Karakami: 10 Centuries of Paper Art in Japan

  • Paper (kami) is a great example of how a simple material is used in showcasing Japan’s outstanding aesthetic sense. Besides origami (paper folding) and kirigami (paper cutting), there is one Japanese paper art form that has survived the ravages of time for ten centuries and continues to flourish today: karakami.

    A Closer Look at Karakami

    Karakami literally means “Chinese paper”. It is a traditional decorative paper that was introduced to Japan by the Chinese during the Nara Period (710-794). Karakami consists of a special type of paper made from the wood pulp of mulberry tree, which is known as washi and a woodblock (also called “hangi”). It serves as a printing template and often comes with various designs and motifs. Because washi papers are tougher than ordinary paper, the karakami is also used as a cover in fusuma (sliding doors) and wallpaper nowadays.

    Balance is Key

    Karakami designs work with the fundamental aesthetic principle of balance. Balance in designs and motifs means taking into consideration the harmony produced between the printed motif and the empty space on the sheet of washi. In essence, motifs should complement rather than disturb the empty spaces, and these motifs should immediately catch one’s attention. The design must not only stand out, but also ensure that it is incorporated into the interior setting of karakami.

    Styles and Patterns

    Most karakami artists only use two colors: the color of the washi and the colour of the motif. The use of colors and designs are based on the feelings, memories, and aesthetic sense of each artist. Some of the most common karakami pattern themes include the Imperial Family, tea ceremony, samurai and temples and shrines. There are also karakami styles that are inspired by European themes, suggesting that karakami artists are also open to novel ideas.

    Atelier KIRA KARACHO: Four Centuries of Karakami Art

    The art of karakami became very famous in Kyoto during the Heian period, when it became more and more popular among imperial court officers and aristocrats. Unfortunately, many of the traditional woodblocks used for printing were burned during the Kyoto Inferno. As the Industrial Revolution reached Japan, many businesses devoted to karakami production shut down because of the emergence of machines that mass-produced cheap paper.

    Despite these difficult times, karakami Atelier KIRA KARACHO has managed to survive since its foundation in 1624 and has helped preserve the tradional art of karakami through time. Today Karacho’s studio houses more than 600 hangi woodblocks which have been carved by 11 generations of craftsmen. Seminars and workshops are also held by professional karakami craftsmen in Karacho in order to keep the tradition alive.

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