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% 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. His product, the world’s thinnest paper, has helped save historical documents at major museums and libraries — including the Louvre in Paris, the British Museum and Washington’s Library of Congress — from decay.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, said the 50-year-old.
The traditional hand-made paper is manufactured 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 plants,” said the washi maker at his small factory in Hidaka, a village 640 km southwest of Tokyo.
‘Wings of a mayfly’
Mr. Chinzei’s washi, a type called tengu-joshi paper also known as “the wings of a mayfly”, is 0.02 mm thick and weighs 1.6 gm per square metre.
“It’s a mesh-like paper mainly made with fibres... It’s as thin as human skin,” Mr. Chinzei said. This compared to a standard sheet of photocopy paper, which is about 0.09 millimetres thick and weighs 70 gm per square metre. 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.
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.