Japanese Papier

Beyond Words

Generations of artisans have crafted marvelous world of Japanese paper. They continue to do so even today. Over time, mechanisation has led to new techniques and new products, integrating Western materials and approaches while remaining an integral part Japanese culture.

Paper of every kind tends itself to art, games, architecture, religious rituals, clothing, festivities, the dining table and all the everyday items. Here we have chosen to present the contemporary reality of this art, Japanese paper, complex and difficult to name. It is all paper, beyond words.

Precious heritage

Japanese artisans have been making paper for centuries. This challenging work is done under difficult conditions, for the best quality paper is made using very cold water. Over the centuries, these artisans created hundreds of types of paper to meet all the needs of Japanese life. It is thanks to their superb work that Japan forged such a rich culture around paper.

Today, as in many other fields, machines have supplanted human workers. There are only 320 artisans left, who make paper by hand, and their average age is 56, according to Mr. Tetsuro Maruko, All Japan Handmade Washi Association. We salute them and their allies who continue to make hand-made paper at a time when it can so easily be replaced with less expensive industrial or synthetic materials (nylon, plastic, etc.).

The essentials of washi

The secret of Japanese paper lies in the painstaking work of the artisans who make it and in the quality of the fibres they use. These fibres come essentially from three plants : kozo, mitsumata and Gampi.

Kôzo (Broussonetia kazinoki x B. papyrifera), a paper mulberry hybrid, is by far the most widely used species. Its long, thick and sturdy fibres are said to produce “masculine” paper. Kôzo is easy to grow and the new shoots are harvested every year.

The stems of mitsumata (Edgeworthia chrysantha), or paperbush, naturally branch out in groups of three, hence the plant’s name mitsu (three) – mata (forks). Their very flexible fibres are short, fine soft and lustrous. This plant is said to produce “feminine” paper well suited to printing. Interestingly, misumata is used in making Japanese banknotes, which supposedly never wear out. Mitsumata is also grown as an ornamental, as it has lovely blossoms in spring.

Gampi: (Wikstroemia diplomorpha) has short, especially fine fibres. It produces lustrous, semi-transparent and very strong paper. Because it is difficult to cultivate, mostly wild specimens were exploited in the past. Gampi is still used today, but in smaller quantities, to produce paper “as noble as a princess”.

Hemp (Cannabis sativa) was very commonly used in the past. Today, it is used mostly for paper intended for painters.

Rice paper? This is what people in the West often called fine paper from the Far East in years gone by. In fact, though, while artisans sometimes added rice powder to their pulp to obtain whiter paper, the practice interferes with the quality of the finished product, and was never the norm. Artisans do use rice straw in combination with other fibres to make gasenshi, supple paper for calligraphy.

Most of the raw materials used for making washi today are imported. A sigт of the times…

wedding gown

Keiko Ichihara is a businesswoman committed to preserving traditional Japanese paper by developing innovative uses for it. She developed a natural agent that can be used to make washi more sturdy and water resistant, while maintaining its unique texture. She then turns it into garments, like this superb wedding gown made out of Mino paper (minowashi). Photo: © Univers.Quebec.com


Chôchin fold and unfold easily. Image: © Univers.GrandQuebec.com

From fibre to paper

The fibres to be used come from the plant’s inner bark. The sterns are first streamed then stripped of their bark. Next, the strips of bark are boiled in an alkali solution to dissolve the substances holding the fibres together. The fibres are then rinsed repeatedly.

Next, the fibres are bleached naturally in direct sunlight or chemically, with chlorine. Today, the second method is more common. They are then rinsed again.

Then comes the chiri-tori step, in which each strip of fibres must be carefully examined and any imperfection removed. This particularly demanding task is done in cold water, often by women, because it requires more patience than physical strength. In some cases, the operation is repeated, but not in water.

Before the fibres can be used, they must be beaten to separate them into strands. This operation was done by hand in the past, but machines are normally used today.

The fibres are placed in a vat of very cold water. Then the artisan adds mucilage, a highly viscous natural product obtained from tororo-aoi (Hibiscus manihot) roots.

Mucilage is a key part of Japanese paper-making technique. It keeps the fibres suspended in the water and distributed evenly throughout the vat, and prevents clumping. It is said that it takes an artisan years to learn just how much mucilage to add, depending on the type of fibres he is using, the air temperature and so forth.

tosa paper

Making Tosa paper (Kochi Prefecture). TV screen

To form a sheet of paper, a fine screen set in a wooden frame is dipped into the vat to scoop up some of the fibres. It is then rocked quickly back and forth to spread the fibres evenly across the screen’s surface. This is the nagashizuki technique, developed in Japan – whereas with the Chinese technique, the water is simply allowed to drain off and the fibres to settle naturally.

