What is Washi Paper?

Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth

The word washi comes from Japanese words for “Japanese” and “paper.” Washi, also known as wagami, is traditionally a handmade Japanese paper based on three chief components: kozo or mulberry bark, gampi, and misumata. Each of the three has unique properties and is used alone or in combination in multiple types of washi.

Printmaking was a major art form during Japan's isolationist Tokugawa Shogunate.
Printmaking was a major art form during Japan's isolationist Tokugawa Shogunate.

Kozo is a deciduous tree indigenous to Shikoku and Kyusu Islands, and has been cultivated for paper and cloth making. Mitsumata is a bush native to China and has been used in paper-making since the seventeenth century. Misumata is used as the material for Japanese paper money. Gampi is a bush native to mountainous areas of Japan. It cannot be cultivated, and as a result is the rarest and most expensive of the washi materials.

Various materials like rice may be used to make washi paper.
Various materials like rice may be used to make washi paper.

Other fibers are sometimes incorporated into the washi. Examples include hemp, abaca, and rayon. Bamboo, rice, and wheat may also be used. At the end of the nineteenth century, there were about 100,000 families in Japan producing handmade paper. Today, there is machine made washi as well, but as of the last decade of the twentieth century, there were still about 350 families producing washi by hand.

Washi paper has many uses, including religious applications in both Buddhist and Shinto tradition and uses in secular life. Artists use washi as a drawing medium as well as for folding, pasting, and papier-mâché. Craftspeople use it for interior decoration, employing it for lamp shades, window coverings, mobiles, screens, wallpaper, frame mats, and boxes. Bookbinders use silkscreened washi, or Chiyogami, for end papers, and kozo is favored by conservators for book repair. Printmakers use kozo, mitsumata, and gampi papers, and Rembrandt preferred gampi papers for his etchings. Washi is also used for parasols, fans, packaging, and stationery.

There are many specialized washi papers, varying in percentage of ingredients, texture, and color or design, and at least some are associated with a distinct region of Japan in which they were or are produced. Awa washi, for example, is made in the city of Awa in the Tokushima Prefecture. Papers are dyed either before or after the paper making process.

Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth

Mary Elizabeth is passionate about reading, writing, and research, and has a penchant for correcting misinformation on the Internet. In addition to contributing articles to wiseGEEK about art, literature, and music, Mary Elizabeth is a teacher, composer, and author. She has a B.A. from the University of Chicago’s writing program and an M.A. from the University of Vermont, and she has written books, study guides, and teacher materials on language and literature, as well as music composition content for Sibelius Software.

You might also Like

Readers Also Love

Discuss this Article

Post your comments
Login:
Forgot password?
Register: