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The invention of paper in China dates from ancient times. A traditionally established date has the 8th century as commencing of handmade paper into Japan from Korea.

The Nara Period (710-794) saw the centralization of political authority and its attendant bureaucracy linked to the dramatic expansion of the Buddhist priesthood create a heavy demand for paper. There are recorded over 233 different types of paper made by 20 provinces.

The Heian Period (794-1185) was the golden age of quality and variety in papermaking. The growing courtly culture created a wider demand for both official papers and luxuriously decorated sheets on which to keep diaries, write poems, etc. Each region of the country came to be known for its own special type of paper. Beautifully dyed and elaborately decorated papers from this period are still in excellent condition today and can be found in museum displays and private collections.

The Kamakura, Muromachi, and Azuchi-Momoyama Periods (1185-1600) The rise of the warrior class, the change to a feudal form of government, and a decline in the economic and political fortunes of the imperial court reduced the demand for fancy paper but stimulated increased production of good-quality utility paper by cottage industries. The development of printing, markets, and freer architectural use of paper for screen and partition coverings added a new dimension to paper consumption.

The Edo Period (1600-1868) was politically stable and allowed the pursuit of learning and official encouragement for provincial openings of print centers. For the first time both books and paper became freely available for all. Feudal lords established paper making centers in their own domains so they could have a personal paper source. Paper was the second greatest source of tax income outside of rice. So much paper was made available that for the first time in history, paper was readily available and accessible to all classes of people. Many centers produced surplus paper which found its way into the markets of Edo (now Tokyo), Osaka, and Kyoto.

The Meiji Period (1868-Present) found western paper making technology introduced into Japan in the 1870's, and since the early 20th century expanse and limited production have made it difficult for artisan paper makers to compete with industrial paper manufactures.

Washi paper is produced from the bark fibers of three shrubs (kozo, gampi, and mitsumata) making up the washimakers basic raw materials. All occur naturally in most parts of Japan. Kozo and mitsumata shrubs are cultivated, but gampi bark is always gathered from the wild plant. Before bark is turned into paper it must be cropped, stripped, bleached, and boiled in lye to remove the non-fibrous materials, washed, graded, and finally pulped. Mucilage is added to the pulp to produce an emulsion in which fibers are suspended and do not knot, and the slow-draining thickened liquid permits greater control in the determination of paper thickness. Each sheet or waterleaf requires several dips into a vat of stock. After some 400-600 sheets (one block) have been molded, the sheets are pressed to remove excess water and are separated and brushed onto fine-grained wooden boards to dry. Finally the sheets are gathered, cut to size, packed, and marketed.

Washi paper is the material of the craftsman and architecture, the tea master, the painter and calligrapher; paper screens and shoji are part of every house; farmers and townsmen alike use paper umbrellas, fans, lamps, and lanterns, boxes and containers, toys, origami, and even paper clothing; paper symbolizes the purifying aspect of the god in Shinto rites. The world of Japanese paper touches every aspect of their daily life. Japan still produces a higher quality and greater quantity and variety of handmade paper than all the other countries in the world combined.

Origami's relationship to washi goes back to the most ancient and serious ceremonial folding of paper, such as the making of shide in Shintoism, (ritually folded white paper stripes marking the areas in nature between the sacred and profane). The ceremonial folding of washi became extremely elaborate, and since Shintoism lacks the icons of most other religions, the complex cutting and folding also became highly symbolic.

Unfortunately, producing hand made washi paper is a slowly dying art in Japan. Many of today's youth who have come from homes where washi paper is laboriously hand produced are finding a better lifestyle in the big cities. Linked to this is the fact that kozo, mitsumata, and gampi the required natural resources to produce washi paper are becoming increasingly less abundant throughout Japan. Once again the pendulum has swung to wear it is the wealthy who can afford and appreciate the value of washi. Washi is becoming the rich man's chiyogami. Yes, the origami folders of today are discovering the beauty and versatility of washi. Often times it is reserved for only the most valued of a folder's creation. This is true in Japan and is true worldwide.

 The information for this report came from: WASHI, The World Of Japanese Paper, Sukey Hughes, Kondasha Publications, 1978. Kondasha Encyclopedia on Japan, 1993 edition.

This article has been authored by Kimberly Crane.  All rights reserved, please contact Kimberly Crane for authorization to copy material in this article.