One of the fathers of modern Japanese handmade paper, Genta Yoshii, was born in the village of Ino, situated on the beautiful Niyodo-gawa River in Kochi Prefecture. At the start of Japan's modern era in the early 1900s, Mr Yoshii developed a paper called Tosa Tengujoshi, thought to be the strongest, finest handmade paper in the world, by improving on existing papermaking tools. It became famous not only in Japan but around the world.
A history not to be forgotten
Tosa Tengujoshi, the finest, strongest handmade paper in the world at a thickness of 0.03 millimeters was, at one time, exported for use as typewriting paper all over the world. That was until the advent of modern office machinery and pulp paper. When handmade paper became obsolete, the majority of craftsmen involved in the production of Tosa Tengujoshi gradually went their separate ways and the workshops closed down. But the man whom I interviewed for this story, who prefers to remain unnamed, remained faithful to the craft.
The Niyodo River basin in Ino Town is still surrounded by much unspoiled nature.
A papermaker from his grandfather's time
He says he started in the trade when he was 20 and has been making paper for 50 years. "There were four or five of us learning the trade in my grandfather's workshop when I started," he recalls, "but my grandfather never once told us how to do anything. Not even my father." They say that it takes three years to learn how to make Japanese handmade paper, but in the case of the gossamer-fine Tosa Tengujoshi considerably more skill is required to sift the fine film of fibers evenly. The interviewed craftsman says he tried hard to watch and see how his grandfather did it, but he didn't just want to copy, so he spent hours and days sifting paper alone by himself to work out a way that suited him. "Eventually I was able to make even stronger and finer paper than anyone else," he says.
Genta Yoshii, born in a papermaking family in Ino Village in 1826
Thanks to chigiri-e pictures
With the rapid advance of office automation, the demand for handmade paper declined dramatically and soon there was virtually no market left for Tengujoshi. "Those were really hard times," remembers the craftsman. "But I was determined not to allow the techniques I had learned from my forebears to be lost, so while I went out doing hard labor during the day, I kept up my papermaking skills when I was home." It was around that time that he got a call from a paper wholesaler in Kyoto asking if he could make colored Tengujoshi because people were asking for colored handmade paper for Chigiri-e - pictures made of torn scraps of paper. The craftsman spent six months experimenting until he got the shades of color he wanted, and by then there was a boom in Chigiri-e. People from all over the country started to turn up in Ino looking for his "legendary handmade paper."
The last workshop making genuine Tengujoshi
What makes it so special
The craftsman places a piece of Tengujoshi that he has made in my hands. It is as fine and light as a feather. "See for yourself," he says. "It won't rip no matter how much you crumple it, it doesn't crumble, and it returns to its original shape if it has been wrinkled." When I try to tear it I can see how long the fibers are that hold it together. And if I put it in water the fibers all separate again beautifully so it can be easily recycled. I took some paper and screwed it up in my hand and when I spread out the wrinkles it had the feel of very fine gauze with a soft texture that made me think of angels' wings. It is no wonder that people seek out such delicate beauty for chigiri-e.
A pile of white, gossamer-fine Tengujoshi and some colored versions
Successors to the craft
The workshop I visited is the only one left in Tosa employing the traditional methods to sift Tengujoshi using sifting boards made of super-fine bamboo woven with silk thread on which is laid a fine layer of silk. The paper is made of 100 percent paper mulberry of which only 4 percent of the original material remains at the time of sifting. The master is able to sift 100 sheets of paper if he works all day. In spite of the hard work, the master's grandson recently announced he would take over the trade. "I don't say anything to him, but he is working hard on his sifting skills." The dying flame of a vanishing craft is thus passed on to one more person.
The handmade paper sales corner in the Ino Village paper museum