What Is Washi Paper?

Washi paper is a Japanese cultural treasure, a traditional art form that used to be necessary for literary work especially Buddhist promotion as well as the official documents and formal communications among the extended Japanese Royal families.

Made from special materials, Washi is much stronger and more durable than typically-available commercial paper. It excels in a wide variety of applications, from commercial printing to artisanal printing jobs, and for other artistic purposes—even sculpture.

Although Washi has a time-honored heritage, it is also incredibly relevant to modern printing needs, including digital printing. Today we’ll discuss this cultural treasure, exploring its history, culture, uses, and how it is highly sought-after today.

Washi Paper: History, Manufacture, and Use

Washi is a traditional Japanese paper, renowned for its strength, versatility, and longevity.

Washi paper samplesWashi differs from mass-produced, commonly available paper in some very important ways, starting with the materials. It is made from the kozo shrub of the mulberry family, specifically the outer bark, as well as the mitsumata shrub, both of which are typically cultivated, and the wild gampi plant. They are all locally grown in fields, not in forests in Japan. This results in Washi paper being very environmentally friendly.

These materials, coupled with the particular production techniques of Washi, explain its attributes and its appeal. Washi excels in a variety of uses compared with mass-produced typical forms of paper.

Traditional Washi Production

The process of making Washi starts by stripping down the outer bark of the kozo plant. The bark is soaked in clean flowing water for several days, turning it white and removing impurities.

The bark is then boiled until soft, and then further impurities are removed before separating the fibers by hand-beating them. The paper is then turned into pulp and laid out into sheets, which are dried, pressed, separated, brushed, and subjected to further drying.

Traditionally, winter was the time for making Washi paper: not only was it too cold to do other work, but the winter ice also made for a source of exceptionally pure water.

Washi Colored Paper

The History of Washi

The methods for making Washi have a very long history: they were originally brought from China and Korea by Buddhist monks as far back as about 610 CE.

According to Japan’s Nihon Shoki, or The Chronicles of Japan, written around 720 CE, Washi owes its presence in Japan to a Korean Buddhist priest named Doncho, who also brought techniques for making ink.

In true Japanese fashion, the Japanese innovated and changed it in ways that improved the design, particularly by adding kozo and gampi, both of which are more textile-like materials, to the production process.

Washi was traditionally used for all of the uses of paper: as a material to write on, and for artistic purposes, including painting and printing. However, during Japan’s period of modernization, the Meiji Period (1868-1912), Washi was largely replaced in day-to-day use by Yoshi, mass-produced Western-style paper.

Despite this loss of everyday use, Washi continued to be valuable as an artisanal paper. Handmade Washi is far superior to mass-produced paper in some very important ways: it is more durable, longer-lasting, and more absorbent, and for some artistic purposes there is no substitute for a beautiful sheet of Washi. Washi can also be far thinner when compared to other papers, while simultaneously retaining its very durable nature. This makes Washi ideal for wrapping, creating fashionable packaging, or displays.

Washi tissue paper

Washi Today

Today, Washi may still be produced using handmade techniques; however, our company, Edofiber, and our parent, Nagai Paper Company have revolutionized the production of this Japanese cultural treasure, innovating a mechanical process for manufacturing Washi that preserves the best qualities of hand-made Washi while mass-producing a product that is highly affordable.

Founded in 1928 and restructured in 1948, Nagai Paper Company has been producing machine-made Washi for nearly a century. In that time we have perfected the process to capture everything that is truly wonderful about handmade Washi while producing a product that is economical for mass consumption. Edofiber is the Nagai Paper Company entity that distributes Washi worldwide.

We are proud to be the very first Forest Stewardship Council-certified Washi maker in the world. We remain focused on creating innovative solutions to deforestation by using the bamboo pulp and vegetable oil ink instead of forest products.

In particular, the vegetable oil ink replaces petroleum solvent and is certified with the eco-seal mark and vegetable ink seal mark.

Another innovation that our company, Edofiber, is proud of is the way we avoid using chemicals in the production of Washi, which contributes to durability and increases the preservation of the paper. This makes Washi paper perfect for archival paper printing, as the paper does not yellow with age as most Western papers do.

Washi also has a wide variety of uses to recommend it. Because it is so much more absorbent than regular paper, it is ideal for letterpress printing, high-definition offset printing, thin paper printing, seal printing, and laminate.

Compared with typical commercial paper, Washi has an unrivaled ability to absorb ink and create a sense of contrast and definition. For printing jobs that require a great deal of definition and contrast, it is difficult to beat Washi.

Edofiber specializes in providing a full range of Washi paper treatments that enhance the beauty of this traditional Japanese paper. We are skilled in watermarking, edge dyeing, foil stamping, box making, original punching, and embossment. Because Washi is so much more durable than typical paper, it is ideal for these treatements as well.

In general, the fact that Washi is so much more durable and absorbent makes it an excellent choice of material for artisanal printing. From Lino block printing to colored lithographs to digital printing, Washi is ideal. With the wide range of paper thicknesses that may be produced using Washi techniques, from very thick to the thinnest of tissue, Washi paper is ideal as a wrapping paper, as well as for fashionable packaging or displays.

Washi can also be used in bookbinding, particularly as covers for books. It is much stronger than the paper that makes up the pages, and beautiful designs can be printed on it.

Finally, Washi can even be sculpted, with some Japanese artists working in this medium to produce beautiful works of art.

Conclusion

Washi paper is a time-honored Japanese cultural treasure, one which has been produced for perhaps 1,400 years. The traditional process of making Washi created a highly durable paper with remarkable absorbent qualities.

Washi is now enjoying increased popularity as commercial printers in the United States and elsewhere in the Western world discover this unique paper. Washi remains the paper of choice for artisanal print jobs and is growing in popularity for commercial offset and high-quality digital printing. In this it is unrivaled, and our company is experiencing an increased interest around the world in the commercial applications for traditional Japanese papers in their modern form.

The future of Washi looks bright. Modern machine-made Washi combines the economies of mass-produced paper with the artistry and quality of the time-honored traditional methods, creating a variety of types of Washi ideal for numerous printing, embossing, watermarking, and other functions.

If you need the very best in a paper product, Washi may be the perfect paper for you and we look forward to working with you.