Japanese paper making: Ageing and conditioning

Pre-Conference introduction further into Japanese paper making: Aging and conditioning

“Adapt & Evolve” ICON Book and Paper group conference is approaching very fast. The conference topic is on East Asian conservation practice and materials in Western conservation or objects. The conference will be a good occasion to review how East Asian, notably Japanese conservation practice, was introduced to West about 20 years ago, how it has been integrated into daily conservation practice, and how it evolved within Western conservation practice and possible influencing back. It will be also a great opportunity for all of us to hear about the latest research into techniques and materials on this subject. My personal emphasis will be on learning more about more about Japanese paper, its modern production process, chemicals used and their effect on strength and longevity of papers.

Some of us perhaps heard of a news one way or another, that Japanese paper (Washi – 和紙)was added to UNESCO intangible cultural heritage in autumn 2014. It actually took more complex path than it appears on surface. Washi is a generic term that simply translates to “Japanese paper” and although it is registered as “Japanese paper” with UNESCO, in reality, it only covers 3 brands. “Sekishubanshi 石州半紙” from Shimane Prefecture, “Hosokawa-shi 細川紙” from Saitama Prefecture and “Hon-mino-shi 本美濃紙” from Gifu Prefecture. It was not widely reported but “Sekishuu-banshi” had already been registered with UNESCO in 2008. This fact led to UNESCO’s refusal to Japanese government’s application to register “Hon-mino” in 2011(?check year) because of its similarity in production process and end result to “Sekishuu-banshi”. After receiving this explanation of refusal, Japanese government decided to apply to register these three brands altogether under the name of “Washi”.

It is a good news overall as it will help draw more attention to this tradition of Japanese papermaking from a wider public and preservation of this tradition. It may even lead to increase in sales, subsequently a quantity of production and a size of community engaged in this craft. However, at the same time, it stuck me with a number of questions. If the difference between them was so small and negligible by UNESCO, whey did they still have to specify the brands and how were they chosen over other numerous producers? Does it mean Japanese government reckons they are the best Japanese papers presently produced? Rather than working through a list of my questions and wonders, I would like to share possible answers to them, which I figured out through my visit to Japanese papermakers in October 2014, just before they received the news of their successful application.

Following my visit to papermakers in Kochi 2012 (The report on this trip is available at http://www.bookobscure.co.uk/?page_id=690), I was fortunate enough to join a visit to three Japanese paper making regions. Any visit to Japanese papermakers is exciting but this trip was a very special occasion for me as I was going to visit two Japanese papermakers who supply me their products and also we were going to visit a living national treasure in Echizen, Ichibee Iwano on the same trip. It is nothing like meeting makers as it had been extremely useful in understanding materials they make. My training in bookbinding always taught me the importance of understanding materials I use. It is all about controlling and manipulating chemical, physical and mechanical behavior of materials on application and for the lifetime of objects and I feel conservation shares much of the same factors if not all. We may be able to obtain material data-sheets but often more important information is not on data-sheet and it can only be discovered through a dialogue with makers. I would like to share what I saw and heard on this visit, with a particular focus on “aging and conditioning” papers as it seemed to have grown out as a theme during this trip.

Our first visit was at Satoshi Hasegawa’s workshop in Mino. Hasegawa was designated as “traditional craftsman” in 2003 by the Japanese national body. He started his training under his late master Kozo Furuta in 1991. Currently, Hasegawa works in his master’s workshop on his own, takes care of every single step of papermaking by himself to ensure the quality of papers. His paper is highly desirable for Japanese conservators. He is one of few members of “Hon-mino-shi preservation association” (meaning they are the only craftsman, who can produce Hon-mino-shi registered with UNESCO) and has been making a great contribution in promoting Mino paper internationally. He is also giving a joint presentation with Hidaka Washi at the coming conference. When I first saw Hasegawa’s paper, I was surprised to see consistency of fibre dispersion. I had been using reasonably good papers but the difference was apparent in my eyes. It is not just about beauty to eyes but this evenness in thickness makes a difference when lining fine objects. I realised there were things I would not even know until I get to see them in real-life.

Hasegawa’s workshop consists of several buildings on a land facing River Itadori. Each building has set up for a designated process. Some facilities are solely used by Hasegawa but some others such as “Kawaya – 川屋”, a building for “Chritori –ちり取り(Removal of impurities)” or Naginata beater are shared by a local papermaking community. Hasegawa’s Kawaya has become the last one to remain in the community because of decline in the number of hand-made Mino papermakers. Spring water run through a building while Chiritori is carried out. Workers sit on a cushion on ground and bend forwards to have a close look at fibers floating in a basket placed in running water. Although Hasegawa says it is not too hard once one gets used to it, it seemed extremely laborious to me. Hasegawa took us on a tour through his workshop as he explained a process of papermaking. We had a look at raw Kozo, a big pot for boiling fibers, preserved Tororo aoi and walked into a building with Sukifune, where Hasegawa carries out actual paper making. There, we had a chance to see him demonstrate papermaking and his opinion as a papermaker.

