Early January in Japan is a time for resting and staying cosy. With falling temperatures, people like nothing more than diving under a kotatsu (heated table), visiting an onsen (hot spring) or tucking into a warming nabe hot pot, particularly following the busy new year festivities.

For some 200 households, however, it’s a time for tough, manual work in unforgivingly cold conditions. Across the country, washi makers are entering their peak production season. Most will aim to make as much as possible during this month and next, to deliver what they believe is washi of the best possible strength, durability and shine.

It’s a practice that craftsmen say is proven by history; in ancient times, washi was solely a winter activity and the high-quality materials produced have survived for thousands of years.

The answer lies in science. Frigid, running water in rivers and streams aids the removal of lye and impurities from kozo (mulberry) fibers, the most commonly used material for making Japanese paper. Cold temperatures, meanwhile, make the fibers contract, resulting in paper with a crisper feel. They also facilitate the easier storage of component materials while inhibiting bacteria, thereby preventing decomposition of the kozo fibers.

As washi-making is dependent on nature, it is deeply spiritual as well.

Fourth-generation washi craftsman Kazuya Osada, 57, describes washi as “a sacred blessing from nature.” In his hometown — the city of Echizen in Fukui Prefecture, one of the largest washi-making regions of Japan — the winter’s washi production can commence only after a visit to the goddess of paper at nearby Okamoto Otaki Shrine.

Paying homage is vital as washi has long been the main industry in the area. Some 70 households or small factories in the five villages that comprise the city employ 500 people in washi-related jobs as part of a washi-making culture that dates from the sixth century. So synonymous is Echizen with washi that the city is typically also called washi no sato, or the hometown of the traditional Japanese material.

Yet, even in this stronghold, washi production is in decline as craftspeople struggle to keep it profitable and adapt to changing consumer needs.

It’s an issue that can be seen across Japan. Though there are an estimated 200 washi-making households nationwide, there were 10 times that number 50 years ago.

Mulberry bark is peeled in the process of making washi paper.
Mulberry bark is peeled in the process of making washi paper.

So, how can washi-making survive in a rapidly changing Japan?

Osada’s company, Osada PaperMill Co., Ltd., is one example of a success story. A specialist fusuma (paper door) maker since the 1920s, the business had experienced a drop in demand as fewer modern homes in Japan include such interior features. So, 20 years ago, he began making new papers for lampshades and art using the same techniques. What’s more, he sold them not only to wholesalers, but direct to customers, via a new website and exhibitions at events.

Last year, his 27-year-old daughter, Izumi, joined the firm to inject more innovation into the business.

“People don’t want the same washi products (again and again), she says, adding that she is exploring the potential to further expand washi use in furnishings. Her hope is that people will be drawn to washi because it “trumps Western paper and fabric as an expressive material.”

Handmade shoji paper screen-maker Yukiyo Terada agrees. Based in the washi-making heartland of Mino, Gifu Prefecture, she makes Mino washi, which is characterized by crisscross layers that create especially strong paper.

Although made from one of the most famous papers in Japan, demand for her product is falling, too. This has prompted her to experiment with new products, including washi wallpaper.

“People can’t imagine washi as a wall covering. I create it so they can see it,” Terada says of her work. “We need to spark interest, to make items that look good, otherwise people won’t even look at them.”

Terada is driven to evolve.

“In the old days, people could make a living by simply making washi sheets and selling them,” she says. “Now, people need to make washi sheets and use them to make items for direct sale — or consider how other manufacturers will use them — in order to make a living.”

She believes a strong washi industry requires the production of innovative items that can be readily used, such as eco bags and cushion covers, and the upholding of traditional production methods. Both are key because they attract consumers and new makers, she says.

Fibers are separated during the paper-making process at Awagami Factory.
Fibers are separated during the paper-making process at Awagami Factory.

