An older version of Japan — hushed and built by hand — was fading. The 20th century opened to the clatter and buzz of machines, as the nation was swept toward an age of steel, standardization and skyscrapers. The call to modernity came like a shout from the Western world — Industrialize! — and it echoed through the streets of Japan’s expanding cities. But beyond the hinterland, the echoes quickly faded.

Fumiko Sato was born into this mechanizing landscape in rural Fukushima Prefecture in 1939. Young children generally don’t know they’re poor, but Sato gradually understood her station in life through the clothes she wore. This wasn’t because of the materials the garments were made from, it was the patterns that decorated them.

“We could only have stripes,” she says, showing a scrap of fabric woven by her mother. “The people on the bottom couldn’t wear anything else.”

It wasn’t considered appropriate for families such as hers — rural, farming families — to wear garments elaborately decorated with flowers or geometric motifs. But traditions change. Sato is now 77 and covered in patterns. Two shirts today: the one on top is covered in repeating purple roses; another, tessellated with geometric houndstooth checks, peeks through underneath.

Fumiko Sato

Sato is kneeling in the darkened tatami room of her small, single-storey home in Shiroishi, Miyagi Prefecture, explaining her role in the epic rise and fall of one of Japan’s most quotidian — now, almost forgotten — traditional crafts: kamiko (clothes made from handmade paper).

Japanese have worn paper clothes since the 10th century, but it wasn’t until the Edo Period (1603-1868) that kamiko reached its apotheosis. Worn by peasants, monks and the upper classes, paper was even used to make raincoats and firefighters’ uniforms. Soft like cotton but less expensive, paper can be durable, warm and, when coated in persimmon tannin, various oils or konnyaku (devil’s tongue) paste, can become water resistant. Kamiko played a significant role in Japan’s sartorial history, but the washi (paper) made in Shiroishi, in particular, has done much more: It played a role in defining the Japanese identity.

Shiroishi washi kept famed haiku poet Matsuo Basho warm when he walked the route he would later document in “The Narrow Road to the Deep North” in the late 1680s; Shiroishi’s papermakers were essential to the continuation of a 1,200-year-old Buddhist ceremony in Nara Prefecture; and — incredibly — the paper was the centerpiece of Japan’s surrender in World War II. The war formally ended when a piece of Shiroishi washi (formally known as the Japanese Instrument of Surrender) was signed onboard a U.S. warship in Tokyo Bay on Sept. 2, 1945.

It’s hard to believe that something so important is now a thing of the past. In 2016, the last of Shiroishi’s papermakers, Mashiko Endo, retired, ending centuries of tradition. Kamiko are now artifacts fated to live in the archives of regional museums — including Sato’s tatami room, which is perhaps the world’s smallest private museum dedicated to Shiroishi’s paper clothes.

An emerging technology

The stillness of the room is broken only by the drone of a far-off plane, the occasional buzz of oversized insects and the low mumble of a nearby river — the typical sounds of rural Japan.

Shiroishi is a small, quiet city, crisscrossed with gurgling waterways and canals. Its 34,000 or so residents live between the slopes of Mount Zao, which generates an icy wind for most of the year — “it’s the perfect climate for growing paper mulberry, but not cotton,” Sato says — and the city limits of Fukushima, which is more recently known for less natural reasons. (Shiroishi’s official website regularly lists local radiation readings showing little to no residue in the wake of meltdowns at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant in 2011.)

With the decline of the local paper industry, Shiroishi today celebrates itself as the home of umen (warm noodles), a regional variety of short wheat noodles that are cooked without oil. The city also celebrates its connection to video game and anime franchise Sengoku Basara, which began in 2005. In it, a high-cheekboned version of one-eyed warlord Date Masamune — who ruled over Shiroishi and the surrounding area during the late 16th and early 17th centuries, and eventually founded present-day Sendai — brandishes six swords as he fights rival samurai and rides between skirmishes on a horse that has steel handlebars and twin exhausts. In real-life Shiroishi, the anime doppelganger of one of Masamune’s retainers is featured on the outside of sightseeing buses, beside an image of the city’s castle, which was reconstructed in 1995. The real Masamune granted the original version of that castle to senior retainer Kagetsuna Katakura in 1602.