These steps are repeated until the sheet is the desired thickness, then any remaining water is quickly thrown away.

The sheet is removed from the screen and placed on the shito, the stack of damp sheets – an action that the artisan will repeat 300 to 500 times a day.

Heat is the artisan’s enemy, because bacteria are quick to attack a stack of damp sheets, for that reason, the cold months of the year are ideal for paper making.

After the stack of paper is pressed, the sheets are separated and dried. Some artisans still dry their sheets on ginkgo boards set in direct sunlight. Many use a rotating hotplate instead.

Various treatments may be applied while the sheet is being formed or afterwards: watermarks may be addes, the fibres may be dyed, the sheet itself may be dyed by different processes (dipped in successive baths, tie-dyed, folded, have the colour brushed or sprinkled on, floating colours added for marbled paper, stencilled, etc.), or different materials be added (leaves, fibres, insects, gold or silver flakes), etc.

Washi comes in an infinite variety of colours and styles. Il is a whole world unto itself.

tsugigami postcards

Tsugigami or patchwork paper. This exquisite creation, made by combining several different kinds of paper, illustrate all the elegance and refinement of the imperial court in the Helan Period (794 – 1185 AD). It was also decorated with gold and silver leaf, powder and flakes. It is thought that it was ladies of the court and their servants who developed this technique, at a time when paper was still highly valuable. While tsugigami is quite rare today, its characteristic appearance and patterns are an enduring part of Japanese culture. They are often reproduced in printed form, such as on these simple postcards. Photo: © Univers.GrandQuebec.com

sea at satta

Sturdy paper. To make a Japanese print, the different elements of the composition are cut into a series of wooden planks.  The sea at Satta, Suruga Province by Hiroshige Utagawa. Photo: ©ProvinceQuebec.com


Then paint is applied to the different planks, and a sheet of paper is pressed against each one in turn, to transfer the colours one at a time. Meboso by Toshio Ashikaga. Photo: ©ProvinceQuebec.com


Omuro by Nisaburo Ito. The paper used for making woodblock prints must be especially sturdy. Hôshogami from the Echizen region is widely recognized as being the best for this purpose. Photo: ©ProvinceQuebec.com


National painting : Japanese-style painting called nihonga is characterized by the use of natural mineral pigments and animal gelatine. The painting displayed here was made by Fujio Yamashita on tanzaku. Photo: © Univers.GrandQuebec.com


Another painting by Fujio Yamashito on tanzaku, a small standard-sized strip of paper that is also commonly used for writing poetry. Photo: © Univers.GrandQuebec.com


The art of pleasure: Kazuo Kobayashi is an internationally acclaimed expert in origami, the art of « paper folding ». Yet he does not see perfection as an end in itself. For him, the important thing is that people of all ages can have fun with paper. His store, where “people can come to play even if they’re 100 years old”, includes classrooms and a dye workshop. Mr. Kobayashi chose these pieces by Toshie Tomita specially for this exhibition. They represent decorations used for Girls’ Day. Photo : Univers.GrandQuebec.com

objets of paper

Tangible pleasure. Even in the electronic age, paper still reminds us of the simple pleasures of the senses: the sight and feel of a lovely sheet of paper, the rustling of pages as they are turned, the scent of incense in a tiny sachet permeating the entire message… Paper will always remain a source of pleasure. Photo: © Univers.Quebec.com

paper and woman

Personal paper: Paper is also a part of clothing, personal care and both modern and more traditional accessories. Here a Japanese woman is folding a kimono on a mat, so that she can stare it in a special cover. Both the mat and the cover are made of paper. Photo: Exhibit about paper in a Japanese Pavilion of Montreal Botanical Garden

Daruma and Nagashibina

Wishing on a paper doll : Daruma, a papier-mâché tumbling doll. This curious armless and legless doll represents Bodhidharma, an Indian monk who founded the Zen sect of Buddhism. Legend has it that he lost the use of his limbs after staying seated to meditate for years on end. He reputedly cut off his eyelids to keep himself from falling asleep. Daruma dolls right themselves when tilted, making the, a symbol of courage and perseverance.

