National Origami Day celebrates an art that is almost as old as paper itself. The art of origami evolved over centuries, leaving a paper trail, so to speak, that spans cultures and countries. Though the origins of origami not entirely clear, this much is certain, this tradition could not have predated the invention of paper. Origami is literally the art of paper folding, whose very name is derived from the Japanese words, ori, meaning to fold and kami, meaning paper. Despite its close association with Japan, it would not have been possible without China’s invention of paper in sheet form in 105 A.D. It is likely that the precursors of origami, known in China as zhezhi or folded paper, developed shortly thereafter.
It took another 400 years before paper made its way to Japan in the 6th century by way of Buddhist monks. Origami in Japan was first used exclusively in religious ceremonies due to the expense of paper. Later, wealthy families who could afford this expensive handmade material, began to use paper for their correspondence. They liked to include an intricately folded piece of paper with their letters, partly to flaunt their wealth. It would be another 13 centuries before Japan’s industrial revolution in the late 19th century made paper available to the masses. It was not long before origami was embraced as a leisurely activity and raised to an art form.
Of course, origami eventually found its way to Europe, possibly evolving from napkin folding, a popular practice in the 17th century. Paper folding really took off when it became part of the German kindergarten school curriculum. The founder of kindergarten, Friedrich Fröbel, believed it to be an easy way to introduce geometry. This early exposure to paper folding led to the flourishing of origami across Europe.
The United States was a little slower to discover origami; New Yorker Lillian Oppenheimer introduced it to the U.S. and Great Britain in the 20th century. Her OrigamiUSA organization is still active today with an annual two-week convention beginning on her birthday, October 24th and ending on November 11th, National Origami Day.
Facts Along the Paper Trail
True origami uses only a single sheet of square paper, folded without use of scissors, tape, or markings, and constructed entirely through folds. You could think of it as a logic problem or brainteaser, but many people are up to the challenge, as evidenced by the many books and patterns available.
Kirigami is a variation that allows the use of strategic cuts. It comes from the Japanese words “kiru” (to cut) and “kami” (paper).
Golden paper nuggets (yuanbao) became a part of traditional Chinese funerals by around 900 AD. They were folded in the likeness of ingot currency and with the intention of being cast into a fire at the end of the ceremony.
European folding patterns usually used a 45 degree angle, while Japanese folding patterns often used a 22.5 degree fold.
No story about origami would be complete without mentioning the tradition of folding 1000 paper crane within one year. It is said that accomplishing this will grant you happiness and eternal good luck. Why 1000 cranes? Cranes in Japanese folklore are said to live 1000 years. Origami cranes that are folded into a group of 1000 are called senbazuru and are usually made of many different colors of paper, and strung together to be hung from a ceiling.
You can read more about these and many other fascinating facts about origami and its history at these links: