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As Long As The Emperor’s Foot?

History of Origami: outline suggestions for a basic, essential history

This is not the first time that I have considered the history of paperfolding. I refer to the paper I wrote for the Second International Meeting of Origami Science which took place at Otsu in Japan in November 1994. It is printed in the proceedings of the meeting called “Origami Science and Art" and also in the Proceedings of the Second Conference of Origami in Education and Therapy held in New York in 1955 (COET 95). Unfortunately both of these publications are now out of print, but are available in libraries. This paper gives a short summary of my ideas on the history of origami. In it I consider Japanese origami and Western paperfolding and whether they developed independently or whether there was some historical connection. I also wrote a short outline history of origami for the revised edition of Robert Harbin's "Teach Yourself Origami" ("Origami 1").Originally this appeared only in the revised edition published in Britain, but there has now been a paper-backed edition published in the United States which includes my history. This is much more succinct, and what some people may be looking for.

I believe that there is no alternative to considering the history of folding in Japan and the West separately, at any rate until the 1960s. While in earlier centuries there may have been some influences along trade routes either way, Japanese and Western folding developed for the most part in isolation from each other until the latter part of the 19th Century.

But apart from the actual history of folding several other matters must be considered. First, it is necessary to decide on the meaning of origami or paperfolding for the purpose of the history. Is it to be confined strictly to the folding of paper as ordinarily defined or is it to include other materials such as cloth or leather? For instance, is it to include napkin folding? Is it to include papyrus, which, despite its brittle reputation, is, when fresh, capable of taking simple folds?

Secondly, is the history going to start with the origins of paper in China and with the spread of the knowledge of papermaking from China to Japan and to the West? Obviously there cannot be paperfolding without paper, but there may be cloth folding. And we must ask the question whether paperfolding originated in China, before occurring either in Japan or the West. In the present state of our knowledge we are not likely to be able to answer this question. We simply do not know the answer, but it would be wrong to dismiss the possibility of a Chinese contribution.


I am slowly assembling the information that will enable me to write a history of origami, but it is not a simple process. One-by-one I am considering different aspects of Japanese origami and I am beginning to build up a coherent, if partial picture of its development. Unfortunately, I feel out of my field, because I don't read Japanese and much is being written about the history of origami in Japan by such writers as Masao Okamura and Satoshi Takaga, both of whom I met when I visited Japan in 1994. I wish I could read their books and articles! But they do have many illustrations so I do have some clues.

For the history of paperfolding in Japan, I consider that it is desirable to start with the use of paper in Japanese religion and then to go on to the use of paper folding in Japanese society and etiquette. This includes the Mecho and Ocho butterflies, which are a pointer towards the later recreational Japanese origami, if not the direct ancestor of recreational paper folding. Although the ceremonial wrappers (tsutsumi), which became such an important part of Japanese etiquette, were very different from recreational origami, I think that they must be mentioned, if only to indicate how important a function folding had in Japanese Society.

There should also be mention of the Japanese "tato". These are small purses or containers, which were carried around by men and also used by women to put small household things like needles and thread in. They have a history of their own which I has not yet been fully investigated, but their origins appear to be earlier than any record of recreational paperfolding which we have. Nor must utilitarian paperfolding in general be overlooked either in Japan or in the West. Such things as wrappings including wrappings for seeds and spices probably preceded any recreational origami. There were also “kusudamas” or paper “medicine balls” to be considered.

Contrary to what may be generally thought, there is scarcely any evidence of the history of recreational paperfolding in Japan before 1600. So an outline history of recreational folding in Japan must begin at that time. Fortunately help is provided by two pictorial publications produced in Japan, which help us to see for ourselves how paperfolding developed there. The first is Satoshi Takagi's pictorial history, published by NOA in 1993, the title of which is generally translated as “Origami Though the Classics”. The second book is Maso Okamura’s “Oru Kokoru” (“Spirit of Folding”) which was the catalogue for an exhibition held at Tatsuno in Japan in 1999. Japanese recreational folding obviously must have started earlier than 1600, but, sadly, we lack any evidence and have to rely on the vaguest of references and a lot of conjecture. When we come to the 17th century most of the evidence we have is of things like the classic crane, and the boxes, boats and hats, typical of later children's folding.

Then at the end of the 18th Century, in 1797, we have the Senbazuru Orikata and the Chushingura Origkata which mark a division of the ways in Japanese origami between origami for children (which was mainly uncut) and adult origami, which was more complex, but which usually involved heavy cutting. Again, it is unlikely that this kind of adult origami started suddenly in 1797, but as always, we are dogged lack evidence of its earlier development.