Terada is one example. It was interest in washi and a desire to work in a traditional industry that motivated the 38-year-old to enter the industry at age 30 — what she describes as her last chance to change career. Since then, she has supported other young artists to hone their washi-making skills through Mino Art Info.

Launched in April 2016, this organization connects Mino-based washi craftspeople with artists in Japan and overseas for study, exhibitions and collaborations. It aims to spread awareness of washi and spark innovation in the industry.

During this year’s residential component, Terada introduced washi to an Australian artist who had experience of making paper in New York.

“It was exciting to see what she would make,” recalls Terada, pointing out that her approach was “totally different” to washi makers. “It was a great experience, as I learn by teaching others.”

According to Mino Art Info, more than 100 people have taken part in the project so far. Most are from overseas.

Noting that “non-Japanese have more interest in traditional crafts than Japanese people,” organizers have welcomed their contribution of helping create better washi products and, most importantly, injecting life into Mino’s washi industry via their diverse perspectives.

Into the white: Kazuya Osada makes Echizen washi.
Into the white: Kazuya Osada makes Echizen washi.

In 1982, after traversing more than 10 washi-making regions nationwide, Dutch-born Rogier Uitenboogaart, was one eager student of Japanese paper who decided to make the craft his life’s work. He settled in Kochi Prefecture, where much of Japan’s washi plants are grown, after one washi maker told him he could only truly understand how to make washi by first learning how to grow its raw ingredients.

Now, more than 35 years later, he has a thriving business: Kamikoya. With his wife and adult son, he produces homegrown Tosa washi from plant to sheet without using pesticides, artificial fertilizer or chemicals in production in a bid to offer truly sustainable paper. He also hosts washi-making workshops, offering guesthouse accommodation for longer stays.

“I’m even more passionate about washi than when I started,” Uitenboogaart says, adding that his study of the philosophy of washi and its historic uses has shown him that it is possible for washi to have a future.

“Washi is very traditional but we have to think about how to make it useful,” he says. “I’ve always been very curious about how to adapt to modern ways of living so I’m always looking for new opportunities. I do a lot of testing, even though not all of it will be profitable.”

He attributes the growth in his business to this forward-thinking attitude, but also because washi is becoming more appreciated as a natural material. He has had inquiries, for example, from health food companies wishing to use his paper on the packaging of their wholesome products as it fits their brand.

For interiors, too, he says Japanese people are “rediscovering washi,” adding that “they are interested in it and like it, but ask how they can use it.”

Rogier Uitenboogaart mashes fiber into a pulp before putting it into water.
Rogier Uitenboogaart mashes fiber into a pulp before putting it into water.

But most washi-makers don’t sell directly to consumers, so architects, interior designers and other creatives need to be convinced of using washi for interiors such as lampshades, wallpaper and art. Once people can see washi’s true interior design potential — in shops, homes and exhibitions — Uitenboogaart believes that washi will gain greater popularity. If people understood how easy it is to cut and glue washi, to repurpose items, it would boost demand as well.

However, challenges remain.

Demand for Uitenboogaart’s highest quality paper, which is used for restoration of artworks due to its superfine yet durable nature, for example, is largely dependent on the economic situation, as museums and galleries seek government or corporate funding for this work.

For the industry as a whole, he notes that there are more paper makers in Japan than in other European countries, but worries about any loss of skilled people in the industry. Even if manufacturers adopt more uses for washi, producers who make washi sheets are still essential.

“Fewer people are interested in the craft of paper making,” he says. “We need people who are skilled and interested in the craft to make sheets. If they disappear, the craft cannot survive.”

As sales of sheets alone may not make sufficient profit and any expansion of product type to cater to changing needs would involve financial outlay, small papermaking operations may be at most risk of closure.

However, a family in Tottori Prefecture has shown one possible solution. Seeing her two sons struggle to make a living making washi sheets, Yoko Moroyoshi founded Yoboty, a company specializing in earrings made from washi.

“I thought they would lose their livelihood, so I wanted to do something to help. I looked for new approaches to washi so I could provide something that people wanted,” she says, speaking during a showcase of her products in Tokyo. “As our ears get sore with heavy earrings, I make earrings from washi. People don’t know about washi culture but I want to spread awareness of it through my accessories.”

Osada paper makers in Fukui Prefecture
Osada paper makers in Fukui Prefecture

Consumers have been delighted with the items, which can be shaped into 2D or 3D shapes or sprayed with perfume for a subtle fragrance. Building on the success, Moroyoshi has also created a line of washi clocks, thereby further supporting her sons’ sheet-making business.

Other companies, meanwhile, are teaming up with soft furnishing manufacturers, which seek to tap washi’s ability to absorb and insulate.

Osaka-based Sasawashi Co., Ltd. sourced washi from a producer in Ehime Prefecture and combined it with the Kumazasa plant to make its brand, Sasawashi. Based on research by Mie University, the resultant fabric was found to be absorbent, naturally antibiotic, gentle on skin and offers 98 percent UV protection.

Without washi, the process would have been impossible, according to Sasawashi Director Toshinori Itoi. The brand’s towels, socks and sheets have found popularity in the United States, the United Kingdom, France and Australia.

Kiyoshi Takagi demonstrates paper-making at Ozu Washi in Nihonbashi.
Kiyoshi Takagi demonstrates paper-making at Ozu Washi in Nihonbashi. | KATHRYN WORTLEY

Similar items, that use washi in fabric, can be found in the museum of Ozu Washi, a paper-seller that has been operating in Nihonbashi since 1653.

For survival, it has also had to evolve. What began as a wholesale entity became a washi center, with an outlet selling more than 1,000 kinds of paper and 2,000 kinds of washi-related items, a museum, a gallery, an exhibition space, workshops and a washi-making experience room.

Manager Kiyoshi Takagi began offering the washi-making 10 years ago to encourage understanding of washi and thereby stimulate more sales.

It has been a great success, attracting not only local customers of all ages — from 3 to 105 so far — but also large numbers of international tourists. In 2018, foreign participants outnumbered Japanese participants for the first time.

For Takagi, it is a welcome development. He is among a growing number of washi experts that believe tourists and washi fans overseas can play a positive role in ensuring a healthy washi industry.

Uitenboogaart has also welcomed a growing number of non-Japanese people to his paper-making workshops, and Terada and her colleagues at Mino Art Info are preparing for an international presentation of washi during the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.

Seeing the appetite for Japanese cultural products, companies are also reaching out to international markets with new washi offerings.

Center of production: Awagami papermakers work on new extra-thick handmade washi for digital printing.
Center of production: Awagami papermakers work on new extra-thick handmade washi for digital printing.

Awagami Factory in Tokushima Prefecture focuses on research and development to produce innovative washi that allow artists to integrate washi into contemporary life.

According to representative Craig Anczelowitz, sales have been growing over the past five years thanks to interest from abroad and orders from new users, as Awagami seeks to be a “washi ambassador,” introducing the material to as many people as possible.

As well as collaborating on interior design projects such as A-Light, a washi and LED lighting collection, and Suaika, a collection of sculptural washi and indigo art panels, Awagami makes fine art, hobby and inkjet papers: items that sellers say are in demand.

“Washi has lots of room for growth … primarily among professional artists and conservators,” according to U.S.-based Linda Marshall who runs online shop Washi Arts.

Although washi is largely unknown to Western artists, they seek it out once they learn of its beauty, wet strength and sustainability, she says. What’s more, with poor availability of speciality papers in North America, there is “not enough high-quality, well-made Japanese washi available on a regular basis.”

With rising interest in washi at home and abroad, experts agree that washi makers can be assured of a bright future if they continue to adapt with the changing times.

“Washi will still be here in 1,000 years,” says Takagi of Ozu Washi. “It’s the coolest paper, so it will always attract fans.”

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