Washi (和紙) is a term used to refer to paper made in Japan using local, traditional crafting techniques.
Japanese paper is sometimes mistakenly referred to as “rice paper,” although no parts of the rice plant are used to make paper in Japan.
The process to manufacture Japanese paper is not dissimilar from methods used worldwide. But, being handmade, it implies the use of several materials indigenous to Japan, which makes it unique from other parts of the world.
Highly simplified, the process starts with the part of the plant that will be used to turn into paper (bark or pulp) being washed and boiled multiple times over several days. This removes unwanted parts and chemicals. Once mostly free from impurities, it will be discolored and then boiled one last time in order to be mashed afterward. The resulting mash will be mixed with water. A starchy substance will be added at this point to facilitate the “gluing” of fibers to one another in the following step.
The resulting water containing the mash is scooped using a shallow tray with a strainer-like bottom which will then be rocked by one or more artisans until all excess water is removed. This leaves a very thin layer of pulp in the tray. The scooping is repeated quickly and consistently, adding layers of will-be paper on top until the desired thickness is obtained.
The process takes several days and relies heavily on the artisan’s experience to obtain paper that is strong, smooth to the touch, and pleasant to look at.
The following video by Dento Kougei Aoyama Square shows some of the stages of the process, carefully carried out by artisan Tadashi Sawamura, manufacturer of Minowashi (washi from Gifu prefecture.)
There are a few different types of traditional washi, usually divided in a few categories depending on what plant is used as a raw material:
• Gampishi (雁皮紙, or also 斐紙) is used in decorative objects for its slightly reflective properties.
• Mistumatagami (三椏紙) is a relatively strong type of paper with a smooth surface. Used to make banknotes in the Meiji period, a modern type of the same paper is still in use for paper money in Japan.
• Kouzogami (楮紙, also kokushi or kajikami, 穀紙) and Danshi (檀紙) are particularly strong, used for larger objects exposed to erosion and wear such as sliding panels, woodblock prints and umbrellas. It is also appreciated by Japanese calligraphists. Two popular manufacturing areas are Gifu and Nara, with paper manufactured in these prefectures known as Minowashi (or Minogami) and Yoshinogami, respectively.
• Mashi (麻紙, also pronounced asagashi) is made using hemp or ramie.
Although paper was common in China by the time it started being produced in Japan, it is unknown whether paper manufacturing processes were imported or discovered locally. In either case, washi paper has been known to the Japanese people since the 3rd and 4th century.
According to findings, it was first used by Buddhist monks for writing mantras.
Washi must be made according to the traditional manufacturing processes in order to be considered authentic.
As for the materials, there are no set rules to indicate what may be called 'washi'; nonetheless, since only vegetable fibers are traditionally used in the process, it is implied that synthetic fabrics should adopt different names.
An example is the paper made by Onao, producing Naoron®, which is also used in SIWA products. Despite the addition of synthetic fiber, this peculiar type of Japanese paper is manufactured in the traditional way, positioning itself between traditional washi and a new type of Japanese paper.
Did you know?
The production of washi, just like any other type of paper, requires a large amount of freshwater throughout the process. Cold, running water creates particularly good paper thanks to its purity and to the fact that the lower temperatures produce a firmer pulp.