Unlike many other traditional art forms of Japan, no one is really sure when or how origami began. “Folding paper,” the literal translation of ori-gami in English, is considered a uniquely Japanese art form, but it most likely began independently in other parts of the world, notably China, where paper was invented.
In its most basic form, origami consists of creating a 3-dimensional paper “sculpture” by folding a square or rectangular sheet in various ways. Books with diagrams for making cranes and other decorative forms date back at least 300 years. In earlier times, when paper was scarce, origami was a pastime for the few who could afford to use paper as a recreational supply. Later on, by the 1700s, the art form flourished.
Nowadays, origami is enjoying a resurgence of popularity, partly as a response to the depersonalization of technology, and a deep human yearning to return to basic handicrafts that call for authentic attention and engagement. On a simpler level, origami is a fun, artistic way to make beautiful objects that can be used within larger artworks or as stand-alone pieces.
Modern Japanese are opting to bring back many traditional arts, foods, and crafts that once were the very essence of what it meant to be Japanese. Matcha tea, old-fashioned rice cakes, traditional kimonos, folk dances and ancient art forms like origami and kabuki are enjoying a modern-day resurgence.
Tips for origami beginners
Japanese artists often compare origami to the game of chess: each is simple to learn but requires time and effort to develop a modicum of skill. Fortunately, origami lends itself to solo study and there are many fine books and online tutorials available for free or a nominal cost. For those just getting their feet wet with origami, here are some essential pointers:
- Go slowly. This is art, and needs to be given ample time and attention.
- Precision and accuracy are important, so make sure to practice making real squares, one of the vital building blocks of any origami piece.
- Always do origami with clean hands and remember to “fold away” from yourself for best results.
- When attempting your first few pieces, use large sheets of paper, and don’t be reluctant to start over with a fresh sheet if you get lost in the diagram.
- Consider alternatives to glue. Even origami masters are known to use paper clips or staples on difficult constructions. Note that a few hardcore purists use nothing but paper. (Every art form has its purists).
- As any chef can attest, when you create a new design be sure to make a diagram of it so you (and others) can duplicate it in the future.
- Never be afraid to experiment with a given diagram after you’re past the beginner stage. Origami is art, and invites new concepts and designs.
- Always peer ahead to the next step in a diagram to get your mind and hands ready for what’s in store as the piece develops.
- Origami artists never waste paper. In fact, they keep their mistakes and study them. Later, the paper can always be used for another origami piece or re-purposed for something else.
- Be attentive to the feel of the paper, its temperature, to whether it is dry or moist, and to its brittleness or softness. Engaging with the material is one of the unspoken principles of origami that brings many interesting results.
The legend of 1,000 cranes
The practice of origami as a force for world peace is indelibly stamped on the Japanese culture. Perhaps on other person in the nation’s history has done more to advance the popularity of the art form, or the cause of international cooperation, as a 12-year-old girl named Sadako Sasaki.
The happy, athletic little girl was a survivor of the atomic blast in Hiroshima but developed leukemia several years later and was informed that she had little time left. A hospital roommate told her about the ancient Japanese legend that if one makes 1,000 origami cranes, then that person’s wish will be granted.
Sadako worked hard to make not just 1,000 but 1,400 cranes. Alas, the end finally came for the thoughtful little girl, but her legend is strong in Japan, and her memory has become a symbol for antiwar efforts of every kind. A massive statue to the brave Sadako stands in Hiroshima, proving that her dream might someday become reality; for the dying, courageous Sadako had indeed wished upon her 1,000 cranes, not to spare her own life, but that the world would someday live in peace.
To this very day, Japanese schoolchildren make millions of paper cranes each year and send them to the Hiroshima peace memorial to be used as decorations. Many of the origami wreaths, each of which holds 1,000 paper cranes, make their way to children’s hospitals and serve to cheer up ailing patients.
A few good books
There are dozens of high-quality primers for origami enthusiasts. Here are a few of the better ones that can be purchased used or new from major online retailers, and are quite inexpensive:
Easy Origami, by John Montroll
Origami Fun Kit for Beginners, by Dover
Ultimate Origami for Beginners Kit, by M. LaFosse
Animal Origami for the Enthusiast, by John Montroll
The Complete Book of Origami, by R. Lang and R. Macey
It is interesting to ponder the fact that the Japanese words for “God” and “paper” have exactly the same pronunciation (kami), but are of different origins. The Japanese, however, put much stock in coincidences like this, which might be one of the reasons that origami holds such a high place in the pantheon of traditional arts, alongside Noh drama, Kabuki dance, and calligraphy. English speakers rarely note the similarity of the words “God” and “good,” but that’s probably because Westerners view language with much less reverence than do Asian cultures.
Origami, Sumo, Kabuki, Zen Buddhism and matcha tea are part of Japan’s cultural DNA. Wherever the art of paper folding originated, the Japanese are the ones who have made it what it is today, a valid form of artistic expression on a par with painting, sculpture, tea ceremony, poetry, pottery and other outlets for the human creative impulse.