With Japan’s rich traditions in paper, it’s no wonder that paper is such a big part of Japanese culture. The development of washi-making techniques from families that have made paper for generations and constant innovation among modern Japanese paper companies mean that stationery lovers have some pretty neat options, like ultra-thin Tomoe River paper and luxuriously plushy Midori MD Cotton paper. Keep reading to learn more about why paper is so important in Japan—plus, take a look at a few of our favorite Japanese paper companies.
When compared to American notebooks, Japanese notebooks have many more options for paper color, sheet style, and other features. Japanese paper companies want people to have an exact paper type for every use.
Founded in Osaka in 1905, Kokuyo originally sold covers for account ledgers. While the covers were 5% of the cost of a ledger and didn’t bring in much money, founder Kuroda Zentaro believed that success would come if Kokuyo did “something that [would] be of use to people.”
Pages of the Paracuruno notebooks extend to different lengths, creating a slant that makes it easier to flip through the pages. The PunyoPunyo Pin has silicone around the points so you don’t poke yourself, while the Kadokeshi eraser ensures you always have a sharp corner to erase with.
Our favorite part of the Zarazara paper is the type of feedback the pen and paper give while writing—pens have lots of control and the toothiness of the paper comes through, yet writing doesn’t feel scratchy. If the Tsurutsuru paper is too smooth and the Zarazara is too rough, the Sarasara notebooks might be perfect. These have the same Sarasara paper in Kokuyo’s famous loose leaf papers. We recommend using the Sarasara paper if you like gel pens and ballpoints.
Kokuyo paid attention to small details in the Perpanep line, from the lay-flat binding for double-page spreads and the unobtrusive light grey ruling, to the eco-friendly cheesecloth binding that is soft and strong. The Perpanep notebooks come in 4 mm dot grid, 5 mm graph, and 6 mm steno ruling.
Midori began in the 1960s with the goal of creating a paper that would “cultivate the unique sounds of writing by hand.” Undoubtedly, the company makes a lot of paper—pulp sheets are stored in a section of their factory that is about 1.5 million square feet in area! Part of why Midori’s paper is so great is because of their commitment to details in the entire papermaking process. Many of their techniques used in the factory come from traditional washi-making techniques. For instance, Midori still uses river water to clean and bleach branches, but refines it based on the season to ensure that it has the same viscosity throughout the year. Instead of using bamboo mats to individually form paper sheets, Midori’s craftsmen use fast-rotating wires to evenly spread out the hardwood pulp. The final step of Midori’s manufacturing process is their writing quality test, in which workers write specific characters and patterns to check for consistency between batches.
Many farmers were unable to produce high-quality crops in winter and began to grow mulberry. Winter was the perfect time to produce washi because the cold river water was best for removing lye and other impurities from mulberry fibers. Sakoku, Japan’s closed-country policy before the Meiji period that started in the 1860s, forced Japanese people to make use of the resources they had for papermaking to cultivate their craft over centuries. Moreover, paper’s inherent connection with nature related it to gods from Japanese mythology, inspiring reverence for the product among Japanese citizens.
Artisans need to meet specific qualifications to give their washi certain titles of guaranteed quality. For instance, to call their washi honminoshi, the highest quality washi from the city of Mino, washi makers must train for at least ten years under a member of the Association for the Preservation of Honminoshi. The cultural and historical significance of Mino washi extends even to those that have modernized washi paper production. Though Furukawashiko—a stationery company based in Mino—uses machine-made washi paper in its letter sets, they are proud to source much of the paper from local manufacturers. The Paper Bread, Sandwich, and Stamp letter sets are all made from Mino washi.
Along with the preservation in manufacturing techniques of high-quality washi, Japan also makes paper a large part of its culture through festivals and traditions. In Echizen, a city in the Fukui Prefecture known for its washi, production of paper can only start after craftsmen visit the paper goddess Kawakami Gozen and pay respects at the Okamoto Otaki shrine. Children, elders, and citizens of Echizen take part in a three-day festival to honor the goddess, bringing offerings to the top of a mountain.
Following Commodore Matthew Perry’s opening of Japan to international trade in 1853, the use of washi declined as industrialized techniques for making western paper spread to Japan. Mass-producing paper using machinery became cheaper and less time-consuming than making it by hand. So, washi makers have come up with innovative ways to sell their washi. Aside from the older uses of washi in lighting, new developments in adding polycarbonate to washi create a new material that can be stronger than the glass used in automobiles. Some companies even make earrings, clocks, windscreens, and walls for housing from washi!
Other washi makers have taken a more direct approach to sell washi. In the Ozu Washi museum, visitors can purchase a washi-making experience where they learn traditional techniques to make their own washi. Some craftsmen sell to government agencies and businesses who use washi for important documents that need to be preserved.
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YAMAMOTO PAPER told us that they believe paper selection will be more limited in the near future as manufacturing becomes more streamlined and people move to digital tools. Their hope is that people will get to know Japanese paper culture as it is now before it permanently changes. Part of YAMAMOTO PAPER’s mission is to share unique kinds of paper and help people experience them. This is a hope that we also believe in, so we encourage you to browse our paper guides, try different paper and writing instrument combinations, and enjoy the richness of Japanese paper culture.
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