Washi – traditional paper of Japan

Washi - Japanese paper

I know what you’re going to say. Norwich is a long way for a day trip from London so why are you suggesting we go there for an exhibition? I apologise, but I couldn’t resist telling you about the Washi: The Art of Japanese Paper exhibition at the Norwich University of the Arts Gallery. And you could always make a weekend of it, couldn’t you?

Washi is Japanese paper, said to be the finest and the strongest in the world. It’s usually made from fibres from the bark of paper mulberry trees. When the nineteenth-century Prime Minister, William Gladstone, became concerned at the shortage of cotton and linen rags from which paper was made in Europe and North America, he sent Sir Harry Parkes to Japan to learn about their methods and to collect samples of washi; he returned in 1870 with more than four hundred examples, some of which are on show in this exhibition. They are normally kept at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. This is the first time they have been shown publicly in the UK.

I was lucky enough to see washi pieces from the Parkes Collection on a Japan Society visit to the Economic Botany Collection at Kew last year. So I can give you an idea of what’s in store if you make the trip up to Norwich.

They have textured gikakushi (imitation leather paper) and kinkarakawakami (gold-embossed paper), which were made using big wooden rollers made from single blocks of cherry wood into which the designs were carved. Contrary to what you would expect, the roller is not rolled over the paper; instead the paper is wound onto the roller and beaten with a brush made of boar’s hair for four to five hours until the design is firmly and evenly applied.

washi Japanese paper

For kinkarakawakami tin foil is stuck to the paper first and it is lacquered afterwards to make it shine. The paper is used like leather for wall coverings and bookbinding:

washi Japanese paper

washi Japanese paper

Karakami (chinese paper) was introduced to Japan from China during the Nara period (710-794). It became popular in the Heian period when it was used at court for calligraphy but today it’s most often used for paper sliding doors and other traditional interior decorations.

washi Japanese paper

Karakami is made with pigment that, instead of being absorbed into the paper, sits on top of the surface. When you run your fingers across the paper, you can actually feel the fine ridges that define the pattern. Usually only two colours are used: an initial coat of colour which becomes the background layer of the washi and the colour of the printed motif.

washi Japanese paper

The designs are printed using traditional woodblocks called hangi which are about 35 by 45 centimetres in size.

washi Japanese paper

The hangi is repeatedly pressed onto the paper to produce the design – it takes skill to match up the edges so that the design is continuous, like this phoenix among arabesques and flowers.

washi Japanese paper

Many designs were reserved for the imperial family, tea ceremony masters, samurai families, prominent merchant families, and temples and shrines. Nowadays karakami is only made in Kyoto.

washi Japanese paper

Besides papers from the Parkes collection, the Norwich exhibition includes modern papers from the collection assembled by the Washi:The Soul of Japan Committee in Kyoto. This six-volume compendium was put together in the 1990’s and is an exhaustive survey of papermaking in Japan containing an example of every type of paper currently made by craftsmen throughout the country

To coincide with the exhibition Kew has published a book, WASHI: The Art of Japanese Paper, available online direct from Kewbooks.com.

washi book

The exhibition, at the Gallery at NUA, St George’s Street, Norwich NR3 1BB, continues until  20 April. It’s open Tuesday to Saturday, 12.00 to 17.00 and admission is free.

4 thoughts on “Washi – traditional paper of Japan

  1. Although the Chinese invented the art of paper making, the Japanese has expanded the technique. (Isn’t it true too of other inventions and technology in this world?) Love the display and would easily pick one to frame. Thanks for mentioning the book…will check it out. 🙂


  2. These are beautiful. I love washi and I sometimes buy it and use it to wrap gifts but it’s rather sad when I have to see people ripping the (precious) wrapping and throw it away immediately (obviously because it’s all been ripped). Sad sad sad how people don’t know the value and the beauty of washi…


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