History of Origami

What are the origins of the paper folding process we now know as origami? Composed of the Japanese words oru (to fold) and kami (paper), origami has a rich and complex history that spans culture, class and geography.

 A yellowed piece of paper with origami diagrams and Japanese lettering on it.
A page from Akisato Rito’s Sembazuru Orikata

Classical and Traditional Origami

Paper was first invented in China around 105 A.D., and was brought to Japan by monks in the sixth century. Handmade paper was a luxury item only available to a few, and paper folding in ancient Japan was strictly for ceremonial purposes, often religious in nature.

By the Edo period (1603–1868), paper folding in Japan had become recreational as well as ceremonial, often featuring multiple cuts and folds. It came to be regarded as a new form of art that was enabled by the advent of paper both mass-produced and more affordable. Written instructions for paper folding first appeared in 1797, with Akisato Rito’s Sembazuru Orikata, or “thousand crane folding.” In 1845, Adachi Kazuyuki published a more comprehensive compilation of paper folding with Kayaragusa; by the late 1800s, the term for paper folding had morphed from orikata (“folded shapes”) to origami.

Europe also has a tradition of paper folding that dates back to the twelfth century or before, when the Moors brought a tradition of mathematically based folding to Spain. The Spanish further developed paper folding into an artistic practice called papiroflexia or pajarita. By the 1800s, kindergarten-aged children in Europe and Japan were learning paper folding.

Modern Origami

A jolly brown face made from a single piece of paper, including chubby cheeks and the illusion of curly hair.
Eric Joisel mask

Traditional origami is characterized by open-access folding patterns and sequences passed down orally or anonymously from generation to generation. Modern origami often features models created by designers. Many of these models are considered copyrightable material or intellectual property. Modern origami often prioritizes a puzzle aspect to the folding, and the challenge of folding a single square of paper without using cuts or glue.

A sculpture made of blue paper that appears to be shaped into a series of interlocking triangles, giving the effect of a spherical model.
“Five Intersecting Tetrahedra” by Tom Hull

Akira Yoshizawa, who died in 2005 at age 94, is considered one of the progenitors of modern origami. In the 1930s, he developed a system of folding patterns employing a set of symbols, arrows and diagrams. By the 1950s, these patterns were published and widely available, contributing to origami’s global reach and standardization. Yoshizawa and other origami masters formed local and international organizations publicizing the art.

Today, origami has expanded to incorporate advanced mathematical theories, as seen in BETWEEN THE FOLDS. Mathematical origami pioneers like Jun Maekawa and Peter Engel designed complex and mathematically based crease patterns prior to folding, which emphasized the puzzle aspect of origami, with the parameters of using one piece of uncut paper. Artistic origami has also enjoyed a recent resurgence, with abstract paper folders such as Paul Jackson and Jean-Claude Correia.

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