September 6, 2019

Behind the paper: What is Washi?

When I ask our customers if they knew Washi paper before they had met our Chigiri-e products, many times they answer “Yes,” and they would mention Washi tape. I have mixed feelings about this. On one hand, it feels good that the word Washi has come a long way to achieve name recognition in the U.S. But at the same time I wish it would have been conveyed with more proper appreciation of the real Washi feature.

washi tape
washi taba
Washi tape ( decorative paper masking tape ) and the real Washi paper

Washi paper and Washi tape are two different things. Washi tape is a high quality masking tape originally manufactured by a Japanese company marketed as Japanese Masking Tape. At some point it started being called “Washi tape” in international markets.

Then, what is the real Washi paper? Washi can be translated to “Japanese paper” simply meaning wa (Japanese) and shi (paper). Made from the inner fibers of tree barks, Washi paper is composed of small fibers intertwined complexly which produce the paper’s unique characteristics of soft and durable texture.

With 1,500 years of history, Washi paper had been playing a fundamental role in Japanese culture and in people’s lives. In addition to basic necessities such as official documents, banknotes, umbrellas, and sliding doors, people have been enjoying crafts using Washi papers such as Chigiri-e for centuries.

washi banknotes 2 washi umbrella washi door
Japanese banknotes, umbrella and sliding doors. Washi paper has been extensively used in our lives.

 

washi lamp washi origami washi balloon
Crafts using Washi paper have been enjoyed for centuries. 

Though some of the processes have been replaced by machines over the years, the complicated, painstaking work is still necessary to produce a sheet of Washi.

We have made a short video about Washi paper from which we hope you can learn how the paper is made and how it is used in Japan. 

 

The video was shot in Ogawa-Machi, located 50 miles northeast of Tokyo, which has been known as one of the best producers of Washi paper in the country. In 2014, the traditional manufacturing process of Ogawa-Washi was inscribed on UNESCO's list of Intangible Cultural Heritage.

While we were interviewing Teizo Takano, a senior crafter of Washi making, I took in the magnificent view of the hills as I listened to the murmuring of swift stream alongside his workshop. (The town’s name “Ogawa” means a small stream.)

Cool, abundant water is an indispensable requirement for Washi making, Mr. Takano told us. He always makes Washi paper with mountain stream in mind. Imagining the stream flowing rapidly and curving from side to side makes the fibers in his paper intertwined nicely. 

washi kamisuki washi stream

 

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