“Washi,” the traditional handmade paper, was added to UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list on Wednesday in a move that was expected to help Japan boost global awareness of its traditional culture and spur interest among younger generations in keeping artisan skills alive.
The registered products are Hosokawashi from Saitama Prefecture, Honminoshi from Gifu Prefecture and Sekishubanshi from Shimane Prefecture, where craftspeople continue to use traditional techniques to make paper by hand, using only mulberry fiber.
“Washi paper is used not only for letter writing and books, but also in home interiors to make paper screens, room dividers and sliding doors,” UNESCO noted at its intergovernmental committee meeting in Paris on Wednesday.
It said that in some Japanese communities, nearly every resident plays some role in keeping the techniques alive.
These range from “the cultivation of mulberry, training in the techniques and the creation of new products to promote washi domestically and abroad,” the agency said.
The government welcomed the move.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said in a statement, “I’m very happy from the bottom of my heart.
“We should transfer the washi craftsmen’s techniques that were inherited from generation to generation as well as the washi culture to future generations.”
Washi skills are passed down on three levels — among the families of craftspeople, through preservation associations, and by local municipalities, it said.
All the people living in the communities “take pride” in their tradition of washi making and regard it as “the symbol of their cultural identity,” the committee said.
“Washi also fosters social cohesion as the communities comprise people directly engaged in or closely related to the practice.”
In requesting that UNESCO acknowledge washi, the Japanese government stressed that the technique dates back to the eighth century.
Fibers from the kozo tree, or paper mulberry, are boiled and then beaten by hand, mixed with mucilage in water and filtered with a wooden-framed bamboo screen.
The resulting paper is dried on wooden or metal boards.
The government decided in March last year to seek registration of the three products all together, after Honminoshi was rejected as an intangible cultural heritage because it was similar to Sekishubanshi, which had already been put on the UNESCO list earlier.
The move came after a preliminary review panel recommended Oct. 28 that UNESCO should add washi to the list, saying traditional knowledge, skills and work processes are being transmitted from generation to generation in the three areas.
The intergovernmental committee noted, “Various safeguarding measures are currently in place and planned in the future to promote, document and transmit washi making, including formal training, exhibitions and school demonstrations as well as efforts to promote cultivation of the paper mulberry tree and the use of traditional paper in contemporary design.”
Education and culture minister Hakubun Shimomura said he is pleased to see the traditional Japanese paper techniques honored by the U.N. organization.
He added that he hopes further measures will be taken to promote the use of washi and pass the techniques to further generations of artisans.
Many people in the washi making communities also expressed happiness on hearing the news.
In the town of Ogawa and the village of Higashichichibu in Saitama Prefecture, where Hosokawashi is produced, there were fireworks and a banner was displayed in celebration.
“History was made today, commemorating the 1,300 years of our traditional techniques,” Risuke Adachi, mayor of Higashichichibu, told a news conference.
Ogawa Mayor Tsuneo Matsumoto said, “We should take this registration as an opportunity to preserve and further develop the Hosokawashi’s techniques.”
Japan has so far won 22 Intangible Cultural Heritage registrations, including “washoku” traditional Japanese cuisine.
The overall number will not change despite the latest development because the heritage status for Sekishubanshi, given in 2009, will be taken over by washi.