Origami: The History of the Ancient Art of Paperfolding

<The Invention of Paper>
There is more to origami than what meets the eye. The term "origami" comes from the Japanese words for folding, "oru" or "ori", and the word for paper, "kami". When combined, kami becomes gami and the word is origami.

Before one can discuss the art of origami itself, we must look at the material used in creating the art, namely paper. The invention of paper (3,000 years after the papyrus in Egypt) is credited to a Chinese man by the name of Ts'ai Lun in 105 AD, who was commissioned by Emperor He Di in the Han Dynasty (25 - 220 AD), to replace cloth as a writing surface. Paper was first introduced to Japan in the sixth century by Buddhist monks who came to Japan from China through Korea and the books that they brought. The Japanese began making paper about 610 AD and soon after created their unique method, resulting in Wa-shi (Japanese paper). This new blend of paper was thin, yet durable and flexible, making Japanese paper very suitable for folding and bending for various purposes.

Paperfolding also developed in Spain. The secret of papermaking reached the Arabic world in the eighth century, and the Arabs brought it to Spain in the 12th century. After the Arabs left Spain, the Spanish went beyond the geometric designs and developed "papiroflexia", an art that is still popular in Europe and South America. In the eastern origin, the Chinese, Koreans and Japanese all claim the development of origami. Regardless of its ultimate origin, Japan is recognized as the country that most fully developed the traditional art of origami, due to its culture that embraced the art over the centuries.

<Ceremony for the Nobility>
The Heian period in Japan (794 - 1185 AD) had origami as a ceremonial tradition of the nobility. Paper was such a rare commodity it was regarded as divine, and the nobles would exchange letters or gifts attached with a form known as a noshi, white paper folded with a strip of dried abalone or meat, considered a token of good fortune. Shinto Noblemen would also celebrate weddings by wrapping glasses of sake in butterfly forms representing the bride and groom.

During the Muromachi period (1338 - 1573 AD), the folding style represented a person's place in society. The Samurai clans inherited the paperfolding as a form of family custom, and utilized the folds as means of communication with the upper echelon. Schools such as Ise, Ogasawara, Imagawa, and Saga developed, and within each school dozens of folding forms were refined. Unfortunately, most of these traditional folds have been lost in past decades, and only simple noshis for ceremonial occasions such as weddings remain as general custom today.

<Art for the People>
Paper folding as a form of entertainment first flourished in the Edo period (1603 - 1867 AD), a long period of strict isolationist policy, and more importantly, peaceful cultural renaissance. The colorful Edo culture yielded many crucial inventions in the field of art, including color printing and original fireworks. High demands for prints encouraged local farmers to manufacture paper on the side, thus making Japanese paper more accessible. Paper was used not only for printing fliers and art, but for umbrellas, lanterns, and various interior ornaments, making it ubiquitous in everyday life.

The oldest surviving publications on origami are also from this period: Senbazuru Orikata (Folding of 1000 Cranes, 1797) and Kayaragusa (1845). Senbazuru Orikata describes how to create connecting cranes, up to ninety-seven, out of one sheet of paper by cutting slits. Kayaragusa was the first book to provide a comprehensive origami model collection. The origami movement gained support from hobbyists and masters alike, thus many complicated patterns were created to elevate the art form. Folds that mimic life and still forms are called Yugi-origami, and basic styles such as the crane and boat were also popularized around this time.

In the Meiji Period (1868 - 1912 AD), a major overhaul occurred during the Meiji Restoration. Japan was opened up to the western world for the first time in centuries. Consequently, western paper and printing methods were introduced, now paper could be produced cheaper and in mass quantities. One-side colored, square pieces of paper was sold as origami papers for the first time. The Japanese government embraced the philosophy of German educator Friedrich Froebel, and introduced origami in kindergarten and other curriculum. This was a significant turn of events where western and eastern schools of origami merged and influenced one another. The term "origami" was not coined until 1880.

<Origami Today>
During the Taisho period (1912 - 1925 AD), an era of rapid modernization that encouraged creativity, educators undermined origami's possibilities by interpreting it as a process of imitation. However, in recent decades, origami has experienced a revival thanks to its long history and cultural significance.

Since World War II, cranes have become an important ambassador of peace. Sadako Sasaki, a young Japanese girl who had lived through the bombing of Hiroshima, but was fatally stricken during its impact, resolved to fold a thousand paper cranes during her effort to recover. Since then, children in Japan have annually prepared paper cranes to symbolize the hope for peace.


Modern origami owes a great deal to the efforts of Akira Yoshizawa. Passed in 2005 at age 94, he is regarded as the grandmaster of origami in the world. He has created more than 50,000 works, and in the 1950's his published books developed the standard set of origami diagram symbols. Exhibitions of his work, both in Japan and internationally, led to the formation of various origami associations across the globe. In the western media, the symbolism of origami has been used to portray intrigue as in the movie "Bladerunner".

Origami has made an impact in the field of education such as mathematics, geometry, and computer graphics. It is only now achieving western respect as a medium in art, and has influenced other forms of papercrafts. Schools are using origami to develop motor skills of children, while seniors enjoy maintaining the same skills, It challenges the mind to create, memorize sequences and concentrate on the final product. Most people generally prefer no cutting or tearing of the paper, no gluing, use a single, square piece of paper for each model (although it is not limited to such). Origami has brought about major influences and interactivity in art among east and west, a history nearly two thousand years old, blending philosophy and art styles. Origami is more than a craft, it is art and a passion for those who understand its roots, the weight of the paper.

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