Skin deep: Japan’s ‘washi’ paper torn by modern life

Hidaka (Japan): Once an indispensable part of daily life in Japan, ultra-thin washi paper was used for everything from writing and painting to lampshades, umbrellas, and sliding doors, but demand has plunged as lifestyles have become more westernised.

Despite its 1,300-year history and UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage status, washi paper is struggling to attract consumers and the market value has dropped by more than 50 percent in the past two decades.

But at a small workshop in western Japan, Hiroyoshi Chinzei, a fourth-generation traditional paper maker, creates washi with a unique purpose that may help revive interest—both at home and abroad. Chinzei’s product, the world’s thinnest paper, has helped save historical documents at major museums and libraries—including the Louvre in Paris, the British Museum and Washington’s Library of Congress—from decay.

Washi paper is more flexible and durable” than what Japanese refer to as “western paper”, which disintegrates into tiny pieces when it becomes very old, the 50-year-old told AFP.

The traditional hand-made paper is made from plants called kozo, or mulberry, which has fibres that are much longer than materials used for paper in the west such as wood and cotton.

“Old Japanese books from the seventh or eighth century remain in good condition... thanks to the fibres of the kozo plant” the washi maker told AFP at his small factory in Hidaka, a village 640 kms southwest of Tokyo.

The papermaking process begins with steaming the kozo plants and peeling off the bark, which is then boiled until soft, while impurities are removed by hand in clear water.

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