Home > Publications > NDL Newsletter > No. 203, December 2015

National Diet Library Newsletter

No. 203, December 2015

Japanese paper in action!! : Conservation treatments using "Washi" (1)

Preservation Division
Acquisitions and Bibliography Department

This article is a translation of the article in Japanese
in NDL Monthly Bulletin No. 654 (October 2015).


1. Introduction

The craftsmanship of traditional Japanese hand-made paper, or washi (和紙), was inscribed on UNESCO's Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity on November 27, 2014. The three kinds of washi which were inscribed are: Sekishu-Banshi (石州半紙) from Shimane Prefecture, Hon-minoshi (本美濃紙) from Gifu Prefecture, and Hosokawa-shi (細川紙) from Saitama Prefecture. This good news swept across Japan, and marked the point where the remarkable method handed down from more than 1000 years ago had attracted worldwide attention.

From old times in Japan, washi has been commonly used in various necessities of life. Besides being used to write words and draw pictures on, it has also been used for sliding doors and screens, fans to make a cool breeze, decorative origami paper, kites, lighting equipment like lanterns and lamps, umbrellas waterproofed by applying oil or persimmon juice, etc. Even today, washi is used in numerous fields. Surprisingly, pots made of washi (kaminabe, 紙鍋) are sometimes used in Japanese restaurants. The paper used there is not necessarily made by the traditional method, but this may be another way of using washi.

In a series of two articles, we would like to introduce how the versatile washi is essential to the National Diet Library (NDL).

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2. Features of washi

Most of our readers may wonder, "What is washi? How is it different from ordinary paper?"

According to dictionaries, the term washi was coined in the Meiji Era, to distinguish it from western paper which was brought into Japan. It can be generally defined as paper made of kozo (, mulberry family), mitsumata (三椏, oriental paperbush, daphne family) and gampi (雁皮, daphne family). The majority of washi is made from kozo, and the ones used in the NDL are mostly 100% kozo. Paper fibers in washi are longer than those in western paper. Kozo fibers are as long as one centimeter and are flexible, thin, and durable. Due to this durability, washi is used in conservation activities at the NDL, as well as other libraries or archives all over the world. The fact that there are some documents made of washi from the 8-11th century in the Shoso-in (正倉院, a repository built in the 8th century, which stores valuables related to Emperor Shomu and Empress Komyo) demonstrates washi's durability. If preserved with care in an adequate environment, washi could be handed down for more than a thousand years.

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3. The NDL and washi

The Preservation Division of the NDL specializes in treatments to stabilize library materials. We take various measures to protect materials from deterioration and damage. But still, materials which are old or frequently used gradually wear out and need some treatments. Washi is necessary in repairing these paper materials. Here we will show how we make use of washi in our conservation work.

Image 1: Storage area for washi

Many kinds of washi are produced in different areas of Japan. Each has its long-cultivated features, such as the raw materials and manufacturing method. Shown in Image 1 is the storage area for the various kinds of paper at the Preservation Division’s office. The cabinet at the left came from the former Imperial Library (1897-1947), one of the roots of the NDL. Stocked in here are kinds of washi used in our preservation work: Sekishu-Banshi, Hon-minoshi and Hosokawa-shi which are now Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, Echizen-Hoshoshi (越前奉書紙) from Fukui Prefecture, Uda-Gami (宇陀紙) and Misu-Gami (美栖紙) from Nara Prefecture, Gokayama-Gami (五箇山紙) from Toyama Prefecture, Yame-Gami (八女紙) from Fukuoka Prefecture, Tosa-Tengujoshi (土佐典具帖紙) from Kochi Prefecture, dyed washi in numerous colors, and so forth. Although these are only some kinds of the washi produced in Japan, we stock what is needed for our conservation work.

Image 2: Various kinds of washi used for preservation at the NDL

Image 2 is a photo of the various kinds of washi. Each kind of washi comes in different thicknesses, and we stock several types of thicknesses for each. The majority are hand-made, but for example, the two kinds of paper at the upper left of the photo (Tengujoshi), so thin that words can be read through them, are machine-made. We choose the most appropriate kind of paper depending on the condition of the materials which needs repairing.

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4. Repairing Japanese-style books

Image 3: Holes eaten by insects

Image 4: Holes repaired using washi

Image 3 is a diary written in the late Edo Era, of which the pages had been eaten by insects. It is written in Indian ink on washi. There are some materials that have been eaten by insects, gnawed by mice, torn, or deteriorated before being brought to the NDL. These holes make the materials difficult to read and handle.

In repairing these materials, we first choose a piece of washi that is similar in thickness and texture to that of the book. Next, we tear a piece of the washi, a little larger than the size of the hole. Then we use starch paste to cover the hole with the washi, and mend the gap. Once the hole is fixed, the book could be read and handled without difficulty again.

Image 5: washi dyed to match the color of the material

Paper in old materials becomes discolored and turns brown. There are also some materials such as Buddhist sutras in which paper was dyed yellow in the first place. In these cases, we sometimes dye the washi using plant dyes, so that it will match the color of the material. Shown in Image 5 are the dyed washi.

Image 6: NDL staff dyeing washi

Dye solutions of various colors can be extracted by boiling yasha (a kind of fern), choji (cloves), mateba-shi (tan oak), etc. We color the washi by brushing on these extractions, as shown in Image 6. Since washi is tough and flexible, we dry it as shown in Image 7, hanging the sheets of paper like drying laundry.

Image 7: Dyed washi being dried

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5. Conclusion

We hope that this article has given you an idea about the features of washi and what kind of attempts we make to restore Japanese-binding books using it. In the next issue of the NDL Newsletter, to be published in February 2016, we would like to introduce how we apply conservation treatments to western-binding books, newspapers and maps using washi.

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