In Japan, people used to wear clothes made from a type of paper called ‘washi’. Nowadays, these clothes are regarded as luxurious items, but in the past they were worn by everyone in Japan. Fibers made from mulberry, rice, bamboo and other materials were knitted using special skills, and were used not only in clothing, but also in art, furniture and cuisine. Here’s more information about this unique Japanese papermaking art, which is recognized by UNESCO as a world cultural heritage, and is currently endangered.
— 和雑貨・ワークショップ「つくりえ」 (@tsukurie2015) July 12, 2017
‘Washi’ literally means ‘Japanese paper’. It is usually crispy, and is stronger than normal paper we use in our daily lives. You have probably seen origami or calligraphy (shodo) paper which is actually made of washi. Farmers from various prefectures in Japan used to make washi as a winter job to earn extra income. However, the new generation of young Japanese people have little idea of how this paper is made, as more modern, machine-run paper technologies have taken over. The main types of washi include mitsumatagami (used in currency printing), hishi (used in books), and kozogami (used in clothing and furniture). Among these three, kozogami was historically used as widely across Japan as clothing material because of its strength and water-resistance. Washi is also considered favorably within Shintoism, and used in almost every aspect of Shinto rituals, from talismans (ofuda) to ritual purification tools (harae).
The main quality of washi is that it’s handmade and well-crafted using human skill and labor. Various regions of Japan have been producing washi for hundreds of years. However, nowadays the production is confined to just a few religious sites in the Mie, Miyagi and Fukushima prefectures. Thousands of families used to produce washi during the Edo period and made up a large share of the trade.
Since the 10th century onwards, ‘kamiko’, paper clothes from the looms of Shiroishi, Ise and other towns had defined the tailoring culture of Japan. From peasants to royals, everyone used to wear kamiko, in varying quality based on their class and social status. For example, the washi made garments, called ‘shifu’, were used mainly by working class people. New trends then emerged, as fashionistas started creating different styles of washi clothing during the Edo period. Although the Japanese knew about cotton clothing, this was extremely expensive to produce compared to that of mulberry. However, today only a handful of traditional families have continued using Washi, and some of them are now trying to raise awareness of this cultural tradition.
The paper hand-loom industry went into decline as Japan headed toward westernization after the Meiji Restoration period from 1868 until the early 20th century. French printmaking and Western styled power looms eventually replaced the traditional washi cottage industries. Only a handful of families, associated with Buddhist festivals such as the very famous Omizutori Festival in Nara, have kept this tradition alive. However, just as we say ‘what goes around comes around’, a few Japanese fashion designers such as Issey Miyake have been contributing to the revival of mulberry fashion with the help of those few families who were on the verge of giving up their ancestral craftsmanship. More recently, these types of paper clothes are being featured in luxurious fashion shows around the world, and are beginning to attract many wealthy buyers.
The Japanese mulberry culture, including its clothes-making past, is a unique part of Japanese history and culture, and many people have differing views on it. What do you think of Japanese paper clothing, and do you think it should be revived?