A woodprint depicting papermakers at a kamiko shop.
A woodprint depicting papermakers at a kamiko shop. | WASEDA UNIVERSITY LIBRARY

For centuries, the heads of the Katakura clan led Shiroishi to prosperity; they’re credited with embracing new technology and encouraging local farmers to take up papermaking in the winter months to boost the economy. Over generations, Shiroishi’s farming community became good — very, very good, in fact — at making paper.

Strange luxury of wearing paper

“Wearing paper today seems incredibly luxurious,” Sato says, laying a paper shirt on the tatami in a band of afternoon light. Nevertheless, the textiles made from sheets of washi or woven from paper yarns (a textile known as shifu) were, according to Sato, once used to make “workwear in the field, kimono and even pajamas.” Kamiko became fashionable during the Edo Period, particularly in the pleasure quarters of major cities — it was a way of invoking a romantic image of bygone Japan.

Sato was drying cabbages when fashion designer Issey Miyake visited one day in the early 1980s. She was nervous at first. “But he was kind,” she says, “and he showed me a different way of eating cabbage.”

Fumiko and Chutaro Sato outside their home in Shiroishi, Miyagi Prefecture.
Fumiko and Chutaro Sato outside their home in Shiroishi, Miyagi Prefecture. | COURTESY OF FUMIKO SATO

Miyake was visiting to seek advice from her late husband, Chutaro, about methods for kneading washi and applying konnyaku — two skills essential for turning paper into a soft and durable textile with which to make kamiko.

Sato returns to her museum’s archive and brings out an image from Miyake’s 1982 Kamiko collection. The image shows a model dressed head to toe in white Shiroishi washi, kneaded using the techniques Miyake learned in Shiroishi.

Chutaro Sato making paper.
Chutaro Sato making paper. | COURTESY OF FUMIKO SATO

Miyake’s 1982 collection was one of the last great moments for the last generation of Shiroishi’s papermakers. The paper was produced by two craftsmen who revived the declining local paper industry in the late 1930s: papermaker Tadao Endo and Sato’s late husband, Chutaro, who was a takuhon (frottage) craftsman.

Endo passed away in 1997, but he and his recently retired wife, Mashiko, are legendary in the Japanese papermaking community. Along with producing paper for Miyake, the Endos produced paper for a Buddhist ritual popularly known as omizutori (water-drawing ceremony), which has been held annually for more than 1,200 years at Todaiji Temple in Nara Prefecture — one of the longest-running Buddhist festivals in Japan.

Shiroishi paper was used in a water-drawing ceremony known as omizutori, which is held annually at Todaiji Temple in Nara Prefecture.
Shiroishi paper was used in a water-drawing ceremony known as omizutori, which is held annually at Todaiji Temple in Nara Prefecture. | KYODO

Monks create garments from sheets of washi to wear during the ceremony and, at the culmination of the ritual, wave enormous flaming torches from the balcony of the temple, showering the crowd below in sparks that are believed to possess good fortune. At the end of the two-week ritual, the monks’ perfectly white clothes are covered in burn marks, soot, dirt, rips and tears.

A monk in dirty clothing

The head monk beckons us inside the 400-year-old entrance of Shiroishi’s Sennenji Temple before he disappears into an obscured doorway.

It’s Sunday afternoon, and his two small daughters are carefully playing among the gold statues and fetishes — hiding, peeking, pretending not to look at the guests. Today is a busy day and head monk Yuko Tokuriki has only five minutes between appointments to meet; there’s no time for small talk.