Traditionally, the doll’s owner paints one eye onto the doll and makes a wish, and then paints the other one once the wish is fulfilled. Daruma are usually burned at the end of the year and new once are purchased at one of the many specialized markets in Japan. Nagashibina: This young girls are casting dolls adrift – as they float away on their straw rafts, they take any misfortunes and illnesses with them. The Japanese word for doll (nigyo) is also pronounced hitogata, which literally means human shape.

daruma et nagashibina

 The nagashibina custom is related to old purification rites in which human impurities were transferred to paper dolls. It survives mostly in the Tottori Prefecture today, where the event attracts crowds of visitors every year. Photo: © Univers.GrandQuebec.com

Issoku ippon : a paper and a fan

In the Middle Ages, a package of paper and a fan was the most precious gift that could be offered to samurai and Buddhist priests during major celebrations or official visits. This shows not only how valuable paper was but also the importance of fans in Japanese culture.

Folding fans – invented by Japanese artisans – are still very much part of, contemporary life. They come in different shapes depending on their purpose. Light, easy to carry fans offer relief from the muggy Japanese summer heat. Heavy, colourful objects are stage props for traditional dance and theatre performances. Richly ornamented ones are decorative objects. Simple, elegant fans, kept closed, are purely symbolic accessories for tea ceremonies.

japanese fan

Finally, fans are a symbol of prosperity, with their flaring shape. For this reason, they are often given as gifts. Photo: © Univers.GrandQuebec.com

Summer and festivals are in the air

These flat fans, called uchiwa, became very popular during the Edo period (1603-1868), for paper was now accessible everywhere and bamboo was now used in handicrafts. They began to be painted, often with portraits of famous actors of the day. Soon, uchiwa were used for more than just fanning oneself, as they now carried advertisements. This practice continues today with the production of countless cheap plastic uchiwa.

Fortunately, there are still a few artisans like Motoshi Nakata, in the city of Marugame, who continue to make these attractive items out of paper and bamboo. The flat fan industry is said to have developed in Marugame, a port city on the island of Shikoku, in the 17th century.

fans plats

Fans bearing the name of the famous Kotohiragu (or Kompirasan) shrine were made and sold to piligrims heading there. Photo : © Univers.GrandQuebec.com


Paper for shelter: There are more than 100 steps invloved in making a traditional Japanese umbrella (wagasa), a collaobrative endeavour by a dozen different specialized artisans. A wagasa has many more stretchers than a Western-style umbrella: 44 in this case. The bamboo elements must be made with great precision and fitting them together is a complex process. This type of umbrella with a circular “snake-eye” motif is called a janome. It is made from fine Mino paper, treated with oil to make it waterproof. Kenichi Fujisawa’s workshop in Gifu also makes parasols for the tea ceremony and for Japanese classical danse. Photo: Univers.GrandQuebec.com

« You do not have enough fields in this valley for crops, but you do have pure water: so make paper!” (Kawakami Gozen, goddess of paper).

The Okamoto Jinja shrine in Ôtaki-chô (Echizen) is dedicated to the goddess Kawakami Gozen. Legend has it that she taught the local peasants how to make paper. Even today, Echizen is one of the most famous paper-making centres.

Paper was actually invented in China. The techniques for making it are said to have been brought to Japan by Korean artisans, possibly as early as the late 5th century AD.

Paper for rituals

Long before Buddhism was introduces in the 6th century AD, Japan had its own indigenous religion: Shintoism or Shinto, “the Way of the Gods”.

For this religion that emphasizes nature and purity, white paper quickly became an ideal medium for making offerings or indicating the gods’ presence.

A Shinto priest performs a purification rite by waving a nusa through the air. This tool is traditionally made out of strips of paper combined with a few strands of hemp. The ceremonial vestments include a lacquered paper hat and papier-mâché shoes, which are also lacquered.

O-mikuji, fortune-telling paper

Visitors to a shrine may consult the gods about what their future holds. This horoscope takes the form of a small strip of paper with a very general prediction written on it, along the lines of “great blessing” or “small curse”. It then lists specific details, which people have fun sharing with their friends.

People may take their fortunes with them or tie them to a tree branch or a special structure at the shrine. By doing so, they hope to leaver the bad luck behind or encourage the good fortune, depending on what they happened to draw.

Mizuhiki : Cords with a message

Offering someone a gift in Japan is an important gesture, and people go out of their way to observe the proper protocol. While the wrapping may be highly decorative, it primarily plays a ceremonial role. It tends the object dignity and expresses the gift-giver’s respect for the recipient.

In their workshops in Lida (Nagano prefecture), artisans are dyeing  twisted paper cords that will be turned into mizuhiki, a highly symbolic part of Japanese gift wrapping. Not far away in the same city, similar cords are manufactured in a factory.


