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Paper In Japan

Japan, The High-Tech Country Where Paper Is Revered

It’s curious to think that the country that has long been associated with technology has never lost touch with one of the world’s oldest manmade materials. Paper.

While much of the world is embracing all things digital, in Japan, paper continues to be used in abundance. From its use in age-old rituals to its still-current prevalence in business, and from arts and crafts to modern technology, paper has never lost its edge. Below, we explore some of the ancient and modern, everyday and more unusual, types and uses of paper in Japan and Japanese culture:

Washi – we’ll begin with washi, which translates as “Japanese paper”. Handmade from fibres from the paper mulberry (kozo) bush or other native Japanese shrubs, it is much tougher than ordinary paper made from wood pulp. The process of making washi, which used stronger fibres, was developed in the early 800s after being introduced to Japan in the seventh century by Buddhist monks from the Korean peninsula. [1]

Washi’s unique combination of pale translucency and tactile, irregular texture along with its strength, absorbency and durability has led to its use in an extraordinary variety of applications, some of which are included in this article.

Wagasa – wagasa are traditional Japanese umbrellas and parasols made from washi. They were introduced from China to Japan in the 10th century. While the earlier versions offered protection from the sun, they weren’t very effective in the rain until wagasa makers began applying waxes and vegetable oils to the washi to make it waterproof. [2]

Techos – pronounced ‘tetch-oh’, these planner notebooks are essentially a work schedule organiser. In recent years, however, they have grown in popularity with a new generation who use them for journalling, combining drawing and writing to help destress from daily life. [3]

Stationery – Japan is well-known for its high-quality stationery. The variety of paper stationery is wide with many different options for many different purposes. For example, paper featuring dotted lines is used for drawing graphs while dotted grids are used in journals to give the user greater flexibility in how the use the page, whether writing or drawing.

Shugi-bukuro – also made from washi, shugi-bukuro is a gift envelope, usually containing money, given at celebratory occasions such as weddings, births or moving into a new home.

Shoji screens – shoji screens are possibly one of the most recognised features of Japanese architecture. Made from washi stretched over a wooden or bamboo frame, shoji screens take the form of windows, room dividers and sliding doors.

Newspapers – there is a long tradition of printing and distributing texts in Japan. 700 years before the printing of the Gutenberg bible in Europe in 1455, Buddhist texts were being hand-printed in Japan. Japan “maintains the largest circulation of print newspapers in the world, and the second largest per capita”. [4]

Origami – origami, the art of paper-folding, is probably one the best-known Japanese crafts. Traditionally made using washi, origami was originally used to decorate shrines and temples. Today, it’s an artform popular around the world.

Hanko stamp – while not made from paper, the hanko stamp is an important element of Japan’s paper culture and is “one of the most important tools for personal identification and authorization”. Almost everyone in Japan will have their own hanko, a traditional seal used for signing official documents – which are still predominantly paper – instead of a handwritten signature. [5]

Fax paper and machines – while many readers under the age of 40 might not be too familiar with fax machines – in January 2023, Ofcom announced that fax machines would no longer be supported in the UK [6] – in Japan, they are still a very popular business communication tool despite the current prime minister, Yoshihide Suga, demanding they be abolished, and communication switched to email instead.[7]

Cash – in Japan, cash is still very much king. Japanese banknotes are made from the paper bush that is used to make washi. While accelerated by the pandemic, much of the world has shifted to card and digital retail transactions – cash accounted for just 8% of UK consumer spend in 2021 [8] – the shift in Japan has been far smaller, with approximately 70% of consumer purchases still made in cash [9].

Building material – Japanese architect Shigeru Ban was inspired by a desire ‘to not waste anything and to take advantage of easily accessible and inexpensive materials’ [10] when he developed paper tubes for use in the construction of temporary buildings. His paper-tube buildings have provided sustainable shelter and even temporary places of worship in disaster zones around the world. The cardboard cathedral, known as the ‘Transitional Cathedral’, built in Christchurch New Zealand in 2012 following a major earthquake, is still standing today.

For more information and inspiration about Japan’s love of paper and Japanese papercrafts, you might be interested in these articles:

The plantable papers of Japan

Paper Traditions from around the world

Paper origami: its history and evolution

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