With the help of new-generation paper artisans, a 125-year-old Japanese paper company is breathing new life into an age-old washi tradition.
NO matter how beautiful a piece of paper is, it has little worth if it is not utilised in our everyday lives,” muses paper craftsman Naritoshi Hoki, a pragmatist who has devoted nearly half his life to the generations-old washi (Japanese handmade paper) craft.
Setting aside his schmaltzy attachment to tradition, 46-year-old Hoki is one of the new generation papermakers in Japan’s Gifu Prefecture who strive to make traditional craft fit into contemporary life.
Collaborating with Gifu City-based paper manufacturer Ieda Paper-craft Inc., Hoki handcrafts washi with intricate patterns and natural dyes and ornamental papers like the Snowflake collection. Ieda’s best-selling product, Snowflake is sold in 15 countries and is a regular fixture at international trade shows like Paris’s Maison et Objet and Ambiente Frankfurt in Germany.
Just a decade ago, washi’s fate wasn’t as rosy, and craftsmen like Hoki were twiddling their thumbs waiting for orders that never came.
The history of washi dates back to the sixth century when a Korean Buddhist priest brought papermaking to Japan from China. By the Heian period (794-1185), the Japanese were unrivalled in their papermaking skills and know-how. The use of tougher and more fibrous barks from shrubs like kôzo (paper mulberry) mitsumata and gampi produces top-notch quality paper.
Delicate yet durable with gorgeous textures, washi is used for calligraphy, painting, archival documents and wagasa (traditional Japanese umbrellas). Japanese historians have found 1,000-year-old printed washi paper still in mint condition.
Washi’s ethereal quality and translucence allow it to filter harsh sunlight or light from electricity into a soft, warm glow, making washi a perfect choice for lanterns and shoji (sliding wood-panelled screens).
In the old days, papermaking was typically a family business or involved an entire village, and carried out in winter months, between the harvesting and planting seasons. The types of washi depend on the areas where they are produced with subtle variations in their production methods. For example, Mino washi hails from Gifu Prefecture, Awa washi from Tokushima or Echizen washi from Fukui Prefecture.
Labour of love
In Gifu, the history of Mino washi dates back 1,300 years. Pristine rivers and streams in the landlocked region hemmed in by mountain ranges, and the abundance of natural materials like kôzo allow the papermaking industry to flourish. Recognised as Important Intangible Cultural Properties by the Japanese government, Mino washi is known for its fine texture, brilliant white hue and translucence. Gifu’s renowned traditional crafts like chochin (lantern), uchiwa (fan) and Isamu Noguchi’s iconic Akari light sculptures are crafted with Mino washi.
On a visit to Hoki’s atelier in Mino, he showed us the painstaking process of crafting washi.
The time-consuming and labour-intensive work includes steaming the kôzo branches to strip the outer bark. The inner fibres are soaked for days to neutralise naturally occurring acid. Then, the fibres are boiled in a strong alkaline solution to release the starches and fats, followed by a washing process to remove the impurities. The resulting white fibres are pummelled to further loosen and separate the fibres, and to turn them into pulp. Formation agent or mucilage like the roots of tororo-aoi (Abelmoschus manihot) is added to the pulp and mixed with water in a large papermaking vat.
“In commercial paper factories, they use a chemical formation agent to reduce costs,” explains Hoki who has to process the tororo-aoi to extract its slimy liquid. He then dips the wooden screen into the vat repeatedly until a thin sheet of paper is formed. Using the same method, he can manipulate the washi’s thickness.
“You can see how thin and translucent it is,” he says holding up a flimsy sheet. “After drying under the sun for about three to five hours, it becomes paper!”
Staffed by four employees, including Hoki’s wife, Miho, the atelier churns out an average of 100 to 150 pieces of washi a day, measuring 1m x .5m.
An aberration to tradition, Hoki doesn’t come from a family of paper artisans. He apprenticed under a master craftsman for five years.
“During my years of training, even my mentor didn’t get any work,” says Hoki. Undaunted, Hoki kept honing his skills and focused on innovating washi techniques and products.
Then he met the president of Ieda Paper-craft, Manabu Ieda, whose vision resonates with Hoki’s.
“We started developing products together and experimented with patterns and forms,” says Hoki.
A fourth generation in the family business that was founded in 1889, Manabu is instrumental in resuscitating Ieda Paper-craft by introducing new washi products and branding for the company.
“When I started working for the family, there was hardly any product in Japan that uses Ieda’s paper. My forefathers only sold Mino washi paper for Gifu lanterns and for writing and painting,” says Manabu who is in his 40s.
He teamed up with young artisans like Hoki, and Kenji Sawaki and Kurata Makoto of Corsoyard paper studio to create new products and introduce a new brand “1/100 brand” under the theme of melding traditional craft techniques with contemporary designs.
The duo at Corsoyard revived the mizu uchiwa (water fan) production method. Crafted from ultra-thin and translucent washi made from gampi bark fibres, mizu uchiwa was popular in the Meiji Era (1868-1912) but had gone extinct in the 20th century due to its tedious production method and the scarce supply of gampi shrubs.
“In the olden times, in the height of summer, spectators on boats watching the ukai (cormorant) fishing in Gifu’s Nagara river would dip the fan into water to moisten it before fanning themselves,” explains Manabu. Hence, the film-like paper is coated with natural varnish to make it water resistant.
Manabu teamed up with Russian designer Vera Ilyushechikina to come up with the snowflake motifs.
“When I first saw Mino washi, the way its white texture was playing in sunlight reminded me of real snowflakes,” writes Ilyushechikina in a press statement. “Drawing on my childhood memory, I came up with various snowflake patterns. Made from Mino washi, the products looked exactly like real snowflakes.”
The snowflakes can be pasted onto glass panes by spraying water onto its surface. They can be peeled off easily and reused.
“We use handmade and chemical-free washi because they are more durable and allow for intricate patterns,” says Manabu.
Once, Ieda received an order from Switzerland for 840,000 washi snowflakes. “But we couldn’t meet the supply,” says Manabu.
In recent years, Ieda has also expanded their business into washi printing, using various painting technology like stencilling, silkscreen and inkjet printing.
But as Hoki caps it all: “We can produce high-quality washi but it is just paper which only a connoisseur’s value. By introducing modern forms yet using traditional techniques, we can make washi accessible to everyone.”
“Hopefully, many people will be interested in and value the washi tradition again.”
For more info on Ieda Paper Craft visit www.iedashikou.com/1_100brand/en/index.html. Snowflakes, priced between RM26 to RM46, are available at lifestyle boutique atomi in Singapore, www.atomi-jp.com.