- Japanese: 和紙 (washi)
Washi (lit. "Japanese paper") is a type of paper made not from wood pulp, but from the paper mulberry (kôzo, 楮) plant. It is used in a variety of applications, including in printing ukiyo-e woodblock prints & illustrated books, in making umbrellas, as the ground for paintings and manuscripts, in creating the backings for fusuma (sliding screens) and byôbu (folding screens) and the mountings for hanging scrolls, and in shôji sliding screens.
Washi is relatively acid-free compared to modern wood pulp paper, and doesn't brown or grow brittle nearly as much, or as quickly, as modern paper. The long fibers help allow it to remain quite flexible, and indeed many Edo period books today, though weathered on the corners, remain in quite good condition, and do not require extra special care to be handled.
The process of papermaking began with the paper mulberry shrub, the branches of which would be collected and steamed in large barrels. This allowed the outermost layers, the newest layers of growth, to be peeled away from the core of the branch. It was this outer layer which would be used for making the paper. The bark was cleaned off, and the cleaned layers were shipped from the shrub-growing areas to artisans' papermaking areas.
After being boiled in an alkaline solution of wood ash or lime, it was beaten, and then bleached in running water and sunlight. A starchy thickening agent made from the hibiscus root known as tororo aoi was mixed with these fibers, and was then strained over a box-like screen, to produce the paper itself. The wet sheets of paper were then pressed and dried, and ready for sale.
All in all, the process required a lot of equipment, and so while paper was much more widely available in Japan than in Europe, and earlier, it still required a fair bit of initial investment on the part of the papermakers.
Paper was regularly and frequently reused; even after being written on, paper was very often repurposed, being used as backing for fusuma and shôji, or in the making of boxes or a variety of other objects. Historians today continue to discover new and useful documents of everyday life in the process of conserving, restoring, or otherwise examining old household objects such as fusuma and byôbu.
- Luke Roberts, Mercantilism in a Japanese Domain: The Merchant Origins of Economic Nationalism in 18th-Century Tosa, Cambridge University Press (1998), 179-180.