Secret treasures of Japan: Origami

Secret treasures of Japan: Origami

Posted on Sep 16, 2013 in History of Japan, Japanese customs, Japanese technology, Stories about Japan |

Origami (折り紙), Japanese: ‘ori’ means to fold and ‘kami’ paper, is a traditional Japanese folding art and developed in the Edo period.

Origami uses a limited number of folds but due to the combination of these folds intriguing designs are possible. The art originates in China during the first or second century, shortly after the invention of paper. From China it came to Japan, where it gained its shape and form as we know it today. In general the designs start with a piece of squared paper of which the sides can be differently colored. The paper may be fold but it cannot be cut.

Japanese origami has been applied since the Edo period (1603-1867). Although frequently assumed, Japanese origami can also be made with a rectangular piece of paper instead of a squared one.

origami as a secret art for the Noble

The Japanese are said to be good at handcrafted work. Of course, there are always exceptions but in general children in kindergarten can already fold a crane bird or helmet. A foreigner completely ignorant regarding origami will be very impressed by the many possibilities one can make out of a single piece of paper.

Simple origami erects from the time of Prince Shoutokutashi (572-622) when the method of produce was first introduced by the Korean priest Tan Zhi. Traditionally de acts of ‘break’, ‘fold’ and ‘bind’ were linked to religious ceremonies. In these days people came up with certain rules concerning the folding of paper because this form of folding art was being used during formal and, most of all, holy occasions.

family secret

During the Muromachi period (1333-1568), when the shogun laid down several rules and laws, the Ogasawara and Ise families were responsible for the rules regarding ceremonial ornaments (made out of paper) and gift wraps. They decided that the rules could only be passed on as a family secret and strictly to a select number of people.

gift wrapping

During this period it was important that, if a gift was to be wrapped, it was easy to guess what it contained by the way it was packed. In other words, the package had to clearly show the form of the object inside or there had to be a small opening so one could peek inside. If it was a small gift, the giver had to write down a description of the content including the quantity.

1000 crane birds for good luck

During the Edo Period a book was published which reflected 49 ways of folding a crane bird. From that time on the tradition of folding a 1000 crane birds for luck, began to arise. This was done when, for example, someone was ill or was going to make a great journey. A crane bird is supposed to deliver a blessed feeling, therefore a 1000 or more should give you enough to be quite alright.

Mid-Meiji Period people started to teach children to fold origami in order for them to learn about art in a playful manner.

magical origami

The first person to introduce origami in Europe was a magician. In that time balloons were not yet invented so no balloon animals could be crafted. Therefore, this magician gave children joy by making them an animal of origami. He used the origami technique as well during his shows and the crowd was very impressed by his capability of crafting 3D figures out of a single piece of paper.

origami after WWII

After the Second World War the soldiers brought the art of folding back to the United States and there as well it became a huge success. Many of the more unique designs of origami which are invented in this period, were made by foreigners. After all, the Japanese had to obey strict rules that did not influence nor impede the designs of foreigners. They could fold whatever fantasy they imagined and therefore created many more creative forms. This freedom eventually reached Japan as well and they decided to ditch the rules and give their imagination free rein.


Official practitioners of origami are called Origamians and are a phenomenon all over the world. There are even competitions where participants are being challenged to great new creative pieces and push the boundaries of Origami.

geometrical imagination

During the Showa Period (1926-1989) Origami was seen as inferior to kids in kindergarten because it would limit the free imagination and fantasy. A chemist called Ryuutarou Tsuchida and Kouji Fuhimi, a physicist, spread around that Origami was actually good for children in their development phase. The creation of many complicated forms stimulates the geometrical imagination and will prepare children to solve difficult mathematical problems later on in high school. These two geniuses thought that children who learn to think with their spatial skills by making Origami, will be able to apply this way of thinking at mathematics while children who have never created Origami will have much more trouble in this area.


origami in space

Nowadays Origami is even applied in space. The technique is used to fold a solar panel. Professor Kouryou developed the Muira-ori method. This is an ideal way to fold a solar panel in space, for it to be as effective in space as possible. This Muira-ori method has ever since been applied to many more utilizations. Origami has been proved to be ideal for all ages. It can provide hours of joy but also improve science and technology.

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