Japanese Culture

Paper folding, or "Origami" is one of Japan's unique traditional arts. It is the art of folding a sheet of paper into various figures such as birds, animals and many other things without using scissors or paste. Colored sheets of paper which are cut in a square shape are used for this, and it has been a popular pastime among Japanese children. 

Origami (pronounced or-i-GA-me) is the Japanese art of paperfolding. "Ori" is the Japanese word for folding and "kami" is the Japanese word for paper. That is how origami got its name. However, origami did not start in Japan. It began in China in the first or second century and then spread to Japan sometime during the sixth century. 


History of Origami

At first, there was very little paper available so only the rich could afford to do paperfolding. The Japanese found useful purposes for their origami. For example, the Samurai (sa-MURE-ay) would exchange gifts with a form known as a noshi (NO-shee).

This was a paper folded with a strip of dried fish or meat. It was considered a good luck token. Also, the Shinto Noblemen would celebrate weddings by wrapping glasses of sake or rice wine in butterfly forms that had been folded to represent the bride and groom.

As easier papermaking methods were developed, paper became less expensive. Origami became a popular art for everyone, no matter if they were rich or poor. However, the Japanese people have always been very careful not to waste anything. They have always saved even the tiniest scraps of paper and used them for folding origami models.

For centuries there were no written directions for folding origami models. The directions were taught to each generation and then handed down to the next. This form of art became part of the cultural heritage of the Japanese people. In 1797, How to Fold 1000 Cranes was published. This book contained the first written set of origami instructions which told how to fold a crane. The crane was considered a sacred bird in Japan. It was a Japanese custom that if a person folded 1000 cranes, they would be granted one wish. Origami became a very popular form of art as shown by the well-known Japanese woodblock print that was made in 1819 entitled "A Magician Turns Sheets of Birds". This print shows birds being created from pieces of paper.

In 1845 another book, Window on Midwinter, was published which included a collection of approximately 150 origami models. This book introduced the model of the frog which is a very well known model even today. With the publication of both these books, the folding of origami became recreation in Japan.

Not only were the Japanese folding paper, but the Moors, who were from Africa, brought paperfolding with them to Spain when they invaded that country in the eighth century. The Moors used paperfolding to create geometric figures because their religion prohibited them from creating animal forms. From Spain it spread to South America. As trade routes were developed, the art of origami was introduced to Europe and later the United States.

Today, master paperfolders can be found in many places around the world. Akira Yoshizawa of Japan is one of these. He is considered the "father of modern origami" because of his creative paperfolding. He also developed a set of symbols and terms that are used worldwide in the written instructions of origami.

The interest in origami continues to increase today. Just as the ancient Japanese found useful purposes for their origami models, so do we today. Origami will also be a part of our future as we look toward the millennium. The origami crane has become a global peace symbol.

Highlights in Origami History

100AD Paper-making originated in China by Ts'ai Lun, a servant of the Chinese emperor. The art of paperfolding began shortly after.
600 AD Paper-making spread to Japan where origami really took off.
800-1100AD Origami was introduced to the West (Spain) by the Moors who made geometric origami models.
1797 Hiden Senbazuru Orikata is the oldest origami book for amusement in the world is published. Translated it means "The Secret of One Thousand Cranes Origami".
1845 Kan no mado (Window on Midwinter)-The first published collection of origami models which included the frog base
1900 Origami spread to England and the United States
1935 Akira Yoshizawa developed his set of symbols used for origami instructions.
1960 Sadako and One Thousand Cranes was published by Eleanor Coerr and is linked with the origami crane and the international peace movement.
2000 International Peace Project-An international project which is engaging communities in collaborative activities to promote peace, non-violence and tolerance - A Million Paper Cranes for Peace by the Year 2000!