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Why Is Japan Still So Attached to Paper?

By Nikil Saval

Japan’s centuries-long fascination with traditional papermaking means there’s still a robust analogue culture in a country known for its embrace of the modern.
Kyoko Hamada
Japan’s centuries-long fascination with traditional papermaking means there’s still a robust analogue culture in a country known for its embrace of the modern.

One of the clichés of modernity — but a cliché we nonetheless have to live through — is that new forms of technology make us nostalgic for prior ones and the eras they connote. When smartphones emerged, they brought the internet into spaces that were once free of them, so that a poorly functioning flip phone now inspires a hint of wistfulness. The pileup of digitised music since the emergence of the MP3 has prompted a retreat, however niche and ultimately minor, into the world of vinyl records and even tapes. The ransacking of the physical texture of the world — books, newspapers, retail stores, maps — has been so enormous and sudden that it becomes possible to see what we are losing and no longer regard the onrushing future as progress.

Because of the sheer accumulated weight of its past, and the velocity of its rush into the future, Japan offers these contradictions and anxieties of modernity in particular abundance. Japan was geographically isolated for centuries, so the time between the country’s opening — thanks to the gunboat diplomacy of American warships’ arrival in 1853 — and the postwar miracle of reconstruction produced a linear and especially propulsive narrative of an agrarian society becoming one defined by urban futurism. The contrast (and conflict) between ancient and modern is the primary tension in Japan’s modern literary and filmic traditions: rural families experiencing the shock of the city in Yasujiro Ozu’s films of the ’40s and ’50s, or Noh drama in the novels of the Showa-era writer Fumiko Enchi. Everything, from the perfervidness of the country’s electronic manufacturing, the proliferation of its pop culture, the aggressiveness of its building booms — even as a three-decade-long economic decline strips these characteristics of their sheen — seems to serve as a reminder that throughout the postwar era, Japan was a byword for the future.

All of these forces — the past, the present, the future — can be crystallised in one persisting Japanese tradition: the longevity and depth of its papermaking. Perhaps chief among the historical foundations of Japan is that it is a country of artisans, so much so that the national government stipulates requirements for an object to be classified as a “traditional Japanese craft.” The first of these requirements is that an object must be practical enough for regular use, which helps explain the continuing relevance of paper, or washi (which translates as “Japanese paper”). In our digital age, we tend to forget just how practical and versatile the material actually is, and many of its modern uses can be traced directly back to Japan, where the art of handmade washi began with the arrival of Buddhist monks to the islands from Korea in the seventh century.

Since then, washi has been used as stationery, as canvas and as art itself through the rise of origami, which was invented almost simultaneously with washi — but these practices, which remain popular, overshadow just how deeply entrenched paper is in Japanese history. Some 700 years before the Gutenberg Bible, the Japanese were hand-printing Buddhist texts on paper. Before printed periodicals began to appear in Europe in the 17th century as predecessors of the modern newspaper, Japan was printing yomiuri (literally “to read and sell”), handbills that were sold in major urban centres. (Today, Japan maintains the largest circulation of print newspapers in the world, and the second largest per capita.) Paper was the dominant characteristic of Japanese aesthetics, appearing everywhere from domestic rooms to funerals. Paper lanterns were burned at religious ceremonies. Clothing was made from it. It became a popular building material. The shoji screens that were ubiquitous in the Edo period, which spanned the 17th to the late 19th centuries, reflected an appreciation for mood and tactility and, with their lunar opacity, contributed to the clean, mollified serenity that later so attracted Modernist architects like Le Corbusier to traditional Japanese architecture. Even a form of facial tissues, the kind you sneeze into when you have a cold, were used by the Japanese for centuries. Paper has a long history all over the world, but it is to Japan something like what wine is to the French — a national obsession and point of pride. It remains, despite every innovation since, the central material of Japanese culture.

Left: Brent Boardman/courtesy of the Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation (SCAF). Right: Courtesy of Ozu WashiLeft: The architect Shigeru Ban’s emergency shelters are made mostly of paper. Right: Washi paper at the store Ozu Washi in Tokyo.
Left: The architect Shigeru Ban’s emergency shelters are made mostly of paper. Right: Washi paper at the store Ozu Washi in Tokyo.

It was the Korean Buddhist monk Dancho who is credited with supervising the production of the first pieces of paper in seventh-century Japan, using Chinese techniques. The court culture of the Heian era, which ran from the eighth through the 12th centuries, was one in which other Chinese developments — notably, bureaucracy — stimulated the demand for paper for record-keeping and bookmaking. As the importance of the court declined, and the feudal, polycentric system of warrior potentates rose, so too did the manufacture of paper decentralise and proliferate. It was at this point that paper began to be used in architecture, for sliding doors and screens, and so the need for more, and longer-lasting, variations became imperative. This is how washi-making became a household tradition: By the 1800s, when capitalist industrial techniques were introduced, over 100,000 ordinary families were known to be making their own paper by hand for various domestic uses. But those same hyper-exploitative industrial techniques — including the mass production of cement and, a little later, warships — would gradually put an end to this era.

