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Fractional Library

History of Origami

Before Origami

We know very little about the origin of origami.

Some say origami originated in China around 2000 years ago. But it is probably wrong. This opinion is based on the conjecture that origami started right after the invention of paper, for which we have no evidence. The paper of Former Han dynasty shows no trace of origami.

The Chinese character for paper, zhi, originally stood for writing material made of silk. The origin of the Japanese word for paper, kami, is said to be birch tree, kaba, or strips of wood or bamboo, kan. Both of them were also writing material. These suggest that paper was primarily writing material, not folding.

Others say origami originated from Japan in Heian era. Again, it is probably wrong. They refer to a story of Abe-no Seimei who made a paper bird and turned it to a real one, or another story about Fujiwara-no Kiyosuke who sent his ex-girlfriend a fake frog. There is no reason, however, for believing that they folded paper to make them.

In Japan, we use wrapping paper called tatogami or tato. Today we mainly wrap kimono with it. It actually dates back to Heian era. But it is by no means an example of origami, since it is folded just squarely.

We use paper strips, shide or heisoku, and paper dolls, hitogata, in Shinto. They are also old. However, they were never made of paper in ancient Japan. In addition, they are not necessarily folded even now. We can see no relationship between Japanese religion and the origin of origami. The Japanese words for paper and gods have the same spelling, kami. But their pronunciation were different in old Japanese.

We use the word origami from Heian era in Japan. But it originally refers to a form of writing. An origami is a landscape piece of paper folded in half latitudinally. We usually write letters or lists on it. In today's Japan, origami-tsuki (with origami) means authentic because connoisseurs write their appraisal on the origami since Edo era.

We did not call paper folding origami in Japan until Showa era. Origami was called "orisue" or "orikata" in Edo era, and "orimono" from the end of Edo era to the early Showa era.

Japanese Classic Origami

The oldest unequivocal document of origami is a short poem composed by Ihara Saikaku in 1680. It reads: Rosei-ga yume-no cho-wa orisue (The butterflies in Rosei's dream would be origami.) Here he referred to an origami model called Ocho Mecho (Male and Female Butterflies) as "orisue." We use it to wrap sake bottles mainly at the wedding ceremony.

Origami was included in the manners of the samurai class which was passed down by the Houses of Ogasawara, Ise, Imagawa, and others. Ocho Mecho, as well as Noshi, is an example of this ceremonial origami. There are many folding patterns for many purposes. According to Ise Sadatake's "Tsutsumi-no Ki" (1764,) such origami originated in Muromachi era.

More familiar origami models such as Orizuru and Yakko-san have been depicted in ukiyoe or patterns for kimono since 18th century. To be accurate, Yakko-san did not exist at that time. They folded it in half and called Komoso. "Ramma Zushiki" (1734) shows pictures of Boat, Sanbo, and a modular origami called Tamatebako, besides Orizuru and Komoso. We do not know when these models arose.

Some differentiate such recreational origami from ceremonial one. But it does not seem that they drew the line between them in Edo era. In Saikaku's "Koshoku Ichidai Otoko" of 1682, the protagonist Yonosuke made "orisue" of Hiyoku-no Tori, which is supposed to be something like Orizuru.

Nor did Adachi Kazuyuki separate ceremonial and recreational origami when he recorded many origami models in his "Kayaragusa" around 1845. Speaking of "Kayaragusa," this book is sometimes wrongly called "Kan-no Mado," based on an error on a copy.

Akisato Rito published "Sembazuru Orikata" in 1797. "Sembazuru" literally means one thousand cranes, but at that time it meant dozens of connected Orizuru folded from one sheet of paper. It is sometimes said to be the oldest origami book in the world. But, if we do not differentiate two types of origami, "Tsutsumi-no Ki" is older.

Based on these sources and others such as anonymous "Orikata-dehon Chushingura" (c.1800,) we can enumerate the characteristics of Japanese classic origami. They folded paper in different shapes with a lot of cuts. They also used many judgement folds. And the design was dependent on the quality of Japanese handmade paper, washi. To make a colored pattern, they laid some sheets of paper in different colors on each other, or painted.

European Classic Origami

Origami is not "Japanese" art.

We can recognize a picture in the 1490 edition of "Tractatus de Sphaera Mundi," which was written by Johannes de Sacrobosco (John of Holywood) in 13th century and printed over 60 times through the middle of 17th century, to be the same as that of Boat in "Ramma Zushiki." If it is really an origami boat, it is unlikely to have descended from Japan, since Japanese origami at that time would be ceremonial one if any.

John Webster referred to a "paper prison" in his play "The Duchess of Malfi," which was premiered around 1614 and published in 1623. It is probably an origami model known as Water Bomb today. It does not appear in any Japanese sources of Edo era.

