Washi, or Japanese paper, has been an integral part of Japanese culture and daily life for over 1,000 years. From the famous sliding paper doors of Japanese houses; andon, chochin, and bonbori lanterns; noshi gift wrapping, and even clothing, washi was a daily item for most people throughout Japanese history. Washi was considered a very valuable commodity during the Edo period. Children practicing calligraphy would use a single piece of paper over and over again until it was totally black.
Nowadays western paper has become commonplace in Japan and the number of people making washi full time has rapidly decreased. This time we speak to Haraguchi Keiko, a young craftsperson who creates lighting pieces using washi. Haraguchi’s work can be seen in bars, restaurants, galleries, and even one of Japan’s most prominent luxury hotel chains. Recently she has started to receive order from overseas as well. We caught up with Haraguchi at her studio in Kagoshima City.
From Kagoshima to Denmark
Haraguchi moved a lot as a child due to her father’s job. Before Elementary School she lived in many different regions of Japan, mainly in the Tohoku region. Just before starting Elementary School she moved back to Kagoshima. Speaking of her time growing up in Kagoshima, Haraguchi says, ”I’d go with my friends to catch fish and insects, I also grew plants with my mother. I spent my childhood surrounded by nature.”
Haraguchi finished her education and decided to expand her horizons by studying abroad. She chose to move to Denmark, a somewhat unusual choice. Haraguchi says, “The reason I went to live in Denmark was I really like Danish architecture and design. In Denmark, well, everything is in Danish of course so, I went to language school and studied Danish first.”
She continues, “Then I was an au pair staying with a Danish family. I was looking after the kids, working part-time and learning Danish. After I got the hang of the language, I studied architecture for a while and then finally came back to Japan.”
The Warmth of Washi
Having moved back to Japan, Haraguchi noticed some aspect of Japanese interior design she had never really paid attention to before. One such detail was the use of harsh white fluorescent lights in her parents living room. This eventually became her inspiration to create lighting with washi. She says, “The reason I started making washi paper is because while I was in Denmark I experienced warm interior spaces and wanted to recreate that feeling. I wanted to match the warm spaces I saw in Denmark and traditional Japanese crafts together somehow. I thought that I could do something with light and washi paper to recreate the warmth, I experienced in interior spaces in Denmark.”
Satsuma Washi Studio
Haraguchi opened a small studio in the house where her grandmother used to live and began producing washi. Inspired by her desire to recreate Danish interiors using Japanese craftsmanship she began looking to secure the raw materials for producing washi.
Explaining how washi is made she says, “So basically, washi is made from a type of tree called Kozo (Paper Mulberry). It’s made from the bark of the tree. The bark is boiled then beaten out with a mallet, then it’s dissolved in water and lifted out on a frame. Finally, it’s dried out and it becomes the finished paper product.”
Haraguchi has a small patch of Kozo trees in her garden, but asks local farmer friends to grow the tree for her as well. Once Kozo trees were commonplace and grown all over the Kagoshima region. A lack of demand in modern times has meant they have been replaced by more profitable crops.
The Japanese and Washi
From the highest ranking samurai to the lowest peasants, paper has been a highly important part of Japanese life for thousands of years. Haraguchi explains, “Washi paper has always been something of great value for the Japanese people. I mean, the Japanese have been using washi for a very long time. It was one of the most important materials for daily life.”
She continues, “In the house washi was used instead of a screen, you know on the shoji sliding doors, and also of course for things like letters. Sometimes washi was used for clothing. Also, andon style lighting, lanterns, and such. So, for a very long time the Japanese and washi paper were inextricably linked together.”
Now Haraguchi is combining that long Japanese tradition with the warm modern interior spaces she experienced in Denmark.
When asked about her future goals Haraguchi says, “My goal from now on I guess is to not stop where I am and continue to make better and more beautiful things. And I guess I also feel that the light shining through washi paper and the warm spaces it creates relaxed me very much. I think that’s very necessary for daily life nowadays. Also, for people who are in pain or suffering, for example in a hospice. If they can use washi lighting in their rooms hopefully it can relieve their pain even just a little. That’s really the kind of work that I would like to do.”
She has recently started getting orders for her lighting work from abroad. When asked why people overseas value her work she answers, “Some people from abroad – France, the United States, countries like that have ordered lighting products from me before. Fundamentally, I suppose people want to have that warm feeling, whether they’re Japanese or foreign. If they can also experience a little bit of Japanese culture as well I’m extremely happy.”