Summer 2005: Waves to Washi to Wings

Waves to Washi to Wings: Traditional Japanese Paper in Contemporary Kites
By Scott Skinner (Drachen Foundation)

 Water dances on a suketa (papermaking frame)

     On my second trip to Japan, in 1990, I visited a family papermaking operation in Ikazaki. Primarily interested in large, ripstop nylon, festival kites, I observed the grace of the makers as they immersed their suketa (and, of course, their hands) into the frigid water and magically produced sheet after sheet of washi. But it would be almost ten years before I used washi in my own kite work, so it took a “refresher” trip to re-enforce my appreciation for the paper making process and subtle characteristics of hand-made Japanese paper. 

     Having made kites for over 20 years, and flown them for another ten before that, I’ve seen kites made from an amazing array of materials; leaf-kites in the South Pacific, tissue and bamboo Indian fighting kites, silk and bamboo Chinese creations, rip-stop nylon and carbon-fiber contemporary European and American kites, and tyvek tm children’s workshop kites, to name a few. But in a country where the kite traditions are everywhere to be seen, Japan’s paper and bamboo creation have inspired me the most. Washi, especially that made from the mulberry plant (kozo), is ideal for kites: it is flexible, strong but light weight, tear resistant, and a beautiful canvas for paints, dyes, or photography. Varieties of kozo can be made especially for large kites like those in Shirone, while miniature makers like World’s Smallest Kite record holder Nobuhiko Yoshizumi might use one of the many micro-thin gampi papers.

Because the audience for the audience for this article is educated in the paper-making process in Japan and elsewhere, I won’t explain it in detail here, but see “What’s Washi”, The Hiromi Paper Catalog, or “Papermakers in Japan: Changes after Twenty Years”, by Betty Fiske and Hiromi for clear, concise explanations of the process. Let me give you a look at the kite traditions of Japan. 

     In the 2004 Hiromi Paper Catalog, a very powerful statement might be missed in casual reading; the “close relationship between papermaker and paper user resulted in washi becoming an integral part of the Japanese culture.” Certainly this appears to be the case with paper makers and kite makers. Kites were introduced to Japan sometime around the Nara period (A.D. 645-794), almost at the same time that paper was introduced by the Korean Buddhist priest, Doncho. The earliest written record of kites in Japan can be found in the Hizen no Kuni Fudoki (A.D. 720) and the Nihongi (A.D.697) both of which were written in Chinese characters. The earliest record of the Japanese-language word for kite occurs in the Wamyo ruiju sho, a Japanese dictionary compiled in the Shohei era (A.D. 931-938). From the first, it appears that paper was the chosen kite-sail material because both sets of Chinese characters for kite are described as an object made of paper in the shape of a hawk: shiroshi; paper, venerable hawk, and shien; paper hawk that “rides the wind and flies well”.


     These early kites were most likely “T” shaped, with pocketed wings and long body. It is an aerodynamic shape that lends itself to creatures associated with flight-birds and insects- as well as gods and humans. The shape has survived through the centuries and we see it today in tombi, yakko, and sode kites. The yakko, or footman kite depicts the lowest-ranking retainer of a samurai household, a person mocked by commoners and made famous on the Kabuki stage in the Yakko-odori, footman dance. The sode, or sleeve kite is in the shape of a kimono and is famous in the Chiba area of Japan.

     In the Wakan Sansai Zue, an illustrated encyclopedia published in 1712, we find the first visual representation of the ika-nobori (squid, banner) a kite that looks much like an octopus with bell-shaped body and five thin tails. In flight, this aerodynamic kite shpae is a convincing reproduction of the real squid or octopus and throughout Japan kites are known today as tako or ika.

     The early years of the eighteenth century were marked with a Japanese kite-mania; shopkeepers neglected their stores to fly kites, crops and property were damaged by larger and larger kites, and Western encyclopedias describe Japanese skies filed with kites. Countless laws were passed to stem play, enforce restraint, and direct citizens toward purposeful pursuits. Size restrictions were enforced in some cities and artist were prohibited from using extravagant materials in their decorations (silver and gold leaf).

     The most unique aspect of the kite culture of Japan is its regional or local focus. Because of the feudal nature of 1700’s and 1800’s Japan, provincial lords made twice-yearly visits to Tokyo, returning home with examples of the latest examples of art and craft. At first imitating Edo kites, rectangular and very rigid for the high winds, provincial designs gradually evolved into their distinctly regional forms that are seen today. These designs evolved based upon environment (the light, floppy, ho-dako of Ikazaki, a fighting kite flown in light, mountain winds), foreign influence (the early Hata of Nagasaki almost surely was introduced by Dutch traders from India), and festival tradition (large Hamamatsu and Shirone kites flown by teams to honor new births and foster neighborhood pride). In the book Kyobun azumanamari, Crazy Description of Eastern Dialects, printed in 1813, four major types of kite were identified: square kites painted with large characters; kites painted with a picture; kites in the shape of an object, like the yakko, tombi, or sode; and specialty kites, such as kites with lights for night flying.

     Today, kite associations throughout Japan keep traditional kite making arts alive. Kites are associated in many cities with Children’s Day because of their association with strength, endurance, and long life. They are a New Years Icon as well and our best source of pictorial information comes from New years ukiyo-e made throughout the 19th century. The number of professional kitemakers continues to dwindle, but local and regional enthusiasts study the techniques and traditions to make the craft a vital one for the future. The kite festival at Hamamatsu provides the most vivid example of the traditional kite culture’s link to modern Japan. On Children’s Day, May 5th, kites are flown by over fifty local neighborhoods to celebrate children born in the previous year. Teams are comprised of children, who play in raucous bands; teenagers, who do the bulk of running and pulling; men, supervising final kite adjustments and flight; and women, cooking and serving tired kite fliers. Things are changing, with women taking a more active role in kite flying and making.

Using Washi today, one Kite aritst’s Approach.

     From my first visit to Japan in 1989, and my first direct exposure to paper making in 1990, I knew that I would someday move to paper and bamboo as the kite making materials of choice. But the problem was my choice of artistic technique: I had use geometric patchwork designs from the early 1980’s and , through trial and error, had come upon those designs most appropriate for kites. I was limited by the very small palate afforded by the modern kite-sail materials, rip-stop nylon and polyester, so I knew that moving to paper would be exciting and rewarding. Working on the scale of paper kites (about one square meter). I could find no reliable technique that provided a consistent “seam”, a reliable bond, and a relative ease of execution. Once again, I was saved by a Japanese product; 2-and 3-millimeter-wide, double-sided tape! This provide me with an almost permanent paper-to- paper bond, a completely controllable seam line, and the right size tool for my work.

Scott Skinner

     I have used a variety of Japanese papers, but prefer kozo because of its long fibers and surface variety. Strength and lightness, normally very important factors in the choice of kite sail material are not quite so important to me because of the very small individual pieces that are taped together to make the entire sail. In my most recent series of kites, I’ve used washi with laser jet printing to make a variety of black and white patchwork collages. As a complement to geometric patchwork, this is a much more “fabric-like” approach and provides limitless potential. 

     Having visited the paper makers on this year’s Hiromi Paper International Washi Tour, I realize that it is only through our continued use of their product that their art will survive. I’m inspired to make more paper kites and use more washi in future projects.