The Background History of Japanese Traditional Paper, Washi



- Features of Washi -

  • Thin, durable, and sturdy
  • UNESCO added Washi to the list of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Nov. 2014.

- The Background History of Washi - 

Asuka Period, History of Washi

Washi has a history of 1400 years.

Back in the Asuka period, Shotoku Taishi* implemented measures to protect and further develop the production guiding 4 different types of Kozo papers (mulberry papers). Due to a steady increase in demand for Kozo papers, a foundation for the Japanese paper industry and manufacturing was established. The initial rules and guidelines that Shotoku Taishi introduced were further improved by manufacturing Kozo paper using stems and fibres from plants, in the Meiji period this "new" paper product was then called "Washi". 

Q. Why did people change the name from "Kozo" paper to "Washi" paper in the Meiji period? 

This was to make a clear distinction between the traditional Japanese paper and paper introduced by western cultures, which became available in Japan at the begining of the Meiji period.

Shotoku Taishi* was born in 574 as a crown prince. He became a regent of Empress Suiko, who was the first Empress of Japan and an aunt of Shotoku Taishi.

Yuzen Chiyogami

Yuzen Chiyogami

- Features of Yuzen Chiyogami -

  • Yuzen is a style of painting, which is considered to be elegant and beautiful. This style of painting particularly focuses on coloration while introducing many colours at a time, this process layers colours on top of each other and provides a certain depth. 
  • Chiyogami is a type of Washi with traditional Japanese designs and patterns.
  • The techniques of Yuzen was invented by Yuzensai Miyazaki in the Edo period.

- The Background History of Yuzen Chiyogami -

Edo Period, History of Washi

Back in 1683 during the Edo period, the Japanese government issued sumptuary laws, merchants in Japan became wealthier through an increase of trade, while the Samurai class became poorer, this created a problem for the very hierarchical Japanese class system, because Samurai had a higher social status than merchants. The government announced detailed restrictions for clothing and prepared a list of prohibited clothing made with expensive silk, embroidered items, and woven textiles that incorporated gold/silver threads. The clothing restrictions were imposed in particular on people within a lower social class of the society. At the same time, the government also imposed restrictions on Kimono shops (Kimono is traditional Japanese clothing) not to sell luxurious and extravagant products.

Meanwhile, Yuzensai Miyazaki, a painter, focusing on painting designs on Washi for handheld fans, which became popular in Kyoto, because of his delicate coloration and detailed painting style called Yuzen. The techniques of Yuzen was welcomed by members of the lower soical class, who were banned from using luxurious clothes and items, as this satisfied their desire for artisanal and beautiful crafts.

In the present age, the painting style Yuzensai Miyazaki invented on the Washi paper is called Yuzen Chiyogami.

Yuzensai Miyazaki* was the folding fan painter from Kyoto and he invented the colouring method of the colourful Yuzen-zome (Yuzen dyeing).