A short-lived revival of a woven paper cloth called shifu was rekindled in the early 1940s in a castle-town called Shiroishi.1 This city became famous during the Edo period (1603-1868) for its small cottage industry of fine shifu called Shiroishi shifu, while in other places a more homespun-style paper cloth was woven.2 In the seventies and later, a few individuals in different parts of Japan immersed themselves in the art of shifu making. My introduction to Japanese paper called washi and then shifu was in the mid-eighties.3 I had the privilege of learning the technique of paper threadmaking and weaving it into cloth from the esteemed shifu maker Sadako Sakurai and her husband Kiichi. Their commitment has been to revive the finely-made shifu from Shiroishi, and approaching forty years later, Sadako confidently states in a letter, “Japanese paper for shifu has been refined so well. Now we have finished reforming Shiroishi shifu.” Her shifu is called Nishinouchi shifu, and the paper she uses has been specially made for her and a few others by the papermaker Seiki Kikuchi. In 1978, Seiki started producing shifu paper called Nishinouchi shifu yōshi. He is now retired from papermaking and instead focuses on weaving shifu. His son Daisuke has taken over his father’s work and continues the high standard of excellence in making the refined specialty paper.
In November of 2013, A Song of Praise for Shifu (Shifu Sanka) was published, and an opportunity arose to visit Japan and give copies of my book to some of the remaining craftspeople. Sadly, several are now deceased, including Sadako’s husband, but to see a few familiar faces again was like fulfilling a dream. Lauren Pearlman, owner of Paper Connection International, invited me to stay with her during my visit. Fortunately, we were within a day’s drive of Seiki’s workshop and Sadako’s home.4
Seven of us made the long anticipated trip. Our first stop was Kami no Sato, the paper workshop of Seiki Kikuchi. Seiki and one of Sadako’s shifu group members, Kazuyo Kajiyama, greeted us upon arrival. We sat in a room adjoining a shop filled with an amazing assortment of papers for sale. We were surrounded by paper products, including a display showing the steps in making paper thread, as well as many samples of paper cloth. Seiki showed us his shifu, and Kazuyo brought her own weavings. One of Kazuyo’s unique designs had a supplementary paper weft weave that was woven with horizontal stripe patterns and threads dyed with natural dyeplants.
Later that day, we drove to Mito City where Sadako Sakurai lives. Almost two decades had passed since my last visit, and I was excited to see her again. Although she has reached her eighties, she still bears the same energetic spirit. Sadako has been successful in duplicating many of Shiroishi shifu’s weave structures, stating: “We can make chirimen shifu [crêpe paper cloth]. It was so difficult, but we are now satisfied.” Below are four examples of Sadako’s shifu.
As far as shifu’s future, Sadako’s hope is for “delicate shifu made from thin thread to exist for a long time, and I want everyone to know about my wonderful Japanese paper.” We also met Kyoko Yamazaki, another shifu maker, and she shared one of her beautiful silk warp and paper weft (kinujifu) kimonos.5
The versatility of washi is one of several aspects of the paper that attracts so many to its timeless beauty. Sōetsu Yanagi, a philosopher and founder of the folk craft movement in Japan wrote about beauty in his book, The Unknown Craftsman. It reads, “. . . might not the beauty, and the love of the beautiful perhaps bring peace and harmony? Could it not carry us forward to new concepts of life’s meaning? Would it not establish a fresh concept of culture? Would it not be a dove of peace between the various cultures of mankind?” The beauty of shifu has been admired since the early 1600s and well into the 21st century, and like a dove of peace between cultures, a fresh concept of paper thread is being celebrated in art form all around the world.
1. Shiroishi Castle was dismantled in 1875, and then reconstructed and completed in 1995.
2. Shigenobu Katakura, a Shinto priest and son of the late Nobumitsu Katakura who wrote a book titled Shiroishi Washi, Shifu and Kamiko. His father was the 12th descendant of the Katakura family whom resided in Shiroishi Castle and produced Shiroishi shifu.
3. The paper mulberry tree called kōzo is primarily used to make washi and shifu paper.
4. Paper Connection International sells Nishinouchi shifu yōshi.
5. Kinujifu is the same as kinu shifu. When the two words are combined the sh becomes j (kinu means silk).