The separate children's and adult strands of Japanese origami continued throughout the 19th Century. Evidence of the adult strand is provided by the Kayaragusa (Kan no mado) of about 1845 and the recollections of Kosho Uchiyama about his grandmother's folding, which was sadly lost through earthquake and war. Her tradition was continued by her son Michio Uchiyama. Although he used extensive cutting, he was one of the first of the modern creative folders to invent his own new styles of folding and to write books about them. There are also collections of 19th Century folding, and some of the “adult” models folded are referred to in the books by Takagi and Okamura.

In the last twenty years of the 19th Century, Japanese children's folding came modified with the introduction into Japan of the Froebel kindergarten. Japanese children's folding was more extensive and more developed that the corresponding Froebelian "folds of life”. Nevertheless, Froebelian ideas of paperfolding were introduced with the other educational ideas of the western kindergarten, based on Froebel’s principles of learning through play. The influence of the Froebelians had the effect of drawing origami out from the Japanese home and into the schools. Indeed, the kindergartens stimulated a rival movement for native paperfolding in the state schools. For the most part Froebelian folding in Japan eventually became merged with the native origami, but some ideas such as the "Folds of Beauty" were taken over by the Japanese. The result was a strong revival of children's recreational folding in Japan and books about it for school and home began to be written. The use of coloured papers for folding instead of the traditional white paper appears to have been derived from the West through the influence of Froebel.

We come to the 20th Century, when the evidence from Japanese published books becomes much more extensive. We meet Isao Honda, who collected traditional models, and also Kosho Uchiyama (son of Michio), who built on his family's tradition and gradually abandoned excessive cutting. We also meet Akira Yoshizawa, who started his own style of creative origami, and introduced new techniques, at the same time insisting on origami as a creative art form.


When we turn to the West, we find that the history of paperfolding in the West is less advanced and more sporadic than in Japan, but apparently no less ancient. Folding itself begins with the pleated folding of cloth in ancient Egypt and in Byzantium, a kind of folding that looks forward to the elaborate ceremonial napkin folding of Europe of the 16th Century. There is, however, an Egyptian map of a goldmine, drawn on papyrus. This apparently dates from Hellenistic times and appears to be the oldest existing example of folding anywhere in the world.

All folding is divided between that in which the fold pattern is basically a grid and that where the crease lines form radial patterns. Most crease patterns involve both. But whereas Japanese origami used both grid patterns and radial patterns (as for instance in the bird base and the frog base), European folding, apart from the waterbomb base, was for the most part confined to grid patterns such as the windmill base.

There are indications of recreational paperfolding in Europe from the 15th and 16th Century, but some of the evidence is not absolutely convincing. But by 1614, there is the evidence of the paper fly-trap in Webster's play, the Duchess of Malfi. The paper fly-trap is none other than the waterbomb itself. Isolated instances of paperfolding continue to be found through the 17th and 18th centuries.

Unfortunately, the evidence for folding in Europe is much less extensive than the evidence in Japan at this time. Nevertheless, it would seem that many of the traditional folds which were later known in Europe, were known in the 18th century and probably in the 17th century. Unlike the Japanese folding of the period, however, they do not include the classic crane or the jumping frog because the bird base and the frog base, both of them radial folds were not known in Europe until the latter part of the 19th Century.

Joan Sallas has discovered that there was a movement for using paperfolding in schools in Germany in the 18th Century of which we previously knew nothing. There are suggestions that paperfolding was also used in French schools in the early 18th century, so indicating that Froebel’s use of paperfolding was not as revolutionary as was once thought. Froebel, who was, born in 1882, has himself left us his own recollections of paperfolding as a child, reinforcing the indications that traditional folding was extensive in Europe in the 18th Century

More evidence of the early use of paperfolding education is given by the sets of mounted and dismounted paper soldiers in the Deutsches Museum at Nuremberg and in museums in Dresden. They were folded during the early years of the 19th Century and in his memoirs written in 1870, Wilhem von Kugelgen has left us an account of how he and his school friends were taught to fold them by their young, but enlightened tutor, Adolf Senff. Both the horses and the soldiers are modified from the cocotte or pajarita.

Dating from 1806 there is further evidence from Holland, in the form of a print depicting the Chinese Junk. But was this native-grown or was it brought by trader from the east? (It certainly takes the form with a pointed end which is common in Japan.)