We can find some unequivocal references to the origami of 19th century all across Europe. Among others, the German National Museum and Museum of Saxon Folk Art have origami horses and riders, which are thought to have been folded around 1810 or 20, in their collections.

In the middle of 19th century, Friedrich Fröbel established the world first kindergarten. His educational system included some toys called "Gifts" and some plays called "Occupations." One of the occupations was undoubtedly origami.

Fröbel's gifts and occupations have three categories, forms of life, forms of beauty, and forms of knowledge. Ordinary origami is categorized into forms of life. In the origami of forms of beauty, they fold symmetric patterns starting from blintz fold. Elementary geometry is taught in the origami of forms of knowledge.

Only a few models of 19th century European origami can be found in contemporary Japanese sources. Even now, very few Japanese know Pajarita (Little Bird,) though every Spanish knows it. On the other hand, Orizuru was not known in Europe at that time though it was typical of Japanese classic origami.

The models of European classic origami were based on creases of 45 degrees, whereas Japanese ones such as Orizuru or Frog were based on those of 22.5 degrees. They used only square or rectangular paper, and they did not use judgement folds or cuts very much. European and Japanese classic origami were so different that they seem to have developed independently.

The origin of European origami is not known, but it may relate to the baptismal certificate of 16th to 17th century. At that time, they folded baptismal certificates into double blintz or the same shape as Japanese model called Menko or Thread Holder. It is said that this "ceremonial origami" may date back to 15th century.

Traditional Origami

Both Japanese and European had their origami when Japan closed its border. The origami in two regions were fairly independent. The Meiji Restoration and following exchange between Japan and Europe caused fusion of East and West origami.

Japanese imported Fröbelian kindergarten movement, which contained European classic origami, when they re-built the educational system after the European one. On the other hand, Western kindergarten adopted Japanese classic origami. Thus Japanese and European classic origami were mixed. The repertoire of origami evolved here has come down until now and formed the core of traditional origami.

Japanese also started to produce origami paper, a square of Western paper colored on one side, because of the needs of kindergarten to teach Fröbelian origami. Since Meiji era, new models have been added in traditional origami, and many of them are suitable to fold with origami paper. On the other hand, many models suitable to fold with washi were dismissed.

In traditional origami, the models are passed down from hand to hand, from generation to generation. And they change their shapes and titles frequently. The children, as well as adults, often make variations or even improvise new models. This creativity of traditional origami was one of the reason that Fröbel included origami in his occupations. But in today's origami education, pupils just follow the sequence as taught. So teachers tend to misunderstand that origami is mere imitation, and exclude it from their education.

The models of traditional origami travel a long distance in a short time, sometimes beyond borders, as people move. Japanese Orizuru migrated to Europe and became Flapping Bird in the first years of Meiji era. Then Miguel de Unamuno, who was active from the end of 19th century to the early 20th, made many models based on Flapping Bird.

In Europe, they did not use the word origami until 1950s. Origami was called "papierfalten" in German and "paper folding" in English. When Japan imported Fröbelian origami, they were translated to "shoshi," "tatamigami," or "kamitatami" at the kindergarten, and to "origami-zaiku" or "origami" at the primary schools. But these words did not spread out of the educational system. In Spanish, "pajarita" means not only origami bird but also origami in general.

Traditional origami has been born and brought up in the cultural exchange between East and West. It is not a Japanese original culture but intrinsically a hybrid of Japan and Europe. Although it is most popular in Japan, it has been inherited in Europe, the Americas, China, and so forth since 19th century or the early 20th.

Modern Origami

In traditional origami, the folding sequences and titles are passed down as something anonymous, not as something made up by a specific person. Modern origami, which started in 20th century, is based on the completely different paradigm. The folding sequences of modern origami are regarded as "models" "designed" by "origami creators."

The father of modern origami would be Uchiyama Koko, as he patented his origami models. Today some people believe that origami models should be copyrighted. The idea that particular persons have intellectual property in folding sequences is typical of modern origami.

In modern origami, the creativity is attributed to the designers, and the appreciation to the folders. They prefer the models which have not only good final shapes but also good sequences. In addition, they put importance on reproducibility of the model, that is, folders are supposed to make the same shape as intended by the designer.

The diagrams, which represent the folding sequence of a model, are important in modern origami, as they represent the model itself. They are supposed to show the entire sequence. We have similar kind of representation in Japanese classic origami, but they did not describe the entire sequence.

In the modern origami, some emphasize the aspect of origami as the puzzle reproducing the shapes of objects under a certain rule. The most common rule is to fold one sheet of square paper without cutting or glueing.

Behind the rule, there is an implicit premise that origami models should be folded with origami paper. They make a point of easiness of origami, that is, we need nothing but origami paper to do origami. Thus, a model made of more than one sheet of paper is regarded as good when it is made of sheets in the same size and can be assembled without glue.