Today, though, the remnants of these traditions can be seen in the Modernist buildings that still stand in major cities, including Tokyo’s International House of Japan, one of the country’s most famous hotels, designed in 1952 by Japanese acolytes of Le Corbusier, which makes use of shoji screens. The architectural roots of paper are even clearer in more recent works by Shigeru Ban, whose emergency shelters following the 2011 Fukushima earthquake were made mostly of paper — in particular, recycled cardboard tubes — or by Kengo Kuma, whose buildings continuously riff on Japanese craftsmanship.

Tokyo itself remains a paradise of art and manga and stationery stores — all monuments to a persistent if perhaps anachronistic print culture. At one of these stores, Ozu Washi, which has occupied the same location in the Nihonbashi business district since 1653, I learned how washi is made. Washi is one of the strongest papers in the world, and to produce it, one has to cultivate the kozo, a shrublike tree that is related to the mulberry (gampi and mitsumata trees are also used). Unlike with Western-style paper, the bark of the tree is crushed and retained in the production. The resulting fibres must be beaten and bleached and mixed with water and neri, a slime that comes from the roots of the Tororo-aoi. This mix is then layered over a screen, at which point colours can be added and the thickness of the paper augmented with more layers. At the end, the pulp is pressed and dried. The result is paper that is difficult to tear, palely lucent and incredibly durable. Bright patterning — of natural flora or geometric trompe l’oeil effects — is often woodblock-printed on it, or watermarks are threaded in, on pages lined vertically for calligraphy. The product is more than just a surface on which to transmit thoughts or ideas; it is a sculptural, tactile object, and its very physical presence helps account for its endurance. Paper, then, is not just a vehicle for text or images but an object unto itself — not something to be merely experienced by sight, it demands to be touched as well. Washi is more like an active metaphor for Japanese craft writ large — luxurious, laborious, useful and maintaining a rough-edged, pastoral simplicity.

The great paradox of Japan’s paper culture is that the country was also one of the earliest producers of global technology, particularly with the founding in 1946 of Sony (originally called the Tokyo Telecommunications Engineering Corp.), a company that could reasonably claim the mantle as one of the original tech supergiants. Having once been a papermaking innovator, the country also became the site of other crucial advancements. The first consumer tape recorders and transistor radios emerged here in the 1950s, and in 1966, the Sony Building in Ginza, Tokyo’s old business district, further transformed the look of the modern city by becoming the first example of “media architecture,” with a facade that displayed video images, a development for screens that was perhaps inevitable in a country that pioneered this technology back when it was still analog.

In a bit of irony, the first cellular network is also Japanese, introduced in 1979 by Nippon Telegraph and Telephone. This may have helped sound the long, slow demise of print throughout the world, but in a country where the roots of paper are so deep, today the material is still everywhere, even when it isn’t. As in many places in the world, passengers on the subway system scroll continuously on their phones. But the country’s low-tech traditions have not been casually discarded. The same spirit that continues to cultivate beautiful washi also seems of a piece with the strange persistence of meikyoku kissaten, the “masterpiece cafes” where people sit and listen to recordings of classical music on old phonographs. Much like the more famous and trafficked vinyl bars — hole-in-the-wall haunts catering to audiophiles, hundreds of which speckle the streets and back alleys of Tokyo — they reflect a reverence toward a medium and not just the product produced via that medium.

In an age of sharply escalating computerisation and digitisation of everything into an intangible ether, it can be hard to remember that paper, too, is just another medium, something that acts as a transmitter for something written or typed in the past. Or better, it’s too easy to imagine that replacing paper with digital screens is just moving from one medium to another. Digitisation has produced a change not just in what we see and feel but in what we control. The world of new media — of what the left-wing theorist Jodi Dean calls “communicative capitalism” — is standardised in a way that not even the most fantastical efficiency expert could have dreamed. If thousands of families could once make their own paper, it is now only a few monopoly companies that create virtually all the media through which we transmit communication today, and virtually all of it is being data mined in a way that letters never could be. The fetish for media like washi is nostalgic on one account, cleareyed on another: The paper bears an imprint, of the maker and eventually of the user, in a way no digital object ever can. For this reason, those pale, fringed sheets retain a measure of the time, and the sense of self, we are always losing as we rush heedlessly into the future.