( image from : http://www.tokyomatsuya.co.jp/showroom/shoplist.html )
The history of paper is so old and this invention enabled us to write down or paint on what we want to leave for the future. Among many kinds of paper, the Japanese one (called washi) is one of the most durable paper and used for many purpose; it’s said that washi lasts for a millennium, and many historical records on washi are quite readable and thus conduce to many discoveries about the old days of Japan. Actually, the Japanese currency is also made of special washi, and even laundering does not damage the currency too badly. (Of course, I mean, the case that you should misplace your money in your pocket till washing!)
Some people, however, rather looked into washi itself and made it a kind of art. This kind of washi is used for interior decorations and other splendid materials. Edo Karakami is one of such special washi.
Karakami is originally from China, which was “paper with some pattern on”, and the root of Japanese Karakami can be traced back to as old as 8th century.
The modern definition of karakami is “processed paper” which is used to make fusuma, or a Japanese removable sliding door. This partition can separate two rooms and also turn them into one big room when it’s removed.
A fusuma has washi on it, instead of other materials such as glass. This washi has great patterns on the surface; so fusuma are not only functional but also enjoyable to watch. You may well think that Japanese people use a big picture as a sliding door, perhaps. Karakami is the special washi for this purpose, and Edo Karakami is the most special one among the special washi.
Kyo Karakami and Edo Karakami
Karakami has two kinds in it, actually: one is Edo Karakami, and the other Kyo Karakami. What’s the difference?
In the history, Kyo Karakami was rather expensive and something for upper classes. They used top-notch materials to make the washi, which was loved by many Japanese aristocrats. In the early days, few people appreciated the beauty of Karakami, but the Edo Era (17th century), in which the population of Japan skyrocketed, saw more and more people come to demand it, leading to the increased supply; this gave a birth to new manufacturers of Karakami. Edo Karakami is one of such relatively newer method to make washi.
By contrast to Kyo Karakami, which was mainly used to embellish fusuma more decoratively, Edo Karakami was something for ordinary people. Thus, the technique to make Edo Karakami was preferably preserved by many people. The unique patterns of Edo Karakami also attracted European people, and some masterpieces are kept in some museums in such countries: Alcock Collection and Siebold Collection are some examples of them.
Ebb and flow of Edo Karakami
In the Meiji Era, the manufacturers in Tokyo (which was previously called Edo) came to lead the fusuma industry by their washi, but this prosperity was thwarted by the notorious Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923. This culprit of the death and loss of almost 143,000 people also caused many fire disasters, depriving them of as many as 4,000 or 5,000 printing wood blocks to put a pattern on paper.
After this catastrophe, many people endeavored to restore the printing blocks and some of them came back then, but the Great Tokyo Air Raids in 1945 also devastated this industry almost to death.
However, even after undergoing this pandemonium, Edo Karakami did not get extinct. In 1991, some artisans of Edo Karakami got together to realize the recovery of Edo Karakami and solicited the Japanese government to support them. As a result, in 1992, Edo Karakami was designated as one of the traditional arts of Tokyo, followed by the designation as one of the Traditional Crafts by the Minister for Economy, Trade and Industry; then in 2007, it was certified as a “local brand” by Patent Agency. Now, Edo Karakami came back as one of the greatest arts that Japan is proud of.
How to make Edo Karakami?
As mentioned above, putting patterns on washi to make Edo Karakami requires printing blocks of wood. However, it’s not just “stamping”. They spread some pigment on the block and then place washi “onto” it, not vice versa. Then, they rub the sheet by hand to make the thickness of the color perfect and beautiful. Various materials are used for this pigment and some looks like the beauty of pearl and others like Japanese picture of monochrome. Moreover, the variation of Edo Karakami is not only colorful or monochrome: there are “colorless” ones.
In this case, one example is doing the same process mentioned above without any pigment, making the pattern visible in relief. They sometimes dye this relief to make it more beautiful. Other example of this colorless Karakami is doing the same process but by something hard and solid, not by hand. This technique refines the surface of the sheet and makes it shine, which looks as if they painted the pattern in wax.
On the other hand, some people knead washi to add cloth-like texture to it. In this case, they don’t use printing blocks.
The modern Edo Karakami
Edo Karakami is traditionally used for fusuma, which requires Japanese-styled housing layout. So, do we have to give up to add the zest of Edo Karakami if the house is well western-styled? The answer is NO.
Nowadays, you can find many articles of Edo Karakami, which are perfect to decorate your room. Just placing these products in your room will make Japanesque atmosphere there. Or, it’s also a good idea to just put Edo Karakami on your wall or ceiling.
In addition to this, Edo Karakami is retrieving the original usage of paper now — writing and painting on. Actually, some artists, especially Japanese-picture artists, are appreciating the quality of washi of Edo Karakami for the texture and durability, and they preferably choose this paper to make their pieces last long. Likewise, you can find letter paper made of Edo Karakami available, which is perfect for writing to somebody special for you. How about enveloping your words with Japanese historical texture?
江戸からかみ─その歴史的背景と多彩な展開 久米康生 東京松屋