Around the world, many Japanophile-in-waiting has enjoyed their earliest, sometimes unknowing, encounters with Japanese culture through the medium of origami, paper folding.
But this graduation from paper planes and fortune tellers to more sophisticated designs like jumping frogs and cranes is nonetheless often conducted using rather unassuming paper torn from sketchbooks and notepads.
Enter any Japanese stationer, or even a 100 yen store, and you will find a kaleidoscope of different colors and patterns of perfectly square paper produced specifically for origami.
A more refined extension of this experience is to visit a store specializing in traditional washi (literally “Japanese paper”). Pulling open drawer after drawer of lovingly handmade paper in all sorts of elegant hues is a feast not just for the eyes, but also for the senses of smell and touch.
Indeed, while the craft of washi was inscribed on UNESCO’s list of the world’s intangible cultural heritage in 2014, the paper itself presents a highly tactile pleasure.
Since its introduction from China in the seventh century, paper has secured a remarkable prominence in many aspects of Japanese life.
As well as the aforementioned origami, for centuries the nation’s children have enjoyed other traditional toys and games such as kites (tako), paper balloons (kamifusen) and playing cards (karuta).
In the home, rooms are divided by paper-covered fusuma sliding doors and shoji screens, the latter of which, along with paper-covered bonbori lanterns and andon lamps diffuse light in a way that characterizes the Japanese aesthetic of in’ei, a sensitivity to subtle gradations of light and shade.
Other practical items include sensu folding fans, traditional paper umbrellas, and a panoply of decorative boxes and envelopes.
But is it really a good idea to use such a delicate material to make items that need to withstand everyday use, especially in a house where children live?
Never fear, over a millennium of washi heritage has that one covered. Japanese paper is traditionally made from indigenous plants like kozo, mitsumata, and gampi, which all have long, strong fibers.
This combined with traditional washi production techniques creates a mishmash of interlacing tendrils that is much more difficult to tear than Western paper.
As we discover in this edition of Japanology Plus, recent years have seen the strength of Japanese paper taken to even greater extremes.
Tune in for tear-resistant yet smooth-as-silk, four-ply luxury tissue papers; washable garments made from paper; and cellulose nanofiber. This new material, stronger and lighter than steel, is currently earmarked for possible use in smartphone and tablet screens. It may also be used in the construction of cars in a bid to reduce emissions through lighter bodywork.
In seeming contrast to this quest for toughness, we also see approaches intended to make recycling easier, and even a paper that dissolves on contact with water — perfect for writing top-secret messages on.