Bud­dhism, bombs and blouses: Ja­pan’s ‘washi’ pa­per

The China Post - - LIFE - BY TORU YA­MANAKA

For 1,300 years, Ja­panese pa­per from the tiny town of Ogawa has ful­filled myr­iad needs — from the ma­te­rial for Bud­dhist scrip­tures to bal­loon bombs sent to attack the United States.

Now, as Ja­pan pre­pares to mark the 70th an­niver­sary of its de­feat in World War II this sum­mer, a new and al­to­gether more peace­ful use has been found for it — clothes.

“Washi” — lit­er­ally “Ja­panese pa­per” — is tra­di­tion­ally hand­made from plant fi­bres dis­solved in wa­ter and strained through a bamboo fil­ter.

Thanks to its dura­bil­ity, “Ogawawashi” was long ap­pre­ci­ated by holy men, who would use it to copy out their verses, safe in the knowl­edge that they would sur­vive the tests of time.

But in the dark days of global con­flict last cen­tury, war plan­ners de­clared that the rough, tough, but light ma­te­rial could be used in Ja­pan’s battle against the United States.

Peo­ple in Ogawa — about 90 kilo­me­ters from Tokyo — were set the task of mak­ing bal­loons 10 me­ters in di­am­e­ter, which would be filled with gas and launched over the Pa­cific Ocean with a bomb at­tached, rid­ing the jet stream at high al­ti­tudes.

It was not a very ef­fec­tive weapon; fewer than 10 per­cent of the 9,300 pro­duced are be­lieved to have made it the 9,000 kilo­me­ters (5,600 miles) to the U.S. main­land, with most plung­ing into the sea en route.

They failed to spark the for­est fires and ter­ror they had been in­tended to cause, and there was only one fa­tal attack — a woman and five chil­dren out for a pic­nic in Ore­gon were killed when a bomb ex­ploded, ac­cord­ing to a nearby mu­seum.

“We knew noth­ing about the bombs,” said 91-year-old Kai­hei Kasa­hara, a for­mer bal­loon pa­per crafts­man, re­call­ing the covert project.

“We just made pa­per day af­ter day.”


Last year, the tra­di­tional man­u­fac­tur­ing process be­hind a par­tic­u­lar kind of Ogawa-washi was in­scribed on UNESCO’s list of In­tan­gi­ble Cul­tural Her­itage.

Lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties en­thu­si­as­ti­cally wel­comed its en­try onto the list, hope­ful it would bring a surge of tourists — both do­mes­tic and in­ter­na­tional — to learn about the del­i­cate craft, and to spend their money in the area.

But as if to prove that washi- mak­ing is not some­thing to be pre­served in as­pic, one lo­cal designer has come up with a novel way of us­ing it — to make clothes.

Taki Oka­jima said she had been in­spired by the Bud­dhist priests at To­daiji tem­ple in the an­cient cap­i­tal of Nara, who still make their own clothes out of washi.

She has opted to blend the an­cient and the mod­ern with a se­ries of West­ern-style clothes made from the ma­te­rial — heavy jack­ets with a belt, a scarf and loose pants of many dif­fer­ent colors.

Washi as a fab­ric is said to be light and breath­able, with a feel a lit­tle like linen.

“This is a type of pa­per that peo­ple in olden times cre­ated af­ter much trial and er­ror,” said Teizo Takano, 80, a se­nior crafts­man in Ogawa.

“I per­son­ally be­lieve that we should come back and ap­pre­ci­ate the high qual­ity of such tra­di­tional prod­ucts.”

Ogawa and its sur­round­ing area built its econ­omy on pa­per — an in­dus­try that sup­ported 1,000 work­shops in its 1920s hey­day.

That num­ber has now dropped to just 10, and pro­duc­tion is de­cid­edly ar­ti­sanal, rather than com­mer­cial.

But the guardians of Ogawawashi say they will not let it fade away.

Takano has two young trainees in his work­shop, and he hopes they will carry on the tra­di­tional hand­made ways and let fu­ture gen­er­a­tions en­joy it.

“If you try to use ma­chines for this, you...could keep the cost about one-tenth,” said Takano.

“But the prod­uct is much bet­ter if you don’t,” he said.


This pic­ture taken on June 2 shows Teizo Takano, a se­nior crafts­man of “washi,” Ja­panese pa­per show­ing his skill of pa­per­mak­ing at his stu­dio in Ogawa, sub­ur­ban Tokyo.

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