By Sugihara Yoshinao
Translations by Yona & Yuki
This summer, Japan has been hit by a record-breaking heat wave. Here, in my office in Fukui, we joke about how high the temperature will be, but we have actually been suffering from 97 degree weather for days on end. Weather becomes this hot also causes a very troubling issue with papermaking. That problem is in the “neri”, which is essential in making washi. Neri is very sensitive to high temperatures.This time, I would like to talk somewhat seriously about Neri. Washi is made from the bast fibers of Kozo, Mitsumata, and Gampi. Together with these ingredients, or rather more important in the assistance of washi making, is the neri. Since “neri” sounds like the word “nori” which means glue, it is mistaken that neri would have the same fastening glue effect. However, neri’s greatest benefit is the way that it acts as the dispersing agent in preventing the fibers from sinking in water.
Making paper without putting in neri, the liquid will flow straight down at the same as it is being scooped up. The washi technique of nagashisuki (rocking the suketa back and forth after scooping the water) is not possible no matter the number of times it is rocked. The reason western paper cannot be made as thin as washi surely has to be because neri is not used. Neri is effective when used with soft water in Japan, but is useless when used with European hard water. Originally, the papermaking technique was passed to Japan from China, and hemp was at first the main ingredient for paper. This was still long before the discovery of the technique of using neri as a dispersing agent. Once discovered, the unique Japanese papermaking technique was established and from the Heian Period (794-1185) neri was used in papermaking.
As a dispersing agent, not only is the neri obtained from Tororo Aoi (plant from the hibiscus family) used, but also the neri taken from the bark of the Noriutsugi (panicled hydrangea). Even until now, Living National Treasure Mr. Ichibee Iwano (Kizuki hosho maker) uses a blend of both the Tororo Aoi and Noriutsugi. Higher viscosity (more stickiness) is necessary in making washi, so of course the desired effect of the dispersing agent is stickiness. However, once the papermaking process is over, this stickiness becomes an issue and it is ideal for the stickiness to disappear quickly as the paper is being dried. That is what this natural neri magnificently achieves. During papermaking it is sticky, but once the pressure of papermaking is over and the paper is being dried the next day, the viscosity magnificently disappears.
It is only high temperature that compromises the viscosity. Just by using the bare hands, the body temperature gradually decreases the stickiness. Then, there is this year’s heat wave. Echizen Washi papermakers are now forced to create fresh new neri everyday. Continually making paper of the same quality regardless of the various changes in weather temperature, climate, humidity level, and moisture is actually quite a difficult job to do.