From the middle of the 19th Century, the Froebelian kindergarten became an important element in the history of European, and indeed, in world paperfolding as kindergarten teachers took paperfolding all round the world and Froebelian paperfolding began to appear in books in many languages. It is unfortunate that, so far as creativity was concerned, by concentrating on the “Folds of Beauty” Froebelian folding became trapped in a dead end, which proved to be its downfall.. But from the middle of the 19th Century, Froebelian folding certainly spread the idea of folding far and wide.

Around the 1870s, following the ending of the Japanese self-imposed isolation, Japanese conjurors travelled to Europe and North America. With them they brought the bird base and flapping bird to the west. They did not necessarily bring the flapping bird from Japan, for so far as we know, the flapping bird, as distinct from the classic crane was not known there. Western conjurors and parlour scientists took up the theme of folding and the tradition of the conjuror using paperfolding continued into the second half of the 20th Century. During the past seventy years the conjurors have shown a particular interest in the distinct category of folding banknotes. Many of the leading modern creative paperfolders were originally conjurors. They and the writers of books for children provide an important thread, to be set beside the folding of the kindergarten and the children's own traditional playground folds.

In Spain there is reputed to have been a strong native tradition of paperfolding in the villages. If so, it unfortunately died about before evidence of it could be recorded. The poet and philosopher Miguel Unamuno, Rector of Salamanca University, developed his own form of creative folding, beginning by folding and refolding the popular Spanish fold known as the Pajarita. Later, in the early years of the 20th Century, he used the bird base to develop new creations of birds and animals. A strong folding tradition arose among his followers and this was taken to Argentina, where further development took place, involving, among others, Dr. Solorzano, Ligia Montoya and later Adolfo Cerceda.

In Europe monographs on paperfolding began to appear. In Germany, just as in England and France folding had its place in books of parlour tricks and sciences, but books specifically about paperfolding were especially popular. They included “Handbuchlein der Papierfaltkunst” by Josef Sperl (first edition, 1904). Two books, “Allerlei Papierbeiten” by Hildegard Geierke and Alice Davidsohn (first edition 1910) and “Lustiges Papierbuchlein” by Joanna Huber (first edition, 1927) continued in print for many years and went into many editions, gradually evolving over the years.

In England, the stage-magician Will Blythe wrote “Paper Magic in 1920 and “More Paper Magic” in 1923. Murray and Rigney (two more conjurors) published “Fun with Paper Folding” in the United States in 1928 and Margaret Campbell, who then lived in South Africa, published “Paper Toy Making” in England in 1937. She had travelled in the East and her book contains many traditional folds known in Japan. The books by Murray and Rigney and Margaret Campbell were both very influential in spreading the popularity of paperfolding in the West.


Gershon Legman enthusiastically began to study the literature of paperfolding in 1945 and by series of fortuitous events he managed to make contacts with Japanese, Argentinean and Western paperfolders, notably with Akira Yoshizawa, Dr. Vicente Solorzano and Ligia Montoya. In 1955 Gershon Legman put on an exhibition of the work of Akira Yoshizawa at the Stedelijt Museum in Amsterdam. Around 1953, both Robert Harbin in England and Lillian Oppenheimer in New York independently became keenly interested in paperfolding. . By one of those curious coincidences of history, Robert Harbin, Lillian Oppenheimer and Gershon Legman and through Gershon Legman, Akira Yoshizawa and Ligia Montoya were all put I touch with each other. With the foundation by Lillian Oppenheimer of the Origami Center in New York in October, 1958, the modern Origami Movement can be said to have begun. An exhibition of paperfolding at the Cooper Union Museum, New York, followed in May, 1959 which brought paperfolding to the notice of the wider public

In the United States, Fred Rohm and Neal Elias explored wholly new ways of folding the paper which largely abandoned the concept of bases. In England, a trio of young men, David Brill, Max Hulme and Martin Wall extended the range of techniques with some remarkable models. But they were only the pathfinders and they have been followed by many gifted creative paperfolders.

The Origami Center was not a members’ society: it was Merely :Lillian Oppenheimer undEr another name The first members group was that of Zaragossa in Spain, but it was not formally constituted. The first members’ society to be formally constituted was the British Origami Society, which was founded in 1967. In the following years, origami societies were founded in Italy, France, Germany, Belgium and Holland, and Spain and later all over the world, all linked in fellowship and focusing on the Origami Center. A group of Friends of the Origami Center was founded in the United states to give support to the Origami Center itself and following the death of Liilian Oppenheimer in 1994, this was renamed Origami USA, becoming the national origami society for the United States.

