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

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This picture taken on March 15, 2019 shows a worker putting steamed kozo plants in a water tank during the “washi” paper manufacturing process at the Hidaka Washi factory in Hidaka, Kochi prefecture, some 640 kilometers (400 miles) southwest of Tokyo. (AFP/Kazuhiro Nogi)
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This picture taken on June 4, 2019 shows Takao Makino, head of the Kibi conservation studio, carefully applying “washi” onto a brush onto golden sticks representing the halo of a Buddhist statue estimated to be around 800 years old, in Saitama, outside Tokyo. (AFP/Kazuhiro Nogi)
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This picture taken on March 15, 2019 shows Hiroyoshi Chinzei, president of Hidaka Washi, a fourth-generation traditional paper maker, checking the “washi” paper manufacturing process at his factory in Hidaka, Kochi prefecture, some 640 kilometers (400 miles) southwest of Tokyo. (AFP/Kazuhiro Nogi)
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This picture taken on March 15, 2019 shows Hidaka Washi president Hiroyoshi Chinzei, a fourth-generation traditional paper maker, displaying the world’s thinnest paper at his factory in Hidaka, Kochi prefecture, some 640 kilometers (400 miles) southwest of Tokyo. (AFP/Kazuhiro Nogi)
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This picture taken on March 15, 2019 shows a worker standing behind the world’s thinnest “washi” paper at the Hidaka Washi factory in Hidaka, Kochi prefecture, some 640 kilometers (400 miles) southwest of Tokyo. (AFP/Kazuhiro Nogi)
Updated 20 June 2019
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Skin deep: Japan’s ‘washi’ paper torn by modern life

  • Chinzei’s product, the world’s thinnest paper, has helped save historical documents at major museums and libraries
  • The traditional hand-made paper is manufactured from plants called kozo, or mulberry, which has fibers that are much longer than materials used for paper in the west such as wood and cotton

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 westernized.
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 manufactured from plants called kozo, or mulberry, which has fibers 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 fibers of the kozo plants,” the washi maker told AFP at his small factory in Hidaka, a village 640 kilometers (400 miles) 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.
The fibers are then beaten and mixed with glue and water, before being placed on a wooden screen.
This screen is then dipped repeatedly in water with the fibers and shaken to spread the liquid evenly to make a sheet of paper, a technique which requires years to master.
Because washi is hard to break, damaged, old documents can be reinforced by attaching a piece of washi or sandwiching them between two sheets of the paper, Chinzei explained.
For documents, transparency is key to be able to see the text, meaning the thinner the washi, the better.
Chinzei’s washi, a type called tengu-joshi paper also known as “the wings of a mayfly,” is 0.02 millimeters thick and weighs 1.6 grams per square meter.
This compared to a standard sheet of photocopy paper, which is about 0.09 millimeters thick and weighs 70 grams per square meter.
“It’s a mesh-like paper mainly made with fibers... It’s as thin as human skin,” Chinzei said.
Using both machines and hand-made techniques passed down for generations, the firm can create ultra-thin paper, which is also used by conservationists to restore and protect cultural objects.
One such conservationist, Takao Makino, carefully applies washi with a brush onto golden sticks representing the halo of a Buddhist statue estimated to be around 800 years old.
Makino said he used washi for the first time in 2007 to protect the surface of one of the two main statues at Tokyo’s historic Sensoji Temple.
“The surface was damaged and peeled off. So we covered all of it (with washi) to contain the damage,” the 68-year-old said.
“Washi naturally fits into intricately-shaped sculptures, but papers with chemical fibers or wrapping films don’t,” he said.
“The history proves washi is very durable... The material is pure, strong and lasting. It’s reliable.”
The production of the Japanese paper peaked in the Edo period between the 17th and late 19th centuries but declined as papermaking was mechanized.
Now, due to the westernization of Japan, the washi market is shrinking again, Chinzei said.
“We have no tatami rooms and almost no space to display a hanging scroll in the current lifestyle,” he said.
“Washi used for those things are now gone.”
According to the industry ministry, the total value of handmade washi dropped to 1.78 billion yen in 2016 from 4.15 billion yen in 1998, while that of washi for calligraphy and shoji sliding screens fell to 5.86 billion yen from 25.1 billion yen.
Chinzei didn’t plan on taking over his family trade and went to business school in Seattle to study finance.
“But I came back... because I felt responsible for passing the baton to the next generation,” he said, hoping to find ways to expand the market.
The volume of washi used for restoration is still small, but it’s been shipped to more than 40 countries and Chinzei is hopeful interest will grow.
He explained: “For restoring cultural assets and as a canvas for art... I think washi has the potential to be used more in the world of art.”


