Villagers in Higashi-Chichibu, Saitama Prefecture, are riding high.

Just one step out of its nearest train station and visitors are clued in to the fledgling celebratory mood that has taken hold of this rather obscure village with a population of about 3,000. There are signs and flags everywhere that read, triumphantly: “Congratulations! Washi paper-making to be added to UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list!”

“The whole village is in good spirits. We have also seen increasing visits by tourists” since the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization announced last month its plan to put the making of “washi” traditional Japanese paper on the list, said a jovial Eiji Fukushima, 65, general manager of a theme park called Washi no Sato (Village of Japanese Paper) in Higashi-Chichibu.

Located about 70 km northeast of Tokyo, Higashi-Chichibu is a sparsely populated village in western Saitama that has long prided itself on its washi craftsmanship. Along with neighboring suburb Ogawamachi, the village has been best known as a producer of what is called “hosokawa-shi” washi.

UNESCO is expected to confirm the washi-making technique’s registration late Wednesday or early Thursday.

The UNESCO designation itself does not lead to new government subsidies or responsibilities for the village to maintain the tradition, an Agency for Cultural Affairs official said, but it is hoped that localities will gain recognition and momentum to keep their heritage intact.

Locals and washi craftsmen here seem by and large hopeful that their centuries-old tradition’s inclusion on the UNESCO list will prove an economic boon by making their village a popular tourist destination. Not all of them, however, are buying that scenario.

The very “intangible” nature of the asset, skeptics say, implies that the heritage could easily be forgotten and that unless the villagers do something special, their technique will disappear and their neighborhood will soon revert to the hinterland it has long been.

The impending registration follows that of Japan’s “washoku” dietary culture last December.

An employee of Washi no Sato in Higashi-Chichibu, Saitama Prefecture, washes 'kozo' mulberry tree pulp as a group of visiting schoolchildren watch on Nov. 18. | YOSHIAKI MIURA
An employee of Washi no Sato in Higashi-Chichibu, Saitama Prefecture, washes ‘kozo’ mulberry tree pulp as a group of visiting schoolchildren watch on Nov. 18. | YOSHIAKI MIURA

The registration this time is a comprehensive acknowledgement of Japan’s traditional “tesuki” (handmade) paper-making skill that has been passed down in the nation’s three most prominent washi-producing areas.

Located in Shimane, Gifu and Saitama prefectures, the three areas have each produced their own indigenous washi, namely “sekishu-banshi,” “honmino-shi” and “hosokawa-shi,” respectively.

A paper-making technique specific to Shimane’s sekishu-banshi was tacked onto the intangible heritage list in 2009. This time the government has been pushing for an expansion of the 2009 homage to the Shimane paper to make it an acknowledgment of Japan’s overall washi-making technique.

Hosokawa-shi, which takes its name from a village in Wakayama Prefecture where the paper was originally made back in the Edo Period (1603-1867), represents the most exquisite form of washi spawned in the Saitama villages.

Its fibers are made solely of domestically produced “kozo” mulberry tree pulp, which makes the paper so strong and resistant to discoloration that it doesn’t grow brittle easily over the years.

“In fact, the paper is so sturdy that it was a common practice (in the Edo Period) for people to throw their account books in nearby ponds in the event of a fire. Once the fire subsided, they would retrieve the books from the water and find they were still usable,” said Fukushima, the Washi no Sato theme park manager.

Other than account ledgers, hosokawa-shi has traditionally been used to make shoji paper doors and “binsen” letter paper. It has also played a key role in patching up antique documents.

But as the popularity of washi has waned in modern Japan, demand for hosokawa-shi has faltered accordingly over the years, said Teizo Takano, who runs a studio in Higashi-Chichibu.

Compared with decades before, his studio now gets fewer orders for hosokawa-shi, the costliest washi it produces.

The studio instead has seen a rise in orders for cheaper, lower-quality washi that will be used for sake labels and school diplomas. The studio, Takano said, is making ends meet through mixed orders for hosokawa-shi and less high-quality paper.

Likewise, washi factories and studios in Higashi-Chichibu have faded into obsolescence. Only a handful remain today, Fukushima said.

Perhaps it’s little wonder, then, that young people continue to leave town in search of higher-paying jobs, leaving the local washi business plagued by a chronic lack of successors.

Taeko Koyama, a 32-year-old craftswoman who works for Takano’s studio, said young people leave town because they doubt they can turn a profit in the washi business.

“Some people here are interested in pursuing a career in the (washi) industry but give up because they aren’t sure if they can make a living,” she said, adding that she has been fortunate to make a living from her paper-making work alone.

That view is echoed by 20-year washi-making veteran Hisako Uchimura.

Craftswoman Hisako Uchimura sieves raw materials for the 'hosokawa-shi' variety of washi paper using a screen in her studio in Higashi-Chichibu, Saitama Prefecture, on a recent fall day. | YOSHIAKI MIURA
Craftswoman Hisako Uchimura sieves raw materials for the ‘hosokawa-shi’ variety of washi paper using a screen in her studio in Higashi-Chichibu, Saitama Prefecture, on a recent fall day. | YOSHIAKI MIURA

“I hope the (UNESCO recognition) will lead to increased global awareness of washi and hopefully push up demand, too, so young people will feel more comfortable joining in,” she said.

However, Fukushima seems less optimistic. For his hometown, the scheduled UNESCO recognition represents a now-or-never chance to revive its long-stalled economy, he said. The Oct. 28 announcement of washi’s imminent entry into the heritage list has since left the village reveling in a temporary rise in tourism. But the real challenge for the villagers, he said, is figuring out how to keep public interest in the village and its culture strong in the future.

A plan is underway, he said, for his theme park to introduce new, authentic washi-making equipment so tourists can try their hand at making hosokawa-shi themselves. Currently, a similar trial session is available to visitors for ¥280, but they only get to make much cheaper washi than hosokawa-shi because raw materials for the high-end product are too costly.

Tourists who want to try out the professional-level equipment will probably be charged ¥1,000, he said, and will be allowed to bring home their own handiwork together with a more sophisticated version by professionals so they can compare them.

That way, Fukushima said, they will hopefully feel motivated to frequent the park and hone their washi-making skills.

“Being intangible means people are likely to soon forget about (the UNESCO recognition),” he said. “We need to make good use of this opportunity, no matter what.”

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