the production of Washi might not have been possible.

This craft, using one specific ingredient, Japanese Kouzo, from three areas, Sekishu Banshi, Hon Minoshi, and Hosokawa shi, is registered as UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage.

Washi as an Alternative to fabric

Washi paper was instrumental in the flourishing of the Edo period culture, especially Ukiyo-e.  Without paper which could withstand the repeated printing process, it would not have been possible to produce such colourful pictures.

Durable and aesthetically beautiful papers, Washi, have also been used for small goods, furnishing and building material since the Heian Period (794 – 1185 AC).  Shoji screen is the most typical example.  They are also used for lanterns, fans, clothing, purses, kites, and umbrellas.

Clothing made of Washi, called Kamiko, was an economical option, and so that it could have been more for low-income members of society.  But travelling poets, samurais, and monks were fond of this material because of its strength and lightness.

Bring Heritage Closer to Home – Washi in Modern Life

The labour-intensive process and specific raw material selection mean that handmade Washi is expensive.  Nobody disputes its beauty, but more than 90% of Washi in the market is machine made, which is weaker. They are made of imported, shorter fibre raw materials, and fibres are not sufficiently intertwined.  For writing notes and letters, or for wrapping gifts, machine-made Washi paper is much more economical and a more suitable option in modern days.

The proper handmade Washi, using only local Kouzo barks, can be considered similar to fabrics or even leather.  It is finished with natural glue ingredients, such as Kakishibu (persimmon tannin) varnish, to increase the durability, and to smoothen the surface.  These coatings can be reapplied once they wear off.  The finished Washi are rubbed and trampled to make it softer and more flexible.  Then needles and thread can pass through them smoothly, with no breakage.

It would be too expensive now to make a full dress with handmade Washi.  But it can last a long time with proper care, just like leather products need regular maintenance.  Washi has the advantage that it is thinner and lighter than leather, and so can be appropriate for products such as purse, book and tablet covers, maybe telephone cases or cushion covers and tablecloths.  If you change the perception that it is just a piece of paper, Washi has further possibilities.

It is an honour to be recognised as UNESCO Intangible Heritage.  But it would be regrettable if handmade Washi gets enshrined as another cultural heritage. It is a versatile material and should be embraced as part of modern life and culture.

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