Leaving a Carefully Crafted Paper Trail in Japan : A Tokyo store sells handmade <i> washi </i> that is both for art and utility.

<i> Stinchecum is a New York-based free-lance writer and textile historian who specializes in Asia. </i>

Paper plays an important role in everyday Japanese life, and Paper Nao--a very personal shop in this megalopolis--specializes in handmade paper from all over the country. Here you will see clearly that in Japan, paper means something more than it does to us in the postwar West, where we say, “Oh, it’s made out of paper--it’s all right to throw it away.”

In Japan, one can see paper used in myriad ways, from the decorative, to the symbolic, to the spiritual. Here, carefully folded strips of white paper hang from a thick straw rope marking off a shrine, a tree, a sacred rock. There, before a massive and stern bronze Buddha, offerings of bright paper flowers decorate the altar. When paying a respected teacher for a lesson, or giving money as a gift, the money (dirty) does not pass directly from hand to hand, but is always mediated by an envelope (pure) of paper.


W ashi (literally, Japanese paper) means handmade paper. And at Paper Nao, visitors can see washi raised to an art form by its proprietor.

Naoaki Sakamoto opened his shop in March of 1984, but his involvement with washi dates back about 20 years. It was then that he quit working as a tuna specialist at Tokyo’s famed wholesale fish market, Tsukiji, to devote himself to paper. He began experimenting with papermaking and selling block-printed books and paper for wood-block printing. He came to the world of washi with an almost mystical feeling: “To me, paper conveys a sense of peace, and I wanted to give others that feeling as well,” he explained.


At the same time he began working with paper, Sakamoto also began forming relationships with contemporary artists. When a wood-block craftsman asked him to locate indigo-dyed paper, Sakamoto went to find this rarity in Kochi, on the island of Shikoku, an ancient papermaking center that also happens to be the original home of Sakamoto’s father. Among the Western artists he has counted as his customers Robert Rauschenberg, Niki de Saint Phalle, Jean Tinguely, Richard Serra and Frank Stella.

In all, Sakamoto has visited about 30 centers of washi production in Japan, including each of the areas where the paper in his shop comes from. He carries only paper for which he has personally seen the production process, so that he can see with his own eyes, for example, whether the fiber is boiled with wood ash or caustic soda, which affects the quality of the paper. He carries papers from Nepal, France, England and Denmark, but no Chinese paper. The Chinese refuse to allow outsiders to witness the production of their finest paper--a paper that cannot be duplicated in Japan--and Sakamoto has no interest in lesser-quality Chinese papers.

More recently, he began working closely with conservators who repair and restore manuscripts, paintings and books made of paper. On a visit to the conservation department of the Louvre about 12 years ago, he found that Japanese papers marketed in the United States and Europe were not properly labeled. He realized that he had to see with his own eyes where and how each type of paper was made if he was going to sell it and properly describe it according to fiber content and processing for conservation use.


In the late 19th Century, there were probably 10,000 papermaking workshops in Japan. Now there are 500. Many of the papermakers associated with these workshops pride themselves on the purity of their papers. Chemically bleached wood-pulp paper contains impurities that oxidize, causing the paper to become brittle and discolored. The finest washi, on the other hand, utilize bast fibers, the inner surface of the bark of woody plants, which is high in cellulose and, after meticulous processing, contains little besides the pure fiber.

Those most commonly used for papermaking in Japan-- kozo , mitsumata and ganpi --are carefully freed from non-fibrous impurities by soaking, scraping and repeated washings, and boiling with ash lye. In the natural drying process, in which the newly formed sheets of paper are dried on wooden boards in the sun (some papermakers now use artificially heated steel plates, but this is frowned on by purists), the sun bleaches and further purifies the paper. All of the care taken in the production of washi , resulting in pure and pH-neutral (neither alkaline nor acid) paper, makes it valuable not only to the calligrapher, ink painter and printmaker, but also to restorers of paintings and lacquer objects.

Twisting vines, coffee grounds and bits of colored paper give texture and color to novelty papers favored, according to Sakamoto, by interior decorators. And many are dyed in delicate or rich hues. But Paper Nao does not carry printed papers; these are usually made with inferior stock, and quality and purity come first with Sakamoto.


Around the circumference of the small shop, row upon row of shallow wooden drawers contain treasures of texture, strength and lightness (please ask to have papers removed from drawers). In the middle of the room, a large cutting table takes up most of the floor space. Standard paper sizes are 65 by 88 centimeters, 74 by 150 centimeters and 90 by 180 centimeters, but these can be cut down for use as writing paper or to special size on request. Of the three fibers that make up most of the papers sold at Paper Nao, about 60% are kozo, a type of mulberry cultivated throughout most of southern Japan and on the Pacific coast. Kozo paper is often thick and rich to the touch, with a soft, creamy surface like vellum. The best quality kozo paper is Echizen hosho, which sells for about $20 for a sheet 55 by 75 centimeters.

Ganpi, a scrubby, woody-stemmed plant, is considered the rarest and most precious of Japanese paper fibers because it cannot be cultivated but must be gathered in the wild (it is found as far north as Kanazawa, near the Japan Sea coast). Almost 30% of Sakamoto’s stock is ganpi, favored by artists and printmakers because of its special silken smoothness and gloss, which takes brush strokes well and gives a sharp image to prints. Usually formed into very thin sheets, ganpi paper is often mounted onto heavier paper after printing. Some of the ganpi papers are dyed amethyst, pinkish beige, a butter cream, pale green--in some cases the fiber is dyed before being formed into paper, in some the dye is brushed onto the finished paper. A reversible ganpi tissue paper in two colors is really two super-thin sheets pressed together.

Mitsumata, although it can be cultivated, is less well known than ganp i and so less in demand, and very few workshops produce it, and these tend to be concentrated in western Japan. Like ganpi, mitsumata is smooth and lustrous, and especially suited to the fine, sinuous line of Japanese-style cursive calligraphy. Undyed mitsumata paper tends to have a slightly pinkish case, giving it a warm, fleshy glow. Heavy sheets of mitsumata paper (63 by 181 centimeters about $20), made in Kochi especially for Paper Nao, are composed of two layers stuck together before the formed sheets have dried. These are used mainly for calligraphy and painting with ink.


Paper Dreams

Paper Nao, Sengoku 1-29-12-201 (2nd floor), Bunkyo-ku, Tokyo 112 (local telephone 3944-4470).