Learn about the charms of Japanese washi paper, the new Intangible Cultural Heritage

Three types of Japanese washi paper have become registered as an Intangible Cultural Heritage. What exactly IS washi? And how is it used in Japan today? For those of you who do not know, let us enter the world of Japanese traditional paper.


Japanese Culture

1. washi paper (Japanese paper) became a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage. 


On November 27, 2014 (Japan time), three types of Japanese washi paper became registered as an Intangible Cultural Heritage. There are probably many people who have seen this news. Do you know what the difference between washi and other types of paper is? Even among Japanese people, there are probably many who also cannot answer this question.

First, the raw material of washi paper is just a kind of tree from the mulberry family.

Washi paper's raw material: Mulberry

Washi is produced from the bark of mulberry trees by a traditional handmade process.

The Handmade Way

With handmade work, the fibers of the mulberry are spread thinly and evenly and are intertwined finely. Borrowing the power of the water, the mat is shaken back and forth over the transparent mat. While doing this over and over again, a single piece of washi paper is made piece by piece. What a workplace where you forget about your feelings...the finished washi paper is laid out carefully to dry and is finally finished.

[Video]The Handmade Way

This godlike handmade work is so fast you don't even know what is happening in one moment. The people who make washi paper are cool, aren't they? This method is said to have begun in Japan over 700 years ago. Japanese washi paper has a long history. So now I would like to introduce the three types of washi paper that became an Intangible Cultural Heritage in November 2014.

2. The washi paper that became an Intangible Cultural Heritage

The washi papers registered as a cultural heritage are the Honminoshi from Gifu prefecture, the Sekishubanshi from Shimane prefecture, and the Hosokawashi from Saitama prefecture. These are all included in the washi paper category, but the places where each one is made is supposedly varied beyond one's imagination. Perhaps proof of that is washi has a wide range of uses. 

a) Gifu: Honminoshi

Honminoshi is the oldest paper to be stored in the Shoshoin treasure house at Todaiji temple in Nara. In spite of the fact that it was made 1300 years ago, even now it is said that this Honminoshi still has the same soft feel. That is to say, the Honminoshi that is made in 2014 will still feel as soft in the year 3314. It would be good if letters could be written to children in the far future using this paper.

Kyoto State Guest House Lighting, Honminoshi used like Shoji paper

In the Edo period, the government purveyors were very interested in paper, and in addition they also valued high-quality shoji. Nowadays, in the Kyoto reception hall corridors and the wisteria space, 5000 pieces of Honminoshi paper were made by Honminoshi craftsmen. This Honminoshi is an important element in producing an atmosphere that combines appropriate high-class dignity and ultimate luxury in a guesthouse. 

b) Shimane: Sekishubanshi

Because of the tough quality of the paper, long ago merchants in Osaka used Sekishubanshi for their account books, and if there was a fire in the store they would immediately throw the account books in the well to attempt to save it from burning. Sekishubanshi, while being very tough, also feels extremely soft and has been used as shoji paper.

Sekishubanshi: the paper that lives closely with people

Sekishubanshi has been used as shoji paper in the lifestyles of Japanese people for a long time, but these days the Japanese lifestyle has changed and the number of houses which use shoji (in their doors) is decreasing. However, though the use of shoji is declining, in order to repair its status as a cultural property, it is now being used as calligraphy paper and paper for awards, thus giving it a wider use. With all these different uses, no matter what era Sekishubanshi is used in, it seems to be loved by Japanese people and fits in with their daily lifestyle.

c) Saitama: Hosokawashi

The characteristics of Hosokawashi include the brilliance and hardness of natural paper and a uniform thickness. Because it is such high quality, the Imperial Family is said to use Hosokawashi as envelopes when they send out written invitations. The paper is also used for books bound in the Japanese style as well as art prints. Because of this usefulness, you will ask if there is another paper with such elegance and class.

The problem of who will be the successor in carrying out Hosokawashi


The subject of the successor problem is also big. In the Edo period, during the off-season for farming, farmers would take on papermaking as side jobs, but in recent years the demand has continued to decrease and there are now only 11 people in the Hosokawashi craftspeople association. The falconry president says, "With this registration [as an Intangible Cultural Heritage], won't there be people coming out who want to learn? Those people will want to do their best to make an environment where the paper can thrive." He pointed out that it is not only the handing down of a tradition, but the ability to maintain independence as a thriving business that is important.


