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Origami: A Brief History of the Ancient Art of Paperfolding

No one really knows when and where origami was invented. Some origami historians argue that since the invention of paper is credited to Ts'ai Lun of China in A.D. 105, paper folding must have been invented soon after. Paper was then introduced to Japan in the late sixth century by Buddhist monks, and paper folding was brought along with it. In Japan, paper was considered an expensive commodity, and it was used in many aspects of Japanese life, most notably in architecture. Certain origami models were incorporated into religious (Shinto) ceremonies. In fact, the word for paper, kami, is a homonym for the word for spirit or god. The designs associated with Shintoist ceremony have remained unchanged over the centuries. However, since there are no known Chinese records of paper folding, and since the oldest Japanese records date only to the 18th century, other historians claim that origami is definitely a Japanese invention. Regardless of its ultimate origin, Japan is recognized as the country that most fully developed the traditional art of origami.

The Japanese transmitted their designs via an oral tradition, with the recreational designs being passed from mother to daughter. Because nothing was ever written down, only the simplest designs were kept. The first written instructions appeared in AD 1797 with the publication of the Senbazuru Orikata (Thousand Crane Folding). One portion of the Kayaragusa (also known as Kan no mado or Window on Midwinter), an encyclopedia of Japanese culture published in 1845, included a comprehensive collection of traditional Japanese figures. The name origami was coined in 1880 from the words oru (to fold) and kami (paper). Previously, the art was called orikata ("folded shapes").

Meanwhile, paperfolding was also being developed in Spain. The secret of papermaking reached the Arabic world in the eighth century, and the Arabs brought it to Spain in the 12th century. The Arabs were devoutly Muslim and their religion forbade the creation of representational figures. Instead, they followed their mastery of mathematics and their paperfolding was a study of the geometries inherent in the paper. After the Arabs left Spain, the Spanish went beyond the geometric designs and developed papiroflexia, an art this is still popular in Spain and Argentina.

Modern origami owes a great deal to the efforts of YOSHIZAWA Akira. After centuries of people folding the same traditional models, Master Yoshizawa published books with completely new models starting in the early 1950's. He, together with American Sam Randlett, also developed the standard set of origami diagram symbols that is still used today. Exhibitions of his work, both in Japan and around the world, introduced origami to many people, leading to the formation of various origami associations including the Origami Center of America (now OrigamiUSA), and the British Origami Society. Now there are origami masters and enthusiasts in many countries, forming a widespread but close-knit community. Yoshizawa, who died in 2005 at the age of 94, is still regarded as the grandmaster of origami.

Today, master paperfolders can be found in many places around the world. New and improved folding techniques have produced models that would have astounded the ancients. They still manage to astound many people today. Where once it was considered a feat to fold a representational insect that gave the impression of a segmented body and multiple legs, anatomically correct insects are now considered commonplace and the feat is to create insects that are of a recognizable species. Happily, not all paperfolders have reduced paperfolding to greater and greater achievements of technical skill. The artistry of paperfolding is also flourishing.

Composition and paper choice play an important role in this newfound artistry. Yoshizawa has also led the way in this area, producing fabulous displays that capture the life of his subjects, whether shown as a diorama, as a mobile, or in a shadow box. He has developed a technique known as backcoating that is the lamination of two layers of washi to produce a paper that is unparalleled for folding. Also, a technique known as wet folding, where a heavily sized paper is folded while wet, allows the folder to sculpt his model into soft curves and 3D forms.

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