The History of Origami

I am going to be teaching a little origami in an introductory course for some middle schoolers. I thought I should provide a handout with a summary of origami history for the students. This is my first draft:

In the year 105 AD, Cai Lun invented paper for the Han Dynasty in China. At that time, it was a very difficult to make paper and so it was only for the very rich. The Chinese may have folded paper shortly after inventing it, but it is not clear if they did. Eventually, monks brought the knowledge of how to make paper from China to Japan in the 6th century.

Nobody knows exactly when the Japanese began folding paper, but is it known that the first models were for ceremonial purposes. The noshi was given with gifts, especially among samurai, and were considered tokens of good luck. The mecho and ocho butterflies were used in traditional Shinto weddings, possibly as early as the Heian period (794–1185). Unfortunately, the models were not written down since they were taught from parents to children. Nor were they given a single name. Origami was also called Orikata, Orisui and Orimono.


The first book on origami was published in 1797, called Hiden Senbazuru Orikata (The Secret of One Thousand Cranes Paperfolding) and it gave instructions on how to fold multiple cranes so that they are linked together. All the traditional folds were published in other books and origami became very popular in Japan.

The knowledge of paper making also spread west over the Silk Road through the Middle East. It reached Spain in 1036 with the Moor invasions and spread to the rest of Europe. At first, simple astrological diagrams (similar to fortune tellers) were folded in Spain. In the 16th century, napkin folding became popular among dinner tables for the nobility.

By the time Friedrich Fröbel lived (1782–1852), people all over Europe were folding. He was a teacher who also folded. He changed schools all over the world when he invented kindergarten. As the idea of kindergarten spread, so did origami, but it was still very simple. Miguel Unamuno (1864–1936) was an author and teacher who lived in Spain. He made many discoveries about new ways to fold and his ideas spread to the Spanish speaking countries of the world.

But it would be Japan that would finally make origami a worldwide art. Akira Yoshizawa (1911–2005), grew up folding. It is believed that he folded as many as 50,000 models throughout his life. He was different than other Japanese folders in that he insisted that origami was a creative artform, like painting or sculpting. In the 1950's he became a respected folder and published several books. He invented the standard instructions used by authors today. His work became very popular and he coordinated with many other folders in the United States.

After meeting Yoshizawa, Lillian Oppenheimer founded the Origami Center in New York in 1958 and folding groups started to appear all over the world. Some of the notable groups today include OrigamiUSA, the British Origami Society, Nippon Origami Association, Japanese Origami Art Society, and the Israeli Origami Center.

Further reading:

[The image is from the
National Diet Library (Diet, as in legislative body)]

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