Ichibei Iwano: Japanese papermaker and Living National Treasure

For a paper conservator, no trip to Japan would be complete without seeing traditional Japanese papermaking. On Wednesday 31st October 2018, my husband, Rupert, and I were lucky enough to visit the studio of Ichibei Iwano in Echizen, a small city one hour north of Kyoto. Our guide for the day was Rina Aoki, a local artist and one-time papermaker. Ichibei is an official Living National Treasure and specialises in making paper from Japanese kozo (mulberry bark). Walking into his studio was like stepping back in time. As we entered, he was stooped over a large vat of kozo pulp, forming paper sheets using a Japanese papermaking mould, and one could instantly imagine his forefathers standing in the same position.

The Iwano family (Ichibei, his wife and one of their sons) work together to make the paper. There is a rhythm to the work they do, and everything is done by hand. Much of the week is taken up preparing the paper pulp: two days are dedicated to making the paper sheets and the rest are given over to drying and sorting. A maximum of 150 sheets of paper are made each day, so by making paper two days a week they can produce up to 15,600 sheets per year – an immense output for a team of three.

Ichibei uses only Japanese kozo to make his paper, and the end product is widely regarded as the finest in the world. Kozo is at the heart of everything Ichibei does, and all of the kozo he uses comes from one farmer whom he knows and trusts. Although it is not scientifically proven, years of experience have taught him that dry years produce the best kozo – just one small example of the understanding that has informed his craft.

Ichibei took the time to explain the entire papermaking process to us from start to finish, and it was clear that he relished the opportunity to talk about his life’s work. He began by showing us a huge bundle of raw kozo fibres, deftly scooping it up into his arms as if it weighed nothing. I tried to lift the bundle and, believe me, it did weigh quite a bit. He then took us to where the fibres are boiled and showed us the cooked kozo, teasing the pulp apart to show us the fibres.

After cooking, the fibres are washed in cold natural spring water and the impurities are removed carefully by hand – a painstaking but vital part of the process. Next, the fibres are beaten, first by hand and then in a naginata beater, to separate the fibres whilst retaining their length.

The paper sheets are made by dipping the papermaking mould (a hinged wooden frame with a flexible bamboo screen) into a vat filled with water, the kozo fibres and a gelatinous liquid called neri. Neri has a consistency similar to the discharge that results from chopping and cooking okra, and it allows the kozo fibres to disperse evenly and float throughout the vat. Ichibei tries to use the best neri, from Hokkaido, despite it being more expensive than other varieties. Each time he submerges the mould, he skilfully collects an even layer of kozo, ensuring a consistent product. When the sheets are fully formed, he couches them directly on top of one another, with a thin strip of twine as a marker between each one. The sheets are later pressed and then dried on ginkgo wood boards in specially designed drying cupboards.

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Ichibei is a man of many passions, and surrounding his studio is a wonderful kitchen garden. At one point he noticed, with hawk-like accuracy, an issue with one of his daikon (Japanese radish) plants. He bounded across the raised bed, quickly remedied the issue and resumed the tour.

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Ichibei’s paper has long fibres, and his thickest paper is skilfully built up in layers. After dipping a folded edge of this paper into water and tearing along the fold to reveal the fine kozo fibres, he split it to reveal two thin layers. He also showed us photocopies of electron microscope images of the paper’s structure at 300 and 1000 x magnification. You could clearly see the air pockets between the layers, as well as the long overlapping kozo fibres.

The paper is incredibly strong, due to the interlocking fibres. Ichibei asked me to tear a sheet, and it took great effort to do so. When I did manage to tear it, I panicked that I had ruined it; however, he quickly put me at ease as he said that the torn sheet will simply be added to the vat for reuse – after all, the paper is just kozo pulp!

Spending a few hours with Ichibei was a true honour, and my husband and I were in awe of his dedication. At one point, Rupert asked Ichibei if he would recognise his paper in a line-up of ten others. Of course he would, he practically scoffed. You almost got the feeling that he would know on what day he had made the paper, too!

Ichibei is an old man, and although we never found out his exact age we thought that he must be close to 80. The papermaking process is a physical one, and although he took great pride in lifting the bundle of dry kozo it is not hard to imagine him being unable to do this soon. Ichibei’s son now makes the majority of the paper and is the tenth generation to do so. Sadly, his children aren’t interested in taking over, with his eldest son wanting to be an accountant. This means that in many ways we experienced a soon-to-be-lost piece of living history, and it is sad to think that this craft and the immense knowledge and skill that go with it might soon be lost.

For a conservator it is an immense privilege to be able to work with products made with such incredible care and skill. I now understand why Ichibei’s paper is, despite its high price, exported all over the world to artists and conservation studios.

After giving Ichibei a small present from the Chester Beatty Library, we made our trip complete with a visit to the Okamoto-Otaki shrine, dedicated to the art of making paper. We paid our respects to the goddess of papermaking and left amazed and inspired.

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Alice Derham is a freelance paper conservator, currently working in the Western Art on Paper studio at the British Museum and various private studios. Prior to this, Alice worked as a book and paper conservator  at the Chester Beatty in Dublin, firstly as the 2017/18 Heritage Council Conservation Intern and then as a  contract conservator. Alice graduated with an MA in Conservation of Fine Art (specialising in works of art on paper) from Northumbria University, Newcastle upon Tyne, UK, in 2017. Before starting her MA, she undertook a conservation internship at the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, New Delhi, India, and gained further pre-course experience at the British Postal Museum and Archive, London. During her MA she undertook placements at the Victoria and Albert Museum, Royal Museums Greenwich, Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums, Jane McAusland’s paper conservation studio in Suffolk, and the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

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