“Washi,” or traditional Japanese handmade paper, was officially added to UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list last November. It is a remarkable accomplishment that the nation’s traditional culture has achieved such recognition for the second year in a row, following the inclusion of “washoku” traditional Japanese cuisine in December 2013. Making the list will help Japan raise the world’s awareness of the country.
There are three main locations where Japanese traditional papermaking techniques have been passed down: Misumi-cho in Hamada, Shimane Prefecture, where “sekishu-banshi” is made; Mino, Gifu Prefecture, where “hon-minoshi” is made; and the town of Ogawa along with the village of Higashi-Chichibu in Saitama Prefecture, where “hosokawa-shi” is made. These papers are designated as Important Intangible Cultural Properties in the national inventory maintained by the Agency for Cultural Affairs.
UNESCO notes that “most of the inhabitants of the three communities play roles in keeping this craftsmanship viable, ranging from the cultivation of mulberry, training in the techniques and the creation of new products to promote washi domestically and abroad.”
Therefore, not only have the techniques and products been recognized, but the efforts of the communities to keep the traditional art alive greatly contributed to being chosen for the list.
According to the website of the Sekishu Washi Center (an association of “sekishu washi,” traditional crafts including sekishu-banshi), “Tesuki washi was invented in A.D. 105 by a Chinese official named Cai Lun, and introduced to Japan in A.D. 610 by Doncho, a Buddhist monk from Korea. Sekishu washi, the washi paper of western Shimane Prefecture, also has a history stretching back a thousand years.”
The paper is made from the fibers of the paper mulberry tree. The fibers are soaked in clear river water, thickened and then filtered on a bamboo screen. Washi paper is used not only for stationery and books, but also in home interiors to make paper screens, room dividers and sliding doors. Soft light through a washi paper screen or lantern creates a relaxing atmosphere, therefore even some international hotels around Tokyo use it in room interiors to help refresh travelers. Also, as the material is soft yet strong, washi is valued in Europe for use in restoring old paintings.
Families and their employees work under master papermakers who have inherited the techniques from previous generations. The communities play roles in keeping this craft viable, ranging from the cultivation of paper mulberry trees, training in the techniques and the creation of new washi products.
On the occasion of the registration of washi, Hakubun Shimomura, minister of education, culture, sports, science and technology, said, “The ministry and the Japanese government will continue to fully support the communities in their efforts to pass along the craftsmanship to future generations to have it carry on contributing to the vibrancy of the communities.”