From 1957 new books on paperfolding began to be published in the West, originating both in Japan and in Europe and North America. They began as a trickle, but now have now swollen to a flood. The books have been supplemented by the magazines produced by most of the origami societies and by the “convention books” which are an obligatory accompaniment for every convention. In one way, the multitude of publications facilitates the study of the history of origami, but in another it makes it much more difficult, because few people have access to even a fraction of these books and the identification and isolation of separate strands of historical development has become very difficult.


The new ideas developed in the West were taken back to Japan. They were adopted by Japanese folders such as Dokuohtei Nakano and were absorbed into the native tradition. Links between Japan and the West were forged, particularly by Mrs. Toshie Takahama, who discovered the new Western approach to folding during a visit to the Word Trade Fair in New York in 1965. Other Japanese folders, including Kunihiko Kasahara and Yoshihide Momotani brought new approaches to Japanese origami. New societies began to be formed in Japan, starting with Sosaku Origami ‘66, founded by Toshie Takahama. This was followed by the Nippon Origami Association (NOA) and later by Origami Tanteidan (the “Origami Detectives”), now renamed as the Japanese Origami Art Society (JOAS), which is a group of highly gifted young folders many of whom have a mathematical background.

In December, 1989 Humiaki Huzita, a Japanese scientist working in Italy decided to call a world conference about mathematical paperfolding with the title “Origami Science and Technology”. It was held in Ferrara and a select number of mathematicians and scientist known to have an interest in the mathematics of paperfolding were invited. They included Koyura Miura and Toshikazu Kawasaki from Japan. This was the real beginning of the study of the mathematics of origami. Since then two more Meetings of Scientific Origami have been held in Otsu, Japan and in California and more are promised. A new mathematical basis for the theory of folding and its geometry was slowly hammered out by folders both in Japan and in the West.

Folders like Shuzo Fujimoto and Jun Maekawa in Japan and Peter Engel, John Montroll and Robert Lang in the United States explored new techniques of folding pape. Robert Lang developed the use of computers to working out basic patterns for complex models and later worked out a detailed analysis of the techniques of folding paper. Despite the new discoveries, it was found that complex or advanced folding continued to fall into the old broad categories of radial folding and grid folding. Radial folding, with its ready production of the "points" needed for living creatures' heads, legs, antennae and other appendages has been used mainly in the folding of living things and especially in folding insects and sea creatures. Grid folding (which includes the style of folding known as "box-pleating") is more appropriate for inanimate folds exemplified by Max Hulmes’ “Stephenson’s Rocket” and Robert Lang's "Black Forest Cuckoo Clock".

Even these, however, do not exhaust the modern developments in paperfolding. The study of the use of paperfolding in education and its uses as a therapy for the physically and mentally sick and handicapped has continued to intensify. The involvement of paperfolding in mathematics and sciences continues to develop.

Modular folding goes back to the 17th century, but has been widely extended with the discovery of new modules and an enthusiasm for folding exotic polyhedra. There has also been an accelerating interest in the folding of origami tessellations and related forms which have diverged in unexpected ways.. Wet folding, in which the paper is folded damp represents a very different approach, which enables the paper to be moulded to give the semblance of realism. This has given rise to new kinds of "origami sculpture", of which the work of Eric Joisel is just one example. Other kinds of folding are “Minimal Folding”, “Pure Land Folding” and a style which has become known as “Jacksonian” folding which places a few strategic folds in the paper to create sculptural effects. Paul Jackson has also specialised in artistic baskets made by “cross-pleating”. Then there are “Zig-zag folding”, “Twist Folding”, “Teabag Folding”, “Iris Folding” and “Origamic Architecture”. The litany goes on and on and each of these styles has its own history.

Nor do these techniques exhaust the variant techniques and styles of modern folding. For many years the question was repeatedly asked whether paperfolding had now reached its limits only to receive the reply that it had branched out in new and unexpected directions. Now we do not ask. The use of circular paper, curved creases and the folding of curved surfaces is just beginning. Today we merely ask where paperfolding will go next and wonder what surprises it will produce. We can only look on in wonder.

I emphasise that this is not intended to be a history of paperfolding, but merely an indication of the kind of topics which will have to be considered in the writing of such a history. And even then, it is not at all complete. I have, for instance referred to only a few of the great international conventions and exhibitions that have profoundly affected the way origami has developed. I consider myself very fortunate, indeed, to have become interested in paperfolding at just the moment at the beginning of the 1950s when the modern paperfolding movement was born and to have been able to watch the extraordinary development of modern origami.

David Lister.

22nd November, 1999.

Revised 20th March, 2005.

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