After we hear the sound of padded footsteps and rustling paper, Tokuriku appears carrying a paper package almost as tall as he is. He lays it down, opens it up and stands back, letting the bruised garment do the talking.

The damage is total. The paper garment, once perfectly white, is now pockmarked like the moon — covered in soot, burn marks and long tears that have been patched-up. “The neck and knees are the worst,” he says, quietly. “You can really see the wear.”

Wearing paper at a festival involving giant flaming torches seems suicidal, but it is natural for the monks at Todaiji: Kamiko and Buddhism have always been linked. The monk says the foundational skills for making and working with paper clothes first came “through Buddhist temples,” as monks began wearing garments made from pasted-together sutras.

“I’m sorry,” he says — our time in Sennenji has run out. Tokuriku quickly wraps up the costume and begins to return it to its resting place, but pauses to answer a final, unspoken question.

“Todaiji will use Echizen washi from now on,” he says.

A piece of soot-stained Shiroishi paper worn by monks at Todaiji, Nara Prefecture.
A piece of soot-stained Shiroishi paper worn by monks at Todaiji, Nara Prefecture. | CAMERON ALLAN MCKEAN

The bones of craft

If you know where to look, the landscape of rural Japan is littered with the bones of countless folk crafts. They’re hung from walls of private homes like somber trophies or hidden in the storerooms of temples and regional museums — if they’re lucky. The rest are forgotten in the soil under far-flung towns and villages across the archipelago.

The effects of depopulation, urban migration and economic stagnation — the three horsemen of rural decline in Japan — are also having a deleterious effect on regional communities and the objects that defined them. Data about falling births, rising deaths, and dwindling finances and resources further fuels an entrenched narrative that contributes to this effect: Rural Japan is a place of death and decline, a place with little to contribute, and a place of technological primitiveness and bucolic simplicity.

Non-Japanese are often responsible for mobilizing this narrative as we search for authentic experiences and “lands that time forgot” — even when we know it’s an impossibility. But Japanese are also complicit.

Projects to encourage rural revitalization, from media coverage of natural wonders and traditional villages to regional art festivals and unique buildings designed by star architects (using local artisans, of course) suggest that the cities may one day need the countryside for only one thing: tourism.

In this future scenario, the countryside becomes a prop, a nostalgic landscape that reminds visitors of their relationship to nature, and a tool for connecting people to traditions and crafts. In that scenario, the countryside and its traditions become technologies for generating myths about Japan — but only if they stay linked to the premodern past.

But there isn’t much space for objects from the hushed, handmade past in a mechanical, abstract present, especially one haunted by digital doppelgangers of one-eyed warlords.

A technology for making place

The walls of Shiroishi City Hall’s tourism division are lined with pictures of natural wonders, anime characters (one-eyed Masamune, again) and umen noodles.

Keiji Abe

An official at the center confesses he doesn’t know much about paper in the city, but he recommends a visit to Keiji Abe, the 48-year-old owner of a local liquor store who maintains the city’s remaining field of kozo, the essential ingredient of Shiroishi washi.

Abe weaves his car through narrow streets on the outskirts of the city, crossing small bridges and canals before entering a housing development. At its center is a plot filled with the stumps of black trees. He stops the car.

Abe seems to be the only resident of Shiroishi who believes there’s a future in handmade paper, not for making kamiko (“I like nylon and Gore-Tex,” he says) but as a technology for generating place and community.

“I was born here, raised here, I’ve been doing business here my whole life,” Abe says. “Papermaking is part of our identity. We feel like it can’t be forgotten.”

The Endos had eight fields of kozo at the peak of Shiroishi’s most recent kamiko boom, but after Tadao died, the plots were sold off.

“We brought the bulbs from Endo’s field and transplanted them here,” says Abe. “We’ve only been here 20 years, but these trees are much older.”

These are the descendents of the same trees that Miyake and the monks of Todaiji used in their paper garments. The trees exist in a tiny plot of land, surrounded by residential homes with Mount Zao looming in the background.

