Perhaps as a child you remember being inspired by the beauty and intricacy of Origami art. Maybe it was the graceful cranes, or the insect designs. You may have even tried to take part in the tradition in the form of purchasing a technical manual or learning by some other means. In this article, we will discuss the historic nature of origami, in addition to some of the techniques and practices that are associated with it. 

Origami is the Japanese art of paper folding. Its origins, however, do not begin in Japan. In order to properly trace the history of Origami, we must first travel to China. Soon after Cai Lun invented the paper making process in the Eastern Han Dynasty, Buddhist monks brought paper with them to Japan. It was here that Japan was first introduced to paper; also, the earliest known origami comes from this time period. The word origami literally means ‘to fold paper’. Initially, because paper was so expensive, origami was done as a purposeful art. The folded paper entities sometimes took the form of good luck tokens for the Samurai, or as symbols of a good marriage at wedding ceremonies. As time carried on, paper making methods evolved, and paper itself became much more widely available and inexpensive.

Origami also evolved; it became an art for everyone – not just the wealthy nobles. Techniques for folding origami art were passed down from generation to generation. Several hundred years passed before written instructions for folding paper into origami came into existence. The first known book was published in 1797; it was titled ‘How to Fold 1000 Cranes’. The book featured detailed instruction in the methods for folding the Crane, a sacred Japanese bird. You may be wondering why the book is called what it is; this is because a legend in Japan states that if one folds one-thousand paper cranes, they will be granted one wish. Another book published nearly fifty years later goes into great depth in explaining how to fold more than 150 different models, including the very popular frog. Akin to many paper arts, it is around this time that Origami became strictly ornamental and for personal enjoyment.

The art form takes on many different sizes and shapes. Origami models range from the minute, such as eraser-head sized cranes, to the gigantic, such as a life-sized airplane. Origami does not require any special tools, although some professional folders use a ‘folding bone’, which helps to sharpen important creases. Nearly any sort of paper can be used, but regular paper intended for copy machines and computer printers only performs well in simple folds like the crane. For more complex designs, specialty paper designed for Origami work is necessary. This paper is referred to in Japanese as kami, which, incidentally, just means paper. It is commercially sold in square that are colored on one side and white on the other; sometimes, however, the paper comes in patterned and two-colored designs as well. Heavyweight papers also exist; these are used in a technique known as wet-folding, which allows for the model to take on a much more rounded shape. A rather popular variety of paper is called ‘foil-backed’, and is literally covered in either regular or colored kitchen foil on one side. The most popular type of origami paper in Japan, however, is known as Washi. Washi is stronger than ordinary paper and allows for rigid, sharp folds in a model. Money is also sometimes used as a medium for Origami; typically the folder attempts to model the person that is portrayed on the bill.

Another style of origami is somewhat distinctive. This classification is aptly named ‘Action Origami’, and it is just that. Action Origami is used to resemble moving objects; it can use a person’s kinetic energy to move a limb or flap, be inflated with air, or take on the appearance of flight.

All things considered, Origami is a unique art. While paper-folding existed in China for several hundred years prior to the birth of Origami, it is the Japanese that have contributed so much to the advancement of this handicraft. Without them, we would be unable to marvel at simplistically complex creations such as the Crane or the Frog, nor would we be able to participate in this art ourselves. Origami does not require any special instruments, but it does require special paper and a special will to complete the task at hand.