The Lister List

The Origins of Symbols

As a newcomer, I have felt diffident about stepping into the Origami-L arena. However, spurred on by John Smith's challenge (27/04/96), and to mix a metaphor, I have decided to jump in at the deep end. I have searched in my papers to try to find more about the origin of our familiar origami symbols. To be frank, I cannot take the matter much further back than John, but I find that it is a vast subject, of which I can only scratch the surface. Please bear with me if this is is longer than the usual note to Origami-L.

1944: Isao Honda included models by Yoshizawa (identified as such in Honda's Japanese book "Origami Shuko". (Some sources suggest the date of publication was 1941, but Gershon Legman maintained that it bore the date, 1944. This book is extremely rare, even in Japan, and I have never seen a copy, but it appears to be the first publication of Yoshizawa's work. It would be very interesting to see what symbols, if any, were used with the instructions.

1950 Yoshizawa was discovered by a Japanese picture magazine. He designed twelve origami zodiac signs which were published in "Asahi Graph". This was the first effective launch of Yoshizawa. Important though this article is, I have never seen it. If it contained instructions for the models, then it may have used the system of different dotted lines for mountain and valley folds later used by Yoshizawa in his own books.

1952 As a result of the Asahi Graph article, paperfolding instructions began to appear in "Fujin Koron" (Ladies' Opinion), which was a women's magazine. Some time after this models by Yoshizawa also appeared in "Shufu no Tomo",a magazine for young women. One reference I have puts this as 1957. But this seems too late. (See below).

1953 For the record, it was during this year that by a most remarkable stroke of luck, Gershon Legman was put in touch with Yoshizawa, who was thus discovered for the West only two years after he had been discovered in Japan. 1955 Yoshizawa's first book, "Atarashi Origami Geijutsu", ("New paperfolding Art") was published. I have a photo-copy and it contains the familiar different dotted lines for valley and mountain folds. Also in the Summer of 1955, Gershon Legman held the first exhibition of Yoshizawa's work in the West, in Amsterdam. From then onwards, Yoshizawa's work came to be widely know in the West, as did his system of dotted lines and arrows for diagrams. An early issue of the Origamian from 1958 announces the deliberate decision of the recently founded Origami Center exclusively to employ the Yoshizawa system for all its diagrams. I have a fairly large collection of photocopies of Yoshizawa's diagrams from various sources. (There must be very many more which I do not have). For the most part, the sources are not identified or dated, but some are. I have found the butterfly from Shufu-no-Tomo, traced by John Smith. However, the date on my copy is April, 1955, not September, 1955. On my copy, the latter date appears to relate to a rabbit photocopied on to the same sheet. As John said, the diagram like that of the butterfly, has Yoshizawa's system of different dotted lines for mountain and valley folds.

To attempt a comparison with other folders, I have looked at books by two others. I have a copy of a book by Michio Uciyama called (like so many Japanese Origami books) "Sosaku Origami", ("Creative Paperfolding"). Unfortunately, I cannot date it. It could be early, but I doubt if it was published before the 1950s. Michio was the father of Kosho and he published many books going back long before before the Second World War. He uses his own very deeply cut style of folding. But interestingly, he, too, uses the two kinds of dotted lines to distinguish mountain and valley folds. It would be very interesting to know the date of this book. I also have a copy of "Origami: Penguin Book". Although he is not stated to be the author, this was Honda's first book in English. It was, however, quite late being published in 1957. In it Honda uses identical, simple, dotted lines for both mountain and valley folds, but he places a letter P (for "peak") by the side of the lines for mountain folds. Perhaps this was because he did not wish to be seen to be directly copying Yoshizawa's system. (Honda modified many of Yoshizawa's own models for his own publications. Robert Harbin simply said he stole them). So, after all this, we are little further on from what John Smith suggested in his much more succinct note.I have nevertheless always understood that the system of dotted lines and arrows was, indeed, devised by Yoshizawa, and while I cannot prove this at present, it seems most likely. The actual date may have been 1950 or earlier. (In the absence of publication this does not mean much). It may be observed that Honda continued to use his "P" symbol for in all his many books, including "The World of Origami" of 1965. In a later development, Robert Harbin introduced the terms squash fold, petal fold, rabbit ear, crimp etc. in "Paper Magic" in 1956. But although he then knew about Yoshizawa, he didn't use Yoshizawa's dotted lines in that book. They were not needed with Rolf Harris's brilliant freehand perspective drawings. Soon after, in extensive private correspondence, Sam Randlett and Robert Harbin hammered out a comprehensive system of symbols and terminology This included the regular bases and these were given the now familiar names of preliminary fold, waterbomb base, blintz base,fish base, bird base and frog base. I understand the names were decided upon by Sam. Some of these terms, like "preliminary fold," waterbomb base" and "blintz base" (Gershon Legman invented this term) are probably the least happy aspect of the whole system. Sam thought that it was desirable to show that all the bases were derived from each other. Most of them could be, but in the process the windmill base seems to have fallen by the wayside. The completed system first appeared in Sam's "Art of Origami" in 1961, followed by "The Best of Origami" in 1963 We had to wait until 1964 and the publication of "Secrets of Origami" before Robert Harbin employed the same symbols with a few modifications. With this our familiar system of symbols for origami was complete. There has been minor tinkering since then, but few changes have Japanese use Yoshizawa's basic system of lines and arrows, they omit most of our Western terminology. Please send me your comments, suggestions, corrections and objections. We need every scap of information that can be found.

Yoshizawa and Randlett.

In my previous note on the Origin of Origami Terms and Symbols, I overlooked Brett's question whether Akira Yoshizawa and Sam Randlett ever met, or co-operated in devising the so-called Yoshizawa-Randlett system, of origami terms and symbols.

As I hope I have shown in my previous note, there was no link between

Yoshizawa and Randlett over the symbols, except, of course, that Randlett was fully aware of Yoshizawa's own system of dotted lines and arrows. The co-operation was between Randlett and Harbin. Yoshizawa still does not use the western terminology,


Did Yoshizawa and Sam Randlett co-operate or meet? Yoshizawa's first visit abroad was to Australia, New Zealand and The Phillipines in 1966. Thereafter he was sent on regular visits to other countries as an origami ambassador for his country. He did not, however, visit the United States until he came to give a series of lessons in origami only a few years ago. (I'm sorry, I can't lay my hands on the year at this moment.)


As far as I know, Sam has never visited Japan. I'm sure we would have heard about it if he had been to Japan during the years when Sam was active in paperfolding, but I have not seen any account of such a visit. That doesn't mean to say he hasn't been there in more recent years. If so, it was long after his two books were published.

Any new information will be most welcome.

David Lister, Grimsby, England

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