Now that this paper is an Intangible Cultural Heritage, it would be good if lots of people could become aware of the problem and tackle it.

3. The Charm of Washi

・Lasts for more than 1000 years



In general, it is said that washi is neutral. Acidic paper deterioates quickly, and depending on the product some can only last for 100 years. As for why washi is so long-lasting that it is still fine after 1000 years, it seems that there are secrets in its ingredients.

・Extraordinary ventilation

For Japanese paper, whose shape is kept by the small fibers which are finely intertwined, of course painted walls and other kinds of paper have different thicknesses, but there are lots of gaps in washi. Therefore, even if the shoji door is closed, the breeze will come through the gaps and the room will become well-ventilated even without opening the door. 

・Produces a soft, pale light

As mentioned before, there are a lot of openings and crevices in washi paper. From these fine, yet large gaps, we can see the light bent in a complex way. The light is shone directly into our eyes in a unique, soft and gentle way. Also, if you take a photo with light enclosed in two pieces of washi, it will give off a warm tint.

・Collapsible yet strong

When comparing washi fibers to other paper, washi fibers are long. For paper made with short fibers, if you fold it many times the fibers will tear, but long washi fibers will be safe even when folded constantly and repeatedly like with a folding screen.

Visual comparison between washi and Western paper


The left is a photomicrograph of Western paper, and the right is a photomicrograph of washi paper. The fibers of Western paper are thin and short, whereas you can see the fibers of washi are thick and long.

5. Practical examples of washi

Here I want to look at how today's Japanese people use washi in their everyday lives. I will introduce 5 items that surprise you and transcend your imagination.

1. Bag

This is not a photo of a washi bag that is one second before splitting. This bag made out of washi can hold 10kg. It holds up in the rain and you can even put a wet folding umbrella in it. Each bag is made luxuriously by a worker who each has an individual sewing machine. The washi maker Onao made a new kind of washi named "Naoron" and, with product designer Naoto Fukasawa, made this washi bag. If you did not have love for washi, you would not be able to create such high quality products as this.

2. Baby shoes

Shoes? Are these shoes a sculpture made out of washi? No, you are wrong. These are proper shoes you can wear. The concept is extremely wonderful.

We want to celebrate these shoes which were made for a baby who will take his or her first steps and put on his or her first shoes, made with paper that has been traditionally manufactured.

With this in mind, "God's shoes from God's land" were created.


The manufacturing used for these shoes is the same as how Sekishubanshi is made. For your stylish self, or for a good friend's baby, how about giving this as a present?

3. Flower vases

Flower vases...this is just a porcelain vase that has washi wrapped around it, isn't it? No, you're wrong! This flower vase is only made out of washi. Isn't it just good enough to stick washi paper on a regular flower vase? Let us put such a foolish question aside and look at this groundbreaking technique.

1. The vessel is waterproof and you can pour the water directly into it.
2. The look and feel of original washi paper is all there.
3. It has cleared safety and food hygiene tests and can be used as tableware.
4. You can use it over and over again as a flower vase or anything else that has to do with water.
5. Because you can dye washi, a series with different colors is in development.


Isn't this amazing? It is even advancing into the field of tableware...certainly if there were paper plates you could use repeatedly, it would be ecological and it wouldn't be bulky like plastic plates so it would be easy to store.

4.iPhone Case

This iPhone case was made out of washi...the passion that Japanese people have for washi is incredible. "Is this power trying to substitute all manmade things for washi?" you might ask...


How beautiful. That you can make this out of washi is interesting, but the highest praise for washi's charm must go to its soft feel and elegant refinement. This is a pop design accessory, but because it is made with washi it seems adult - this is a wonder.

What did you think?

Here I showed you several facets of the charm of washi. Before you read this article, and after reading it, above all I hope your awareness and love for washi has deepened, even a little bit.

This picture is the last thing I will introduce. In November of 2014, in Mino city in Gifu prefecture, where the Intangible Cultural Heritage Honminoshi paper is from, every year around October there is a Honminoshi-crafted art exhibition. It is an event where you can personally experience the soft texture of washi and washi art and where you can become interested in washi. You should certainly try and see the exhibit for yourself.

The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.

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