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History of Origami: Prologue

Let's go on the journey with us to see the Origami's history from the past to the present.

0. Where there is paper, there is Origami

If you are interested in Japanese culture, you had probably heard the word 'Origami.'
Some of you may see traditional works like 'Orizuru (折り鶴, paper crane)' or 'Kabuto (兜, samurai helmet)'.
Those works are called 'densho origami (伝承折り紙, traditional Origami)' and they are said to descend in Japan from old ages.
Origami itself is very popular among Japanese people as one of the symbols of Japanese culture. Some Japanese people say that Origami reflects the traditional mentality of Japanese people.

cf. History of origami > Why Japan was born with origami culture (Nippon Origami Association) *In Japanese. Google translation is available.

The word 'Origami' is getting popular not only in Japan but also around the world.
However, there are some areas where people have other names for papercraft like Origami, such as

  • Papiroflexia: in Spanish, meaning 'paper play'
  • 종이 접기 (jong'i jeopki): in Korean, meaning 'paper play'
  • 折纸・摺紙 (Zhézhǐ): in Chinese, meaning 'folding paper.'

In addition, people in Spain and France have a traditional papercraft work called Pajarita (in Spanish) or Cocotte (in French).

[1-1] Pajarita

As Pajarita indicates, papercraft only by folding is distributed not only in Japan but also in other counties in the world.
Where there is paper, there is Origami. It might be natural that people generated papercraft like Origami in the area where paper was available.

Even so, it's hard to find areas like Japan, where people make many 'Origami' works in terms of quantity and variation.
How have Japanese people enjoyed and developed Origami?
Here, let's see the history of Origami in Japan.

1-1  Pajarita on みたにっき@はてな (Retrieved 8 March, 2021)

実は奥深いスペインの折り紙文化. ESBLEND スペイン繋がり情報サイト. (n.d.). (Retrieved 8 March, 2021) *in Japanese

1. Origami - Formal or Recreational -

To think about Origami, we have to consider the definition of the word 'Origami.'

It is after the modern age that the word 'Origami' was widespread.
Until the late 1800s, people had the word 'Orisue (折据)' or 'Orikata (折形)' to refer to what is called 'Origami' today.

However, Orisue and Orikata were not necessarily equal to Origami. They also referred to the customs of paper wrapping and paper decoration.

Since the technique of paper making was introduced from the Asian continent, people in Japan had established the customs of decoration with paper.

[1-2] Gohei (御幣)

For example, [1-2] shows Gohei (御幣), a tool used in rituals of Shinto (神道). Some tools used in shrines like Gohei are attached with paper strings called shide (紙垂) and the custom of forming shide is varied with some schools.

There is some vague area in the definition of 'Origami' 'Orisue' and 'Orikata.'
To make their points clear, some people use the technical terms as follows.

  • Ceremonial origami:
    Origami stylized as a form of ritual and etiquette.
  • Recreational origami:
    Origami as an enjoyable papercraft.

Indeed, most of 'Origami' today are parts of recreational Origami.
However, ceremonial Origami is also an important part of the history of Origami.
Let's go back to the introduction of paper to Japan, and follow the history of ceremonial origami.

1-2  Shinto gohei.jpeg by nnh on Wikimedia commons / public domain (Retrieved 8 March, 2021)

In Japan, some people use the technical terms '儀礼折り紙' and '遊戯折り紙' but their English translations are not clearly established. In this article, I will follow the wording on the website below.
Koshiro, H. History of Origami. K's Origami (Retrieved 24 July, 2021)  *In English

2. Introduction of Making Paper

"Nihonshoki (日本書紀, The Chronicles of Japan)," a history book edited by the Imperial Court in the 8th century, has the oldest record about paper in Japan.

According to the record, Doncho (曇徴), a Buddhist monk who was skilled in paper making, came to Japan, which indicates that the technique of paper making was introduced to Japan at that time.

[1-3] making process of Washi (和紙)

It is thought that actually paper had already been made by toraijin (渡来人), the people who came from the Asian continent and brought various techniques.
After that, Japanese craftspeople sophisticated the paper making technique, and they generated washi (和紙), traditional Japanese paper.

Due to the improvement of paper making and the spread of paper in Japan, people gradually created decorations by paper like shide attached to gohei.
The styles of decoration or wrapping with paper were gradually sophisticated into formal manners.

1-3  Najio Washi (Japanese Paper) by Hideyuki KAMON on flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0 (Retrieved 19 July, 2021)
Seishi, M. (1995). Washi (和紙). In Encyclopedia nipponica 2001 (2nd ed.). Tokyo: Shogakukan.

3. Formal Origami

[1-4] "Hōketsuki"

[1-4] shows a picture in "Hoketsuki (包結記)" by Ise Sadatake (伊勢貞丈, 1717-1784) written in 1764.
This is a book about the etiquette of wrapping and tying things which was passed down in the Ise family.

According to the preface, the Ise family served in the Muromachi shogunate (室町幕府, 1336-1573) as an official samurai family in charge of etiquette.
Ise Sadachika (伊勢貞親, 1417-1473), a Sadatake's ancestor, had big political power in the establishment of the etiquette of samurai.

It can be thought that while etiquette was gradually established in the middle age, the custom of ceremonial origami was formalized.

[1-5] "Hōketsuki"

[1-5] is other page of "Hoketsuki."
The pictures on the left side show how to make Noshibukuro (熨斗袋).
Noshi is a decorative attachment of a wrapped gift and noshibukuro is a part of noshi. Even today, Japanese people show their respect to the recipient by attaching Noshi to the gift.

Although most of the customs of ceremonial origami had already disappeared, some parts of them descend to the present.


--- Now, we saw a brief history of ceremonial origami.
Then, how was recreational origami born?
Let's go to the next page and watch the history of origami to the present.

1-4  国文学研究資料館蔵『包結記』前編、二十三丁裏、二十四丁表 on 新日本古典籍総合目録データベース / CC BY-SA 4.0 (Retrieved 8 March, 2021)
1-5  同上前編、十丁裏、十一丁表 on 新日本古典籍総合目録データベース / CC BY-SA 4.0 (Retrieved 8 March, 2021)
Keizo, S. (1979). Ise Sadatake (伊勢貞丈). In Kokushidaijiten (国史大辞典) (Vol. 1). Tokyo: Yoshikawakobunkan.
Ken'ichi, F. (1979). Ise Sadachika (伊勢貞親). In Kokushidaijiten (国史大辞典) (Vol. 1). Tokyo: Yoshikawakobunkan.


The information on the articles of 'Origami in the past' is based on the reference below. They were all retrieved on 8 March, 2021.

Etsuro, B. (1995). Origami (折り紙). In Encyclopedia nipponica 2001 (2nd ed.). Tokyo: Shogakukan. *in Japanese

National Diet Library. (November, 2008). 第151回常設展示 本の中の「おりがみ」.  *in Japanese

Masao, O. The History of Origami in Japan. Web-site of Japan Origami Academic Society. *in English

Yuko, I. (2012). A Study of History of Origami and Origami as Childcare Teaching Materials. Urawa Ronso (浦和大学『浦和論叢』), 46, 45-68. *in Japanese. An abstract in English is available.