Before leaving, Abe suggests he will be “making paper” later tonight. It’s nothing serious, he says (he is humble in a way that can make him seem uncertain), but he’ll call after his liquor shop closes.

Keiji Abe makes paper in a vat.
Keiji Abe makes paper in a vat. | CAMERON ALLAN MCKEAN

The amateurs keeping craft alive

The sun sets, the shop closes, it starts raining and Abe hasn’t called. The clock reads 10 p.m. when he rings.

Come over, he says, I’m working late.

The streets of Shiroishi are deserted but filled with the sound of rushing water. Rain patters down on corrugated-iron awnings and the covered roof above the city’s main shopping street, lined with shuttered stores and restaurants.

It’s dark inside the liquor shop but there’s a sliver of light escaping from a two-car garage behind the parking lot outside. Abe slides the shutter open.

“My wife and daughter went to Disneyland in Tokyo this weekend,” he says, moving green tea and sake to a table. “I stayed home to make paper. That’s terrible, right?”

He is standing in the center of Shiroishi’s only washi workshop — a place without a website, without a name and largely unknown to Japan’s papermaking community.

The space is filled with decades of clutter piled over two old cars, five motorbikes and a popcorn machine. In the center of the room is a small table surrounded by benches, which is where Abe and the 15 other members of his amateur crafts group, Kurafuto, can meet, drink and make paper using a set of equipment that he cobbled together himself. As far as Abe is concerned, papermaking won’t survive if it must remain a burden to be carried by a single artisan.

“The people at the vat are not the only papermakers,” Abe says. Tonight, he is using car batteries to press water out of the graduation certificates he has made from a vat of liquid kozo.

Dried balls of kozo pulp
Dried balls of kozo pulp | CAMERON ALLAN MCKEAN

There’s not much glory here. This workshop and the paper made in it won’t meet any cultural heritage requirements, or meet any expectations of what “traditional Japan” should look like. But is that a bad thing, when many crafts that do meet those requirements and expectations are dead or dying? The paper made in Abe’s garage meets the requirements of Shiroishi; it’s a craft made by amateurs, by local monks, teachers, students and government officials. And, it’s alive.

Abe always assumed someone else would take over after the last papermaker retired but no one volunteered. So about three years ago, Abe realized that it was probably up to him.

“OK,” he recalls thinking, “I guess I just have to do it.”

Since then, Abe has been making paper in the evenings after he shuts his liquor store. He knew it wasn’t going to be easy, but he can visit Endo, who lives nearby, to ask for advice.

Endo has high standards: In the beginning, she only approved 2 percent of what he made, but she now accepts about 98 percent. She is open with her knowledge and experience, and he extends this openness to anyone who is curious — absolutely anyone who is invested in the future of Shiroishi.

Keiji Abe mixes paper in his workshop.
Keiji Abe mixes paper in his workshop. | CAMERON ALLAN MCKEAN

“Are you interested in making washi?” he asks. “Please, move to Shiroishi. You can become a washi maker if you live here.”

It’s difficult not to bring up the fate of other local paper-makers — isn’t the work hard?

“I’m still alive,” he says. “And you have the internet here, you can deliver alcohol by day and make paper as a hobby.”

Then there’s the question of accommodation, where to stay in the city — there are a lot of abandoned houses in the area, aren’t there?

“So many,” he replies. “So many.”

It’s almost 2 a.m. when he finishes making his certificates.

The sound of sloshing water echoes through the garage. The kozo fibers settle in the vat. In the lulls in the conversation you can hear the sound of water dripping under the weight of the car batteries.

“There’s a lot of pressure on me,” he says.

Shiroishi’s annual summer festival will be held on Aug. 9 along the city’s main shopping street. During the festival, the Kurafuto papermaking group will be presenting paper lights they have made at the Sumaru Yashiki estate in downtown Shiroishi. For more information about Shiroishi, visit shiroishi-navi.jp.

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