Centuries before Europe, and as early as the 800s, Japan hosted the best papermaking craftsmanship in the world. To this day, a few hundred businesses—often family-run and owned—continue the tradition of making superior-quality paper by hand. The process is labor intensive, slow, and requires years of expertise, but why expect anything less when it comes to manufacturing some of the best paper on earth?
Traditional, handmade Japanese paper is made from the stalks of three types of bushes, called kozo, mitsumata, and gampi. Kozo, or mulberry, is the most commonly used today, while gampi was the primary material used centuries ago, and mitsumata is the hardest to grow, and is thus the most expensive. What unites each is that their stalks are housed in a bark made of strong yet fine fibers that can be processed to create sheets of washi—the Japanese paper revered by artists, bibliophiles, and collectors the world over.
Below, indulge your eyes and watch the revealing process behind this exquisite and fascinating paper.
1.) This UNESCO video examines a certain variety of washi, called sekishu-banshi, which its narrator notes is “well-known as the strongest washi in Japan.” This is a suitable introduction to the craft, as it provides a guided overview of the entire washi-making process. It takes the viewer from the harvesting fields, to the steaming vessel, to the screen-and-deckle phase where the vatman employs three main maneuvers to get the fibers to set evenly as it becomes a proper sheet of paper.
2.) A sharper and more meditative video, this documentary lacks narration but makes up for it with its vivid depiction of the Japanese papermaking process in a small town near Kyoto. We begin in the harvesting season in snowy winter, and watch the great care that goes into treating the bark that ultimately becomes the paper. You’ll notice workers shave off the outer layer to isolate the inner bark, and how the fibers are later suspended in water for further inspection of impurities. The final product, after being set, piled, and dried, makes for a simple and somehow marvelous sight to behold.
3.) Though the picture resolution isn’t ideal, this video focuses on what happens at the vat. You can see the viscous consistency of the mixture, which contains not only the suspended plant fibers but fermented hibiscus root as mucilage, to encourage the fibers to adhere to each other. The camera later drifts upward, showing the ingenious bamboo suspension system that makes handling the screen easier and particularly graceful.
But most crucial to this video is the human element, which the above pieces unfortunately neglect. Here, the papermaker gives an eloquent pronouncement to the way his manual profession complements the spirit. “The natural way of life is very important,” he says. “Hands should express all the knowledge. The mind should be clear and breathing should be tranquil. You cannot make good paper if you do not put your heart in it.” This video shows not only what papermaking looks like, but how wisdom can meet action in beautiful tandem.
4.) By now you will be familiar with most parts of the washi-making process. You’ve seen the branches cut and steamed, the bark separated from the stalk and the inner bark separated from the outer. You’ve seen the long fibers separated and tended to, before being pulverized and placed in the vat, where a craftsman delicately arranges them in sheets. And you’ve seen the sheets pressed and laid out to dry, whereafter they become the glorious finished product.
Well, if you want to see it again, in greater and in more extensive detail, this video is for you. Amd why not? Time and time again, the Japanese papermaking makes for not only a superb product, but for an entrancing spectacle.