In 1950s and 60s, an international origami circle was established by creators and folders such as Yoshizawa Akira, Takahama Toshie, Honda Isao, Robert Harbin, Gershon Legman, Lillian Oppenheimer, Samuel Randlett, Vicente Solórzano-Sagredo, and so forth. They have advanced popularization of origami through their community.

They published the origami models of the designers from Japan, Europe, and the Americas in Japanese and English. They also founded national and local organizations. "Origami" became an universal word because of Oppenheimer's proposal. Yoshizawa's notation of diagrams was adopted by Harbin and Randlett, and became the international standard.

Mathematical Origami

We often apply the first part of a certain model's sequence and design different origami models. Consequently, many models have some halfway shapes in common. Such halfway shapes are called bases when they are arranged according to the geometrical analysis. Among the first surveys of the bases were that of Uchiyama Koko in 1930s and that of Vicente Solórzano-Sagredo in 1940s.

The new models in modern origami depends heavily on a few established bases. They use Bird base, which is the halfway shape of Orizuru, in creating not only birds but also animals or flowers. They hardly invent new bases, although they sometimes make variations such as Bird base folded from a triangle or a combination of Bird base and Frog base.

When we fold a base and unfold it, we get a crease pattern. Geometrical study of the crease pattern has been made since 1980s, and it paved the way for the invention of new bases. Now the meaning of the base become completely different. Suppose a creator designs a new model, say Pegasus, s/he would not choose one from existing bases but make Pegasus base.

Maekawa Jun and Peter Engel independently started such mathematical origami. Both of them noticed that the crease patterns of established bases consist of particular triangles and rectangles. They divided a crease pattern into these "atoms," and rearrange them to make new crease patterns. In other words, they designed new models before they fold them.

The advanced theory has been developed by Meguro Toshiyuki, Kawahata Fumiaki, Robert Lang, and others. In this theory, a base is regarded as a set of independent areas and distinguished by the length and arrangement of the areas. They devised algorithms that generate the crease pattern of the base from an arbitrary length and arrangement of areas. Lang's TreeMaker is a computer program which supports origami design based on his algorithm.

There are some other design methods which do not depend on the existing bases. Among them, box-pleat is widely applied. Max Hulme and Neal Elias pioneered this method in 1970s.

Combining these design method, we can make complex models with only one sheet of square paper and without scissors. Thus, the aspect of origami as the puzzle is more and more emphasized in mathematical origami. That is, they compete in designing realistic or complex models under the rule of one sheet of square with no cut. In addition, they regards the crease pattern as an important part of the model besides the final shape and the sequence.

Artistic Origami

The word "origami" consists of oru (to fold) and kami (paper.) So, origami is paper folding. However, those who emphasize the aspect of origami as the puzzle tend to dismiss that. They reduce the paper to mere geometrical shapes such as the square or the rectangle, and the folds to mere geometrical manipulations.

If we reflect on Japanese classical origami, we cannot say that origami consists in only geometry. Many models of Edo era are based on the characteristics of washi. For example, we cannot fold Catfish, Water Lilly, or Sembazuru with Western paper without tearing it, whereas we easily can with washi. Moreover, the point of ceremonial origami is not to make the shapes but to express folder's sincerity.

Since 1950s, Yoshizawa Akira has searched into the expression of folding paper, and demonstrated that origami has the potential to be a fine art. He has enhanced the expressiveness of origami and had a great influence on today's artistic origami. His works not only represent the appearance of the objects, but also show emotional expression. They are not lifelike. They live their own lives.

In 1960s, Uchiyama Koko created Kamon-ori or Flower Pattern Folding. It produces abstract patterns based on geometrical expansion of Tato. Abstract origami itself was not new. In fact, it dates back to Fröbelian origami of forms of beauty. But, he shaped unique art works by folding multi-layered washi dyed by himself.

Folders of artistic origami bring out the potential expression of the paper. Therefore, choosing paper is important. In addition, they often work on paper and improve its expressiveness. Uchiyama's Kamon-ori is an excellent example. Yoshizawa innovated wet-folding by damping paper before folding. He also tried the expression using cut edges of paper. Moreover, Michael LaFosse makes paper himself.

The works of artistic origami are folded paper. So, the creativity is attributed to both the designers and folders, and the appreciation to the viewers. The sequences or the crease patterns themselves are not the object of appreciation. In addition, there is no reproducibility in artistic origami, because the same sequence produce the different works with different types of paper or different folders.

Today, Western folders are more active in artistic origami. The exponents of abstract origami would be Jean-Claude Correia, Paul Jackson, and Vincent Floderer, and those of representative origami would be Eric Joisel, Michael LaFosse, and Giang Dinh.

K's Origami > Fractional Library > History of Origami
Hatori Koshiro (Koshiro is my first name.)