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Wataru Hatano: The Art of Washi

Words by: Tanya Singh
Photo Credit: Wataru Hatano

Trained as a washi craftsman and artist, Wataru Hatano is devoted towards keeping the traditional art of washi alive.

Wataru Hatano_1

Wataru Hatano fell in love with washi paper while experimenting with it in art school. He has not looked back since. His contributions to the art world and dedication to the material are driven by his ambition of keeping the traditional art alive by creating more awareness about it and educating the next generation in the art. With a production unit that harvests the raw materials, produces the paper, and then transforms it into works of art as well as functional objects, Wataru Hatano is a man on a mission.

Can you share a little about the history of washi paper in Japan and how you became acquainted with the technique?

The art of washi-making is believed to have first been introduced by craftsmen from the continent via the Korean peninsula. It took root from the Sea of Japan shore of the country. Washi is also used in the Kojiki, one of our earliest chronicles of myths, legends, hymns, genealogies, oral traditions, and semi-historical accounts down to 641. Later, in the Heian period (794-1185), washi came to be used extensively for fusuma (sliding doors), shoji (paper sliding doors), and ryoshi (paper for writing waka poems and more). From then onwards, the technique has gone from strength to strength being adapted by several artists, craftsmen, and designers in Japan and abroad.

My first encounter with washi was when I tried using it as a canvas for oil paintings while at art college. I graduated from art college in 1995, and by then, I knew that I wanted to continue on the path of our traditional crafts. The desire to act as a point in the history of the tradition was growing. I could have chosen farming or anything else, but I chose washi, which happened to be the most familiar traditional craft around me and truly representative of the Japan I grew up in. My first step towards the journey into the world of washi paper was training as a craftsman in Kurotani, Ayabe City, known for Kurotani washi with a history of 800 years. 

Wataru Hatano_2Wataru Hatano in action.

How long did you train to become a washi manufacturer and when did you start your own production unit?

I was active as a washi craftsman for about 10 years from 1997. I had always been interested in painting and art, but in my mind, washi-making and art existed as two completely different things. After completing my training and becoming an independent craftsman, I was faced with the serious problem of not being able to earn a decent living and support my family no matter how hard I worked at making washi. This is a common problem that washi craftsmen encountered at the time. The biggest obstacle was the long-standing distribution system of washi (with its many intermediaries such as unions, wholesalers, and retailers), which had to be changed in order to break out of the current situation. Therefore, I began to expand my own sales channels without relying on unions by making small items with washi like boxes, stationery, business card cases, and art works, and selling them directly at handicraft markets and other parallel events. My participation in craft fairs and other events allowed me to get to know designers and architects, which in turn led me to start working on interior design and space creation using washi as a material.

Kurotani washi is a wonderful material that combines beauty and strength, and its potential is abysmal. Over the past 10 years, through a process of trial and error, I have been able to establish a successful washi business that can create employment and that to me is a great accomplishment because I have known the struggles that craftsmen face. Today, I focus on the art production, while my staff help me with making small craft products, washi, and preparing bases for my art pieces. 

Wataru Hatano_3The Accumulation of Time: Capturing Moments of the Past artwork by Wataru Hatano

Could you describe the manufacturing process for us?

The production process consists of two main stages. First, a wooden panel is purchased from a lumbar dealer to which two layers of Japanese paper are attached, and then persimmon tannin is applied to create the base. This process is mainly carried out by my staff members. As a second step, layers of washi paper and clay mixed with pigments and other materials are piled on top of the completed base to create the work. This is my own area of work. The production process can take anywhere between a month to as long as three months depending on the size of the piece.

Whether it is interior design or the production of two-dimensional works, I consider my work to have a strong element of "spatial designing". There is an atmosphere that comes into view when I imagine the finished space, and I use the material of Japanese paper to express what is appropriate for that atmosphere. Therefore, it is different from a work of art that is complete on its own and is more like interior design. This way of production is similar to the way painters of the old days in Japan used to paint fusuma-e (sliding door paintings) for shoguns (head warriers). 

Wataru Hatano_4Wataru Hatano's captivating artworks on display.

How have you personally seen the washi craft evolve over the years?

Ever since I started working as a washi craftsman, I have always been conscious of the need to pass the art of washi on to the next generation. However, the washi industry is facing an urgent issue of procuring raw materials: the producers of kozo (paper mulberry), the raw material for washi, are aging, leading to decreased production and the quality of the paper deteriorating. The raw materials for washi are now being procured from overseas producers. However, relying solely on imports from abroad is too risky from the standpoint of a stable supply of materials as transportation costs can be unpredictable. Hence, this year, I decided to invest in kozo production from seedlings, in order to procure raw materials in earnest in my hometown of Ayabe City.

What motivates you to keep moving forward in your journey?

It has been nearly 30 years since I graduated from art university and became involved in washi making, and my continued efforts have finally been recognized by the public. I have received orders not only from Japan but also from overseas recently. I am happy to think that my devotion to the material, which I have maintained despite my struggles, have played a role in raising the value of washi, and this is something I am truly proud of.