The World of Washi

Imagine a world without paper.

For many of us, it would be a minor inconvenience, far less worrisome than a power outage. Some of us might even sigh with relief that cluttered desks and junk mail would be far less of an issue, while others would nostalgically miss paper's role in our personal letters and diaries.

In medieval Japan, however, life without washi was almost inconceivable. Washi was used not only as stationery, but also for making humidity- and pest-preventing window coverings (shoji), ritual offering streamers at Shinto shrines, and clothing that was far more affordable than expensive cotton or silk garments. These diverse uses were possible because washi contains plant fibers that are longer and more intertwined than those in Western paper, giving washi absorbency and long-lasting durability.

The process of making washi is time-intensive and laborious, which is why the first reaction of many Japanese to Western paper tissues was that it seemed an incredible waste of a precious commodity. Washi is usually made in the winter because the colder temperatures keep the plant fibers from rotting during the process. Dried bark from the gampi, kozo and mitsumata plants is steeped in cold water for several days, boiled with lye to soften the fibers, then rinsed again in cold water until the lye has washed off.

Next, the bark fibers are beaten to separate the fibers and put in a vat of water and juice from the root of the sunset hibiscus, which keeps the fibers from settling to the bottom of the mixture. The washi artisan then dips a large square wooden mold into the vat and tosses the excess fibers and water around in a motion that resembles old-fashioned gold panning; this is done several times for each sheet of paper so the uncut washi fibers are forced to knit together. The individual sheets are then peeled off the mold, pressed together to remove most of the water and then brushed onto long, flat boards that are set outdoors until the paper is fully dry.

Though some companies have attempted to mechanize the washi-making process, the results have been less durable and artistically appealing than the traditional hand-made method. Several villages in prefectures throughout the country have been making washi every winter for over 1100 years.

Washi still plays a large role in modern Japanese culture. The paper for yen banknotes is a kind of washi, which is why yen notes are noticeably thicker and more durable than American dollars. Some artisans are discovering new uses for washi in lifestyle craft goods, such as washi tape. Craft publishers and bookbinders still consider washi an unparalleled paper for its rich texture and beautiful appearance, following in the footsteps of the medieval scribes and poets who used it for meticulously transcribed sutras or cursive love notes.

Though the modern world is heading in a largely electronic direction, washi is a sensuous reminder of past ages and present craftsmanship. Every sheet is the fruit of a winter's work and an inviting canvas for all kinds of musings.