Handmade Japanese paper, or washi, is used in many of the traditional handicrafts of the country. Washi paper is famous for its strength, absorbency and colorful decoration that lend itself well to artistic creations. Traditional Washi production usually do not use acid or bleach, and thus documents and paintings made over five hundred years ago remain in perfect condition.
Washi is primarily made from the bark fibers of three shrubs and each impart a different quality to the material. Kozo, or Japanese mulberry, has strong and long fibers that give the paper strength, ideal for making washi for practical, everyday objects like fans and screens. Washi made from the delicate and short Gampi fibers are noted for its smooth and glossy surface suitable for calligraphy and painting. Mitsumata fibers are shorter and thinner than the earlier two, and create richly-textured, high-density washi that was used for some of Japan’s paper currency. All of these plants are indigenous to Japan. Other fibers like hemp and abaca, are also used.
Washi production begins with collecting the branches from the different shrubs. The weathered outer bark is removed to reveal the pliant inner bark. This is then laboriously separated, cleaned, and whitened, before being pounded into small pieces. The newly-pounded fibers are then added to a liquid solution and combined with fermented hibiscus root that serves as the glue keeping the fibers together. Afterwards, the resulting paste-like substance is agitated on a bamboo mesh screen until paper of the desired thickness is made. The wet sheets are gathered and piled on top of one another to remove any excess water, and later laid out to dry either under the sun or indoors on a heated dryer.
Washi is often used in many handicrafts like origami and ukiyo-e, a genre of traditional woodblock prints. These arts showcase the paper’s delicate beauty and slightly textured surface. Washi are also used to create practical objects like umbrellas, fans, and screens. Washi, shaped over bamboo frames and lacquered, can be formed to make objects like bento boxes and tableware. Particularly strong sheets have been used to make durable clothing. Even today people are rediscovering washi and coming up with more innovative ways to use it.