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History of Origami

Instructor: Christina Boggs

Chrissy has taught secondary English and history and writes online curriculum. She has an M.S.Ed. in Social Studies Education.

Once known as orikata, origami is the delicate art of Japanese paper folding. This lesson explores the origins, early history, and evolution of origami as an art form.

The Art of Paper Folding

Origami, the art of paper folding, is one of the most iconic cultural contributions of Japan. When did it get its start? Where did it get its start? How did it gets its start? These are all questions answered in this lesson.

Origins of Origami

Historians are unable to pinpoint an exact date for the beginnings of origami. But it most likely began soon after paper was invented by the Chinese nearly 2,000 years ago, some time around the year 100 A.D. Approximately 500 years later, Buddhist monks brought paper to Japan. Historians speculate that the practice of paper folding is most likely as old as paper itself, so the Chinese probably practiced some form of paper folding before the Japanese.

The name origami is fairly new compared to the art form's long history. In 1880, the art of Japanese paper folding was changed from orikata, which means 'folded shapes,' to origami, from the Japanese oru (to fold) and kami (paper).

Who Made Origami and Why Did They Make It?

The earliest forms of origami were made by monks and religious leaders. Eventually rich and elite Japanese began creating origami as well. Why was origami limited to this small part of the population? Well, early forms of paper were very expensive, so the average Japanese person couldn't afford to buy it. Wealthy Japanese also had more time to dedicate to creating art than their lower-class counterparts.

Earliest records of origami indicate that it was used primarily for religious or ceremonial reasons. Eventually, as people became more interested in it, origami was used for decorative and artistic purposes. It was also used as a tool to teach basic principles of math and geometry.

Woodblock print of Japanese women folding origami 1770s
Woodblock print of Japanese women folding origami

The Evolution of Origami

The earliest print mention of origami comes from a book published in 1797, Sembazuru Orikata (Thousand Crane Folding). The author, Akisato Rito, explains the cultural significance of origami and touches upon the traditional ways of making the paper art.

More than 150 years later, a man named Akira Yoshizawa revolutionized the traditional art form. Yoshizawa originally worked in a factory and used origami as an educational tool. In 1954 he published his groundbreaking book Atarashi Origami Geijutsu (New Origami Art), which introduced individuals around the world to the evolving art of origami.

Origami elephant made with a dollar bill
Origami Elephant

His ideas revolutionized the art of paper folding. While more traditional methods limited artists to square sheets of paper that couldn't be modified in anyway, Yoshizawa's countless patterns and models encouraged artists to cut, snip, glue, and wet the paper to create new and exciting works of origami.

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