Thirty years is but a droplet in the 1,400 year-old slurry of Japanese papermaking history, but when it dawned on Hiromi thirty years ago that there was a need for highly refined, chemical free, archival, strong, handmade papers among conservation specialists in the United States, she used her papermaking training to turn the droplet into a needle point that has helped sew together the history of Japanese papermaking and Art Conservation in the West. By doing so, handmade Japanese paper infiltrated artists’ practices abound. Japanese paper, or washi as we will refer to it hereto forth, was never missing from art or its conservation; before washi was utilized for painting and printmaking by the likes of Chagal, Picasso, and Rembrandt, it was used for specific tasks required by members of Japan’s ruling class, like writing legal documents,
manufacturing currency, decor, and architecture, of which many examples still remain. Oftentimes the same or similar paper would be used to patch holes in damaged articles, and in the case of shoji and lanterns, more ornate paper would be used. It is written in The Chronicles of Japan, Nihon Shoki (ca. 720 AD), that the Korean Buddhist priest Doncho introduced Chinese paper and ink making to the people of Japan around the year 610. The Prince Regent at the time found the materials for Chinese
paper too delicate and thus encouraged the shift to Kozo which was already in use by textile makers. The Kozo plant is cultivated throughout Japan and the lower east side of the Asian continent; its fibers, some of the longest plant fibers in papermaking, are also some of the strongest natural fibers suitable for repair work and preservation. Fast forward fourteen-hundred years and Kozo is now the most widely used fiber to make washi and Japan reigns supreme in the world of papermaking for its scrutiny unto itself, consistently producing papers of uniform precision and quality. Over time, washi became readily available and developed alongside calligraphy, Nihonga (Japanese painting), moku-hanga (woodblock printing)–essentially, symbiotically with the culture of Japan.
Washi comes in two main forms: machine made and hand made. Fibers and materials for most machine made papers are started using similar methods of the Nagashizuki papermaking style, which requires prepared fibers to be suspended in a water bath to be sort of scooped onto a suketa (paper mould and screen). The maker of one of the most
sought after handmade papers for conservation in the world is Satoshi Hasegawa of Hasegawa Washi Kobo (studio). Famous for their highly coveted Usu Gami series (formerly Usu Mino until relocating from Mino to Yamagata prefecture), Hasegawa uses only the highest quality Japanese Nasu Kozo and the purest processes to prepare the fibers making them perfect for conservation and restoration. Hasegawa Washi’s drying boards–a gift from the late Kozo Furuta-san, the Mino papermaker that taught Hasegawa and Hiromi how to make paper–are made of horse chestnut and are over 150 years old. Usu Gami paper has very long and strong kozo fibers that sometimes course from one end of a sheet to the opposite– an important feature for conservation work.
One example of machine made paper comes from Hidakawashi from Kochi prefecture. Hidakawashi produces some of the thinnest papers in the world with some varieties clocking in at less than 2gsm. While mostly used in conservation, Hidaka’s tengucho/tengujo have been used by artists for a multitude of uses, most impressively: painting, gyotaku, and digital printing. Machinemade paper is characterized (usually) by its cut edges, or its roll format and handmade are characterized by their deckle edges. While machinemade papers are often chided as being inferior to handmade, this is not necessarily true. Machinemade processes allow for a more rapid and more uniform process thus bringing the cost of the paper down however, the quality of the materials used to make the paper are integral to the quality of the paper, thus some handmade papers are made with fibers/pulp that are not on par with some machine made papers. When choosing paper, though, it is important to not conflate quality with appropriateness. Hidakawashi’s Tenguchos for example are high-quality material paper designed with the conservator in mind, however painters and printers have been able to coerce the fibers to react positively to their processes but for most people this will not work, meaning whether a paper is appropriate for a task may lay in the user, and not the paper.
The deception of most washi is that it is delicate, but like the silk line of a spider, it is immensely strong relative to its appearance and the size of its fibers. It’s longevity, color, beauty, and strength has has kept washi around for more than 1,400 years and this is why Hiromi knew 30 years ago, that contemporary users of paper, would find a new medium and a new tool in washi.
Hasegawa san and Chinzei san will be visiting for our 30th Anniversary Reception and Workshop Extravaganza where they will lead, alongside several papermaker contemporaries from Japan, four casual drop-in paper-related workshops on July 28th. Additionally, both Hasegawa san and Chinzei san are two of the papermakers invited to Japan Foundation Los Angeles on July 26th, for a special panel on papermaking and its future. For more info about the 30th Anniversary Reception and Workshop, CLICK HERE. For more information about the panel on papermaking CLICK HERE.