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Block-printed paper beauty

by Yuko Naito

Chiyogami is colorful handmade paper printed with Japanese traditional patterns or designs, and is usually used by girls for making kimono-clad dolls, small boxes, or bookmarks.

Once you take a look at Isetatsu’s Edo-style chiyogami and the process of making it, though, you will no longer be able to see the paper as just a child’s toy. Their chiyogami designs look more like ukiyo-e woodblock prints, that could be displayed as artworks by themselves.

Isetatsu is now the only manufacturer/retailer of Edo-style chiyogami in Tokyo. They started the business in 1864, the end of the Edo Period, originally as a wholesaler of ukiyo-e and uchiwa (fans). Chiyogami was generally handled at nishiki-e shops at that time, and is believed to have been printed by ukiyo-e craftsmen.

The process of making Chiyogami is as time-consuming as for ukiyo-e. The more colors in the design, the more imprints it requires; some designs need more than 30 imprints per sheet. It takes about two weeks for a craftsman to complete a set of 200 chiyogami sheets that feature 20 colors.

Shun Furukawa, one of three suri-shi (craftsman specializing in printing) at Isetatsu, says what makes multicolored chiyogami difficult to print is the nature of washi, zwhich responds easily to humidity, swelling or shrinking. Even the slightest difference in size can make the prints look blurry.

The suri-shi first moisten the paper, so that colors can come out better. While they are printing, however, the paper may gradually dry out and shrink by up to a couple of millimeters, according to the weather. The suri-shi cover the printed paper with plastic sheets to prevent drying, but they have to pay extra attention on hot summer days or when the studio is air-conditioned. The paper shrinks, they moisten it to adjust the size, Furukawa says.

The ability to notice the difference in size comes from developing a certain feel for the process that comes only through extensive experience. Furukawa has had a 20-year career, but “I’m far from perfect,” he says. “I would be happy if defective sheets are less than 10 percent out of 200 copies.”

They also have to watch out for very tiny pieces of wood or dust that accidentally stick to the surface of the printing blocks, making an unprinted spot. If they are not careful enough, they could print out many defective sheets without noticing.

“It is such a disappointment if something goes wrong at the very last stage of multicolor printing,” says Furukawa. “Those chiyogami sheets turn to mere trash with such a small thing. Intense concentration is definitely necessary when doing this work.”

Isetatsu’s chiyogami mainly features traditional Edo patterns or designs, or portrays the daily life of Edo’s common people, though they have recently been creating some new designs, too.

Furukawa’s task as a suri-shi is to copy the old designs printed decades ago as faithfully as possible. When he prints, he always keeps the sample near him and frequently compares his works to it.

“I’m very pleased when I can make better prints than the sample,” he says. Actually, more than a few samples have been made by Furukawa himself.

“I hope my work will become a good example for my successors in the future,” he says.