For over two centuries, Japan’s only point of contact with European nations was the tiny man-made island of Dejima. Lying only a few metres offshore in Nagasaki harbour, Dejima was connected to the mainland by a heavily guarded bridge, whose purpose was to control the passage of those goods permitted by the Japanese authorities. Anything else – including the Dutch traders who inhabited the island, or their Christian religion in the form of bibles or religious artefacts – had to stay on the island, except for officially sanctioned delegations.
Dejima still exists, although it has long since become land-locked by Nagasaki’s expansion into land reclaimed from the harbour, and is now surrounded by skyscrapers and busy freeways. The buildings and gardens have been restored to their appearance in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, giving the visitor a fascinating insight into the living conditions of the Dutch traders. The most senior of these was the Captain, whose quarters were by far the most spacious and well-appointed on the island. The first-floor suite includes a drawing room and dining room furnished with European furniture, the walls and ceilings covered with block-printed papers. These are not imported European wallpapers, however, but examples of the Japanese craft of karakami: older than wallpaper and still practised today in at least two Kyoto workshops.
Most commonly, karakami are used to cover sliding doors or fusuma, which are constructed as a wooden lattice covered with up to six layers of washi (Japanese paper) beneath the decorated kara-kami surface. These are seen in tea houses, temples and traditional style dwellings. Karakami are also used like wallpaper to cover entire walls, though not usually as extensively as at Dejima. Generally they are used sparingly, in keeping with the ‘less-is-more’ aesthetic of Japanese interiors. Karakami also have smaller-scale applications such as bookbinding, and recently the patterns have found their way onto a variety of modern artefacts using less traditional printing technologies.
In Kyoto’s Takatsuji-Dori I was welcomed to the showroom of the Maruni Company by gallery manager Ayaka Satoh, who showed me many examples of their products and some historic printing blocks dating from the Edo period. Unfortunately their workshop was closed for annual leave at the time of my visit, however a fascinating video of the process is available on their web-site:
To a western student of wallpaper printing, the remarkable feature of karakami is that, while the materials and techniques are in many ways recognisable, the process appears to be an ‘upside down’ version of European block-printing (although in view of karakami’s antiquity it would probably be more correct to say that the Western technique is inverted.) In karakami, the block is stationary and face-up. It is inked using a colour sieve, but the sieve is held in the hand and dabbed onto the printing surface. Gentle hand pressure is all that is required to transfer the pattern to the paper, and repeats are printed by repositioning the block under the paper, rather than the other way round.
Like other Japanese crafts, karakami seems to have undergone very little technical development since its inception. This is made very clear in a documentary about Kenkichi Senda, the 11th generation of his family to practice the craft in the Karacho workshop in Kyoto, established in the seventeenth century. The responsibility of maintaining this awe-inspiring pedigree drew him to leave a conventional 20th-century career to take over the mantle of the family business, which has now been passed on to his daughter Aiko Senda and her husband Toto Akihiko. You can watch the documentary on You Tube:
For more about Atelier Kira Karacho, see: