Amid a declining demand for washi paper products, a Japanese retailer is taking on the role of “paper sommelier” to help introduce the charm of the traditional craft to consumers in Japan and overseas.
Yoshinao Sugihara, the 10th-generation successor of a traditional paper wholesaler in Echizen, Fukui Prefecture — one of the country’s most prominent washi-producing areas — has been showcasing new ways to use washi as home interiors in a gallery he opened in January next to his shop.
Among eye-catching displays at Sugihara’s renovated traditional warehouse is a paper tapestry designed with a watermark, and a huge sheet of decorative paper stretching more than 10 meters.
Just as a sommelier chooses wine according to the taste and budget of customers, the 56-year-old Sugihara, as a washi sommelier, picks the kind of paper and artisan needed to meet the needs of his architect and designer clients.
“I myself do not make (Japanese paper) but I have extensive knowledge of Echizen paper,” says Sugihara, who began advertising washi after becoming concerned that sales were dropping.
According to a local industry association, Echizen paper, which dates back about 1,500 years, boasts the largest production both in terms of volume and variety in Japan, with about 60 factories and more than 300 craftspeople. Annual sales hit a peak of about ¥9.4 billion in 1990 but have since declined to about one-third, partly due to a fall in demand of tradtional paper-covererd fusuma sliding doors and the digitalization of stock certificates.
After taking over the family business, Sugihara participated in an international interior exhibition in 2002 at Tokyo Big Sight and displayed a lighting device that used Japanese paper. His work at the expo won him an award for innovation, which inspired him to look into other potential, and at the time novel, uses of washi in the interiors industry.
The success of his ideas has since led him to become involved in hundreds of lighting and artwork projects at hotels and restaurants in Japan and overseas, and he has been invited to join exhibitions and joint projects with artists in Europe and the United States.
“I was able to respond to various requests thanks to the technique of Echizen craftspeople,” Sugihara says, referring to their skills in being able to produce all kinds of paper and varieties of washi.
Following his work overseas, he became more aware of the potential of Echizen, a region that has a low profile in Japan, as the production site of washi.
“Japanese people today rarely appreciate traditional paper,” he says. “I want them to know its beauty and diversity.”