The Difference Between Washi and Machine-Made (Western) Paper

By Sugihara Yoshinao
Translations by Yuki

“What makes washi and machine-made (western) paper so different?”

There are many explanations for this argument, which can be classified into numerous sections. For example, grouping by materials, paper-making methods, and production location. This time, I will present to you one example.

Let us take a look at washi under a microscope. The paper in the photo was made by Mr. Ichibei Iwano; the renowned National Living Treasure from the Echizen washi village. This paper made of 100% Japanese Nasu Kozo fibers has been manufactured by hand using the same methods that were used for hundreds of years. The paper is made from the intertwining of fibers, which is quite simple.

On the other hand, the second photo is of paper regularly used in copy machines.  Apart from pulp fibers, it is coated with various makeup powders. When distinguishing washi from machine-made paper, the simplicity of structure can be a point to focus on.

Chemically mass produced machine-made paper prioritizes manufacturing large quantities of paper in a short period of time. Therefore, cutting the fibers short, grinding them into uniform particles has enabled them to save time. If something is lacking, manufacturers simply add some make-up. Since this process makes the quality of the paper weak, they use minerals to reinforce the paper, use bleach to make white, mix fine powders and press to make smooth. Moreover, to make suitable for ink-jet printers, the papers are coated even further…

Like this, machine-made paper has been developed by continuously adding on chemical ideas to the process.In comparison, washi-making is exceedingly simple. Ichibei’s paper is made purely of Kozo fibers alone. So, the paper becomes more plump, soft and strong, able to last for about 1000 years. Since the washi-making process is quite simple, the characteristics of the fibers themselves directly become the qualities of the papers. Throughout history, the characteristics of Kozo, Mitsumata, Gampi, and hemp were preserved; at times blended exquisitely; to create a particular paper capable of enduring its various purposes.

Washi is like a room filled with air, whereas machine-made paper is like a plank hardened by concrete. Concrete may seem to be hardwearing, but is very brittle indeed. Washi may seem weaker, but is very adjustable.

By the way, washi fibers are not held together by paste. The fibers are linked by creating a hydrogen bond…but it seems the story of the hydrogen bonds should be put off until the next occasion…

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