Revisiting Japanese Washi Paper — Goodbye, Kochi Mashi

“WATER”, Kochi-mashi paper and old magazine pages collage, 40" x 54", 2015

Traditional Japanese paper is generally called Washi 和紙. The method its making process employs, which is to use hydrogen bond as its binder, is said to have been invented in China in 200 BC. It was then imported to Japan in CE 610. The oldest paper that still remains in Japan was made in 702, and is stored in Shōsō-in (正倉院), the treasure house that belongs to Tōdai-ji, Nara. It’s in pretty great shape for being 1,314 years old!

The washi paper manufacturing process is sort of between tree-free and Responsible Forestry Management, because its main fiber sources are the Kozo (paper mulberry tree), Gampi, and Mitsumata tree that grow in a couple of years, so that they are renewable. The painstaking craftsmanship involved in making washi is incredible. I took a Gundo-washi paper making workshop in Tokyo and learned how difficult it is firsthand! Nowadays, though, washi papermills machine-manufacture as well as handmake their products, some of which use wood pulp among its materials.

It’s a bummer to think how I took my paper privilege for granted when I lived in Tokyo. I never failed to find white washi paper that was best suited for my paper cutout art at Ozu Washi, which has been in business since 1653 in Nihonbashi (website in English). I always enjoyed browsing beautifully dyed paper at Origami kaikan in Yushima, which they’ve sold since 1858. It was inspiring to see the modern, artsy handmade paper, so neatly stored in shelves all over the walls from floor to ceiling at Paper Nao in Hakusan. They were all within biking distance for me. It was quite soothing to see and smell their paper, and it felt funny to think I was surrounded by trees, flowers and plants, but in an altered form.

Now that I live in the United States, washi is not readily available to me, and I usually try to use materials that I can find here. Nevertheless, I felt lucky when I had a commission last year that allowed me to use large, high-quality washi.

After going through available samples, the paper I liked most was Kochi-mashi 高知麻紙 (110 g/m²). The pieces shown in this article are made with this paper. It was thick, had a felt-like texture, and was very strong despite this soft feeling. It was made from 50% kozo and 50% hemp. They were bleached with ingredients that include Chlorine, but it was possible to request a Chlorine-free method with a bulk order through Hiromi Paper in California. The papermill was located in Kochi Prefecture on Japan’s Shikoku Island. It was sad to hear they ceased operations indefinitely this year. I’d like to learn more about this wonderful tradition of washi paper, and hope to help it survive and thrive by starting to buy them more again before they all go away, even though shipping always presents a problem concerning cost and environmental footprint.

You can see the Kochi-mashi making process at Hiromi Paper’s blog:

Paper cut & collage artist Art gifts for sea & bird lovers

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