Hiroyuki Saitō was in his mid-30s when, driven by the decline of a traditional industry, he began pursuing a new path. A man with a youthful, lucid gaze and a polite and cool demeanor, he carries in his heart a strong sense of conviction as he goes through many trials and errors in an effort to find new possibilities for washi (traditional Japanese paper).
Our sixth interview is with IKAZAKI-SHACHU, a washi manufacturer that combines handmade Japanese paper of Ōzu of Iyo Province with traditional techniques used in foreign countries. We visited their studio in Ikazaki in the town of Uchiko (Ehime Prefecture) and talked with Mr. Saitō, the company’s director.
01 Take Flight from Ōzu to the World! The Decline and Revival of Handmade Washi Paper
Ōzu (Ikazaki) washi is handmade Japanese paper that was created with the help of the freshwater Odagawa River, protected by the 250-year-old hackberry trees. It has developed as a traditional industry rooted in the local people’s lives. The Engi-shiki (old Japanese book about laws and customs), which was compiled during the Heian period (794-1185), contains the name of Iyo-kuni (present-day Ehime Prefecture) as a region for paper production. Much of the Ōzu paper, whose main ingredients are locally sourced kōzo (paper mulberry) and mitsumata (oriental paperbrush), is made by hand by women artisans. Its appeal is its delicate and soft feel, which can only be created through superior craftsmanship. Saitō moved from a city to this countryside of Ōzu, a place that offers such beautiful materials. What thoughts and feelings does he have about this region?
ー Please tell us about the industry of Iyo paper, a.k.a. Ōzu paper, which originated in the Heian period.
Ehime Prefecture has two main traditional industries—pottery called Tobe-yaki and Ōzu paper. Ōzu paper became popular as the main source of revenue for the Ōzu Domain since around the middle of the Edo period (1603-1868). The main products made were calligraphy paper and paper for shōji screens. After World War II, however, demand for paper began shifting over to companies with mechanized operations such as the DAIO PAPER CORPORATION, causing the handmade paper industry to decline. The artisans were growing old, too, so it was feared that handmade washi would disappear after a few more years. The local people who felt a sense of crisis over this got together and began engaging in activities to promote the washi industry. This was about 20 years ago, and I joined that effort about midway through.
ー I understand that you moved from a major city to the countryside to launch your business. What ties did you have that brought that about?
I was living in Tokyo preparing to launch an IT company. At the time, the famous IT company CEO Horiemon (Takafumi Horie) was very popular, and I, too, was hoping to make it big and become an IT millionaire. But then my father-in-law told me about this movement involving handmade paper, which got me very interested. I hadn’t known anything about it because it was such an analog industry. That was the turning point, and I decided to jump into this thing called a traditional industry, which was completely new for me. Although my direction changed, it didn’t veer me away from my desire to work in an international arena.
ー In what capacity are you currently involved in the making of washi products?
The washi is made by the artisans on a piecework basis at a handmade paper company called Tenjin-sanshi, and our company uses their handmade paper to create new products. The artisans are so busy making paper every day that it’s not easy for them to start anything new. So I thought that if we covered that part, it would open up many more possibilities. Our company originally began with the goal of spurring greater demand for Tenjin-sanshi’s products, and I figured that greater demand would lead to greater employment, which will bolster the industry.
02 A New Form of Washi that Fuses Differing Cultures
Gilding washi contains shimmering patterns, characterized by elegance and originality, and has washi’s distinctive soft, airy feel. It is made by adding gild work, a traditional European technique, to handmade washi. French wallpaper designer Gabor Ulveczki and this land of Ōzu came together, and as a world-class, one-and-only technique, a new type of washi paper was created. Saitō, who says, “If I had not met Gabor, I may not have come here,” apprenticed under Gabor to learn the gilding technique. What possibilities does Saitō envision for the new type of washi? We asked him about how the gilding washi was developed.
ー How did gilding and washi meet?
In 2008, through Japan Brand’s grant, we had the opportunity to develop washi products using a gold leaf technique called gilding. Gilding was originally a technique of using gold leaf to decorate picture frames and furniture pieces, but my teacher Gabor applied that technique to make wallpapers. In Japan, we have a culture of using gold leaf on such things as fusuma (sliding paper doors) and byōbu (folding screens), so I feel that washi and gilding go together quite well.
ー What are things you are particular about in making the gilded washi?
We use five kinds of foils—gold, silver, copper, and blended foils made by oxidizing gold and copper. They are all imported from France, and French foils have a distinctive feel to them that are beautiful. Because washi absorbs moisture, getting the right composition for the glue used to adhere the foil was a challenge, as we needed to develop it on our own. At present, we are the only company that is making gilded wallpaper using washi. We are aiming to break new grounds with intriguing designs and colors of the foils.
ー Your line has a wide range of patterns, from traditional Japanese designs to distinct designs that look like paintings.
Our latest designs make up a series called ANIMAS created through collaboration with designer Yoshiki Uchida. The patterns contain motifs related to Japan’s traditionally auspicious creatures, like snake scales, dragonfly wings, and tortoiseshells, and images of growth through repeated molting. At first, we thought we might request designs that are more basic and innocuous, but since it was a great opportunity, we decided to make something that catches the eye, and ended up with interesting, out-of-the-ordinary products. As a newcomer to this industry, I want to compete from a slightly unique angle. Since I can do whatever I want to without any constraints that come from old ties, I intend to keep making new types of washi papers with people who possess fresh sensibilities.
03 The Future of the Fast-Evolving IKAZAKI-SHACHU
IKAZAKI-SHACHU is a breath of fresh air brought into Japan’s traditional industry. Its name is an homage to Kameyama Shachū, Japan’s first modern corporation created by Ryōma Sakamoto, which was later renamed Kaientai* (“Maritime Support Group”). And as the Kaientai of Japan’s traditional industry, IKAZAKI-SHACHU is about to soar into the global arena. By incorporating some changes to the papermaking culture passed down from old Japan, Ōzu washi has beautifully transformed to what we have today. In closing, we asked about the future of Ōzu washi.
* The Kaientai (“Maritime Support Group”) was a trading, shipping and private navy company, founded by Ryōma Sakamoto in 1865.
ー What kind of activities do you plan to get involved in in the future?
We are having a good time making our products every day, but we still need to work on getting recognized. So I’m thinking that our current order of business is to get our brand known to the public through such things as exhibitions. Concurrently, I hope to keep making interesting things little by little every year, like by redesigning the pattern of the gilding, or developing a new line of products. And if we can properly get the word out about them, we might just do quite well. I also hope to plan things like production and factory tours, similar to what they’re doing in Takaoka and Tsubamesanjō in order to revitalize our town even more.
We create original washi(japanese paper)products and we also want to introduce new use, the activation of the Ikazaki washi industry to all over the world. We want to produce the local employment by pursuing profit as a company, and hope to revival the washi industry.To create and sell handmade washi products , We want to send splendid Japanese traditional hand craft technology and culture to the world.