One thing I felt most relevant to conservators is that his papers are in such a demand, he feels there is not enough time to “Age” papers before shipping. In old days, aging papers were mearchants’ job. They were selling enough to order in bulks before making actual sales but the situations is different these days. Hasegawa feels many orders come in with such tight deadlines, he has no time to condition papers before shipping. Although Hasegawa ensures everything to be done to best practice to his knowledge, still it is hand-made product using natural resources. He feels ideally conservators should allow time for paper to prove itself that it is suitable for the purpose.

After forming sheets, papers will be dried on a solid single board cut out of horse chestnut tree, under the natural sunlight. Hasegawa uses what we call the main building for this stage. It was just like walking into a museum as this is the original workshop of his master. Hasegawa kept everything as his master left because this workshop would be very rare example of traditional papermaker’s workshop in Mino. It belongs to his master’s son but him and Hasegawa are planning to donate this building to Mino City so the city can be in charge of preservation of the building, which represents an important regional craft history, and make it accessible to public as a papermaking museum. Earlier the year 2015, the house is officially donated to Mino City and it will be a public museum. Hasegawa feels real work starts from now for his hard work to bear a fruit as nothing has happened since it was donated to the city and he constantly has to remind them to act on this. Donation agreement may not have even happened if registration of Hon-mino-shi with UNESCO last year, which Hasegawa had been proactively involved in, did not come true. It is difficult of ignore that the registration has a huge leverage on decisions local governments make in order to protect traditions that are disappearing away. So many papermakers and regions disappeared in last century because of decline in consumer demands and lack of aides to protect the tradition. We cannot blame anyone for what happened but we can learn from past and try our best to save tradition from dying out completely. It cannot be revived fully once they are gone. This may be part of the reason why Japanese government and papermaking regions were keen to register a few different brands of Japanese papers under “Washi” umbrella. The difference among them could have been negligible from UNESCO’s point of view but these small differences are what really matter to them at the same time. There is no one way of “Washi” making process. There are varieties in materials, tools, techniques, facilities, working methods and appreciation of individuality may be something what registration with UNESCO signifies. There are videos on papermaking for each UNESCO registered regions online, not all of them have English subtitles but you can see many small differences in working environment, equipment, methods, if you are interested.

Sekishu-banshi https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jXZJ8KqOUcM

Hon-mino-shi https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CM7OORJ0jK8

Hosokawa-shi https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KOuIkbsGEj8

We drove about 2 hours to get to next papermaking region “Echizen” and met the president of Echizen Washi Industrial Co-operatives, Hiroshi Ishikawa. The Co-operatives set up a research group with Fukui Prefecture, Echizen City and a few specialists that includes a “Adapt and Evolve” conference keynote speaker, Katsuhiko Masuda. They had been trying to identify if Rembrandt used Echizen Washi for his etchings. It will be a great publicity for Echizen Washi and hugely encouraging to the community. I had a chance to ask Ishikawa why Echizen Washi was not included in UNESCO registration in spite of being a papermaking region with one of the longest history and best reputation for its quality. These 3 paper regions selected for UNESCO are currently registered under “Nationally-designated Important intangible cultural property” with Japanese government. He explained the quality of their craft of course matters but another important factor is how likely they are to extinct if they are not protected. Ishikawa believes that Washi making should continue and be live by integrating into everyday living. The fact that Echizen Washi is not registered “Nationally-designated Important intangible cultural property” does not mean that Echizen Washi is less important or inferior but it only means they have much more active papermaking community and very much alive, and it was proven to be true next day.

Echizen has the only shrine in Japan that worships a goddess of papermaking. The shrine dates back to 6thC so it has over 1500 years of papermaking history in this region and it seems it is one of most active hand-made Japanese paper making regions. We parked a car by the shrine and walked to our first arranged visit. We only had a couple arrangements in that morning due to limited time we had but we ended up making several surprise visits on the way as there were papermakers of different sizes and operations on every single corners of the street. It seemed literally a whole town engaged in papermaking in Echizen. Anyhow, we finally made it to our first arranged visit, the National living treasure papermaker Ichibee Iwano the Ninth. Iwano family keeps ther traditional methods and use plant and wood ash for their alkaline cooking solution and carry out beating by hand to break down fibres, which has become extremely rare these days. His ancestor made paper Pablo Picasso used for his prints and Ichibee the Ninth still makes the same paper today. He is over 80 years old but still makes papers almost everyday. His son and a successor is training with him to keep the tradition alive. On the day of our visit, they were drying papers they made day before. They peeled paper off the stuck one by one and brush onto a solid Ginko board for drying. We watched them work for a while and noticed that some wet sheets were put into a bucket occasionally. We asked what asked what they are for and the living treasure explains that they are not good enough to his eyes, whereas they seemed like gold dust to our eyes. We enquired if we can have them as we wonder if it is disrespectful. Ichibee laughed in very friendly manner and let us have his discarded wet sheets and said he was glad that people appreciate what he made. We walked back as we dried wet papers in the air. It is strong and resistant enough that even strong wind could not cause a single damage to the paper.

Before we left Echizen, we visited the paper factory belongs to Ishikawa. His company seems to specialise in machine-made Japanese papers. We had a look around machineries in very historic building turned into a modern machine-paper making facility. I happened to have a peek into upstairs through staircases and saw cut-sheets hanging off the ceiling. I asked Ishikawa what they are for and he explained how they “condition” their papers before shipping so their product will be ready to be used by their clients when they receive the. Ishikawa explains this only happens depending on the requirements of their clients but this made me remembered what Hasegawa said. I never thought about “how long it has been since the paper was made” or “what was the condition paper was in”. It has definitely become something I should remember and think for future.

Our final destination was Ecchu Gokayama in Toyama prefecture, deep into the mountains. The region has a group of traditional and regional style houses, which are designated UNESCO world heritage site. (http://www.g-ainokura.com)

During the winter, these houses are covered in very thick snow and papermaking was originally a side business during winters where they could not engage in any agricultural work. Miyamoto family, who are the last one of papermakers in this village, decided to make papermaking to be their full-time business and made a commitment that they will only make papers last eternally. They names their paper “Yukyu-shi (悠久紙), which literally means ‘Eternal paper’. They are one of few papermakers in Japan, who grows Kozo plants for their paper production themselves. Their sincere attitude towards papermaking has been drawing attention internationally and they are having interns from all over the world to pass their knowledge and philosophy.

I was fortunate to be introduced to their papers a couple years ago through some contacts I made in Japan. I have been using their papers since then and have been extremely happy with them and this time I was getting to see the makers. It is a good start to know the maker of my papers but what can be better than visiting them in their workshop and exchange words? Miyamato family lives in one of traditional style houses in the region and their papermaking facilities are all in the annex to the main house. We were greeted by a few local ladies working on Chritori (removal of impurities). Miyamoto showed us their papermaking facilities downstairs and brought us to upstairs where they keep their stock. Miyamoto explained that they had some years they did not sell papers very well and they have last 5 years worth of stock upstairs, all separated into year they were made and different weights. Miyamoto recalls that not making good sales was tough but we can respond to requests by their customers if they are after “aged papers”.

According to Miyamoto, some customer requests 6 months old, some requests more than 2 years old. As I probably mentioned before, I have heard of using aged Japanese papers but never applied this idea to my own work. I was not accustomed to the idea and somehow I thought it was not relative to my work but why not? In the end of the day, I am using these Japanese papers and if they react differently depending of their age, I should understand this or at least I should be aware of this to start with. This is definitely another future research topic for me to understand further into materials. We also discussed what my requirements for papers would be. As a papermaker, he wonders what individual requirements are. Papermakers end up with “second-grade” papers, such as papers Ichibee was discarding while drying his papers. It is generally judges by a generic idea of what defines good papers. For instance, there should not be noticeable impurities or faults such as a hole. They also should be even in thickness through out sheet etc… any papers considered as sub-standard papers do not make it to the market in many cases. This turns into waste if no one buys it but if papermakers get to know better about their customer’s requirements, it can be turned into completely usable papers. As a Book conservator, I rarely use a full-sheet as it is, therefore a big hole in the middle may not be a big deal and this is a kind of information hand-made papermakers would like to know for their survival.

I used to be hesitant in asking many questions as I came across some makers who found questions bothering and sometimes I felt that I lacked basic understandings to ask valid questions. However, I realised that papermakers who have a pride in what they do would be more than happy to be engaged in a discussion with their customers in order to have mutual understanding. Every time I visit papermakers, I learn a lot and come away with more questions, which keeps me researching further into Japanese papers, in a similar way I may never fully understand about objects I am conserving and can only apply my best knowledge to-day. Still, it is a fascination of this profession that we never seem to run out of things to learn and Japanese paper remains as one of my on-going interest. I am very much looking forward to what I discover at “Adapt and Evolve” Book and Paper group conference coming up next month.