In most Western societies, paper is often thought of as a disposable material. It’s used in packaging, shopping bags, and Post-It notes that are not meant to last beyond one use. Even in books and other publications, the paper itself is not as important as what is printed on it – and newspapers, of course, are thrown out every day.
In Japan, however, paper has a more distinctive personality, and was traditionally designed to last. Paper was invented in China about 2000 years ago, and reached Japan around the seventh century by way of Korea (it only became established in Europe in the 11th century). When machine-made paper from the West began to be imported into Japan in the Meiji Period (1868–1912), people began to refer to Japanese paper as washi (“wa” meaning Japanese, “shi” meaning paper), in order to distinguish it from other varieties. But there are many other differences – for one, while Western paper typically utilizes wood-pulp from trees, washi is made from the fibers of smaller plants and shrubs like kozo (paper mulberry), mitsumata, and ganpi. Second, the classic technique of manual paper-making (known as nagashi-zuki) uses a more viscous pulp mixture, which is rocked back-and-forth on a bamboo screen before drying in the sun. This causes the paper fibers to be tightly interwoven, resulting in product that has special characteristics.
It’s stronger and more pliable than wood-pulp and machine-made paper, which led to its use not only in books, drawings, and paintings, but also as a material for architecture and everyday items. In the past, it was used in armor as well as kimono-lining for its flexibility and warmth. Its sturdiness and transparency made it an integral material for sliding paper screens and partitions (shoji and fusama), as well as umbrellas and lanterns. As it has a special absorbency, it’s ideal for calligraphy and printing (and gives the unique graphic look to Japanese art forms like ukiyo-e woodblock prints). And its lightness and ability to customize with countless colors, patterns, and forms makes it the ideal material for everything from origami to handkerchiefs to pochi-bukuro, the iconic small gift envelopes printed with gofun pigment and mica-dye.