Sacred spaces, inhabited by the gods, are identified with rice straw ropes strung with strips of folded paper (kamishide).


Papier Gofu. Photo: Univers.GrandQuebec.com

Gofu and o-mamori, paper for protection

People also go to a shrine to obtain talismans offering protection in general or bringing the, luck in a specific area, such as safety on the road, with school exams or in finding a kindred spirit.

Protocol for joy and grief

People in Japan traditionally offer money at weddings and funerals. It must be presented in a special envelope (kimpu), however, decorated with mizuhiki, coloured paper cords.

The proper colours and the type of knot to be used depend on the nature of the event. Combinations of red and white or red and gold symbolize happy events. Gold and silver is ideal for marriages, while black or blue combined with white, or just silver or white, are suitable for funerals.

Events that are to occur only once (like a wedding), or that one does not wish to see repeated (like a funeral), are marked by a knot that cannot be undone. On the other hand, auspicious events such as the birth of a child are marked with a knot that can be untied and retied over and over again.

Mizuhiki are now made of Wester paper but they retain their symbolic importance.

engagement gifts

Set of engagement gifts : When they get engaged, couples customarily exchange gifts symbolically ensuring a long-lasting, fertile, happy and prosperous union. The different items are decorated with good luck symbols made out of mizuhiki. Such gift exchanges, although symbolic, can be very costly. Photo : © Univers.GrandQuebec.com


Noshiawabi : These small strips of folded paper were used in the past to hold a thin strip of abalone (or « sea ear ») meat. Once dried, this meat keeps indefinitely. Today, a thin strip of paper generally represents the mollusc, which is viewed as a good luck symbol. Noshawabi are used along with mizuhiki to symbolize happy events. Photo : © Univers.GrandQuebec.com

Light-bearing paper

Hideka Haba learned the art of making folding lanterns (chôchin) from her father.

She uses forms made from an ingenious assembly of wooden shapes that can be removed one at a time once the lantern is finished. Aside from little lanterns for festivals, Ms. Haba fashions elaborate works o art like the one hanging near the wall on your right.

Folding lanterns were initially designed for outdoor use, by Japanese atisans in the late 16th century, and quickly became tremendously popular. There were many different kinds, including the odawara-jôchin, so small that it could be carried inside one’s kimono.


While today’s folding lanterns are often made of vinyl or polyester, this art form would never have been possible had it not been for washi, the Japanese paper whose sturdiness and translucency made it ideal as a bearer of light. Photo : © Univers.GrandQuebec.com

artificial flowers

Paper flowers; Katagami, a stencil made of paper treated with persimmon juice, used for printing patterns on fabric; small bag made of crumpled paper (momigami); earrings; Meishi and meishi-ire, business cards and case… Photo : © Univers.GrandQuebec.com


Case with lens-cleaning paper; Cell phone case and decoration; Ishôshiki, a paper mat for folding a kimono … Photo : © Univers.GrandQuebec.com

bas of paper

Kaishi, small paper sheets carried in the fold of a kimono and used during the tea ceremony; socks, towel and cleansing pads woven from paper thread… Photo : © Univers.GrandQuebec.com


Oil control facial tissues; Oiled paper dressing… Photo : © Univers.GrandQuebec.com


Japanese meals begin with this phrase. An expression of gratitude, it could be translated as « I humbly receive ».

Paper is very much a part of the feast, from elegant placemats to coasters, pretty chopsticj wrapping, bags for wine or sake bottles, saucers and picks for Japanese sweets, right down to simple absorbent paper to soak up the oil from fried tempura.

table japnaise

For a different experience, sample some soup cooked in a kami-nabe, a paper pot that is said to preserve the favours. Or enjoy some hôshoyaki fish, grilled in a sheet of paper. Image: © Univers.GrandQuebec.com

cuisine japonaise

Paper definitely has an important place on the dining table. Image: © Univers.GrandQuebec.com

Chigiri-e or « torn-paper pictures »

The beauty of Japanese paper, or washi, is expressed in myriad ways in these pieces created through the subtle combination of hues, textures and superposed bits of paper. Paint would be superfluous. There is nothing that washi cannot convey.

The artworks presents here were created by the members of the Edmonton Washi Chigiri-e Art Association. Founded in 1991, the Association is affiliated with the Japan Washi Chigiri-e Circles and has been taking part in their shows since 1995.

“Differing from other picture mediums, the paper materials used are in themselves a beautiful art craft.  We can enjoy just possessing the paper” (Keiko Frueh, President of the Edmonton Washi Chigiri-e Art Association.