Season of change: Jeddah gets the party started

Jeddah Season. (Huda Bashatah)
Updated 41 min 5 sec ago
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Season of change: Jeddah gets the party started

Here are some highlights from the first Jeddah Season — from K-pop superstars to Shakespeare in Arabic. 

Sporting sensations 

The first Jeddah Season kicked off with a WWE Super ShowDown at King Abdullah Sports City. The event featured wrestling legends including Goldberg, the Undertaker, Triple H, and Randy Orton. It also included the largest Battle Royal Match in WWE history, with 50 stars scrapping it out simultaneously. Hometown boy Mansoor Al-Shehail (pictured) emerged victorious. “I can’t ask for anything better,” he said.

On July 12, British boxer Amir Khan claimed the WBC International Welterweight belt with a fourth-round stoppage against Australia’s Billy Dib. Khan has since claimed that he will return to the Kingdom in November to face Filipino legend Manny Pacquiao.

Arab legends

Music has been a major focus of Jeddah Season, and several of the region’s most popular performers visited the city over the past month to thrill their fans. Lebanese icons Nancy Ajram and ‘King of Romance’ Wael Kfoury (pictured), local legend Mohammad Abdo, Egyptian favourites Amr Diab, Angham, and Mohamed Hamaki, and Khaleeji stars Ahlam and Rashed Al-Majed were among those who performed.

International superstars

It wasn’t just regional artists who took to the stage during Jeddah Season — numerous international A-listers also arrived in the city to put on a show. From K-pop chart-toppers Super Junior (pictured) and Stray Kids, through big-name DJs including Martin Garrix, Steve Aoki, Marshmello and Dutch duo Afrojack and R3hab, through Nineties hit-machine Backstreet Boys, to the final night’s Jeddah World Festival’s stellar lineup — which included Future, 50 Cent, ex-One Directioner Liam Payne, and Janet Jackson — Jeddah has witnessed some of the biggest names in music playing live over the past few weeks.

The light fantastic 

Dazzling visual displays were a central part of Jeddah Season. The Flame, Fountain & Laser show in front of XJED was choreographed to regional and international pop hits and became a big hit with visitors. Elsewhere, the Glow Garden — “where art, technology and innovation immerse” — became equally popular, as the underwater world was recreated in Al Hamra. And rounding off most nights were the spectacular fireworks on Jeddah Waterfront.

Shakespeare in Saudi

For a shot of high-brow culture, Jeddah Season also saw a staging of William Shakespeare’s acclaimed tragedy “King Lear” about a monarch who — through his inability to accept criticism and only listen to those who falsely proclaim their love and respect for him — is driven to the verge of insanity. The play, which was translated into Arabic, starred Egyptian actor Yehia El-Fakharany (pictured) in the demanding leading role, with Heba Magdi, Rania Farid Shawki, and Riham Abdel-Ghafour also among the cast. In a press conference prior to opening night, El-Fakharany praised the “arts renaissance occurring in Saudi Arabia,” saying it would “surely inspire the new generation.”

Big-top bonanza 

Jeddah Season saw one of the oldest forms of mass entertainment making a splash — the circus. With the international stylings of Le Teatro Circus — magic, acrobatics, live music, and, as the name suggests, a healthy dose of the dramatic — and the US-based Circus 1903 — a dip into the ‘golden age’ of the traveling show around the turn of the century, complete with knife throwers, high-wire acts, and life-size elephant puppets — in town, Jeddawis were enthralled by this throwback to old-school entertainment.

 

Blue is the color 

American performance artists Blue Man Group were one of the big hits of Jeddah Season with their trademark mix of weird and wonderful music and art — and no dialogue. Judging by the troupe leader Scott Speiser’s interview with Arab News, the performers enjoyed their time in the Kingdom just as much as the audiences did. “The Saudi people seem to have really embraced the show and that makes it even more fun and fulfilling for us,” he said. “The audience here loves to clap in rhythm with the music. We weren’t really ready for it. And, well, we just love it!”