The quick history of origami - top facts & all you need to know

Despite being centuries old, the paper folding art form of origami continues to be as popular today as it was hundreds of years ago. But where is origami from? How did origami become part of gifting? Who invented origami and what was origami originally used for? Read on for the answers to all of those questions and more, in my quick guide to the interesting history and facts about origami that you need to know.

So where in the world is origami from and what was it originally used for?

The history of origami in China and Japan:

Identifying exactly where in the world origami was invented is a tricky question that cannot be answered definitively. The biggest schools of thought point to China, where paper is said to have been invented or Japan, where the earliest writings can be found. However the truth is that across East Asia there are a number of different countries with their own paper folding traditions.

Add to that the history of paper folding in parts of Europe and it is easy to see why it is so difficult to pinpoint exactly who invented origami.

Both China and Japan have long backgrounds of using paper folding to create beautiful artwork. Long in past, paper folding has been used in a range of traditional and religious ceremonies across China and Japan, such as the origami butterflies that were used in Shinto wedding ceremonies, to represent the bride and groom. Likewise, in Korea, paper folding also has a firm place in cultural traditions.

Despite this, the themes for origami in China and Japan differ. Japanese origami tends to feature animals and plants, such as butterflies, flowers and cranes, whereas Chinese origami has a tendency towards objects, such as boats, boxes and dishes.

Take a look at this video by Henry Origami on Youtube – Greatest Modern Origami Artists, Episode 1: Kamiya Satoshi.

So who invented origami? It is impossible to tell. What history can tell us, is that the strongest and longest origins of origami are found in Japan. In Japan, historians have found evidence of origami dating back to 1680, through the writings of Ihara Saikaku.

Ihara Saikaku detailed the role of origami in Japanese culture in his stories and poems, as origami found its way into the traditions of weddings, gift-giving and other practices. There are also many traditional Japanese stories that feature origami, such as Abe no Seimei.

Just over one hundred years later, in 1797, Akisato Rito published the first origami book, Hiden Senbazuru Orikata, The Secret to Folding Cranes.

It is thought that origami originally became part of Japanese culture when Buddhist monks brought paper (which was an expensive luxury item) at that time, to Japan in the 6th century, where it was used during religious ceremonies.

Later, as the price of paper decreased, we find evidence of its use as part of gifting, when Samurai warriors decorated gifts to each other with folded strips of paper called noshi, a type of good luck token.

In the fifties, Akira Yoshizawa sparked a renewed interest in origami with his innovative and useful instructions for how to create origami models. His unique set of symbols, known as the Yoshizawa-Randlett System, are still used to explain folding techniques across the world today.

The history of origami in Europe:

On the other side of the world, as people began to travel further afield, paper folding found notoriety across much of Southern Europe. Incredibly, a picture of an origami boat is included in the 1498 French edition of Johannes de Sacrobosco's medieval introduction to astronomy, Tractatus de Sphaera Mundi. Prior to that, historians have found evidence of a cut and folded paper box, thought to date back to 1440.

In the 1800s, origami established roots in German education, when the German educator Friedrich Froebel, included paper folding as part of his sweeping reformation of education for young children. Froebel's progressive stages of folding were adopted by Japanese schools in the late 1800s. During this time, the term origami began to be used to describe paper folding in Japan.

Many years later, in the 1900s, Rudolf Steiner included origami as part of the curriculum at his ground-breaking first Waldorf school. Additionally, the Bauhaus School of Art and Design included origami in its teaching programmes for architecture and design.

In Spain too, paper folding was popularized in the 1800s by people such as, Manuel de Unamuno. The art form soon spread throughout the Spanish colonies, and across South America, where authors such as Vicente Solorzano Sagredo began to produce books on widely used folding techniques.

Origami today:

During the sixties, Robert Lang, an American NASA physicist, found fame with his complicated origami animals. Today his sculptures continue to combine origami and computer programming to create complex designs. His largest sculpture is a flying Pteranodon with a wingspan of 14 feet. His smallest is a 500 micron computer programmable bird. Lang's famous origami cuckoo-clock took three months to design and six hours to fold!

Check out this video of some of Lang's mind-blowing creations by Great Big Story on Youtube – See a NASA physicist's incredible origami.

Elsewhere in the world Satoshi Kamiya shook things up in the eighties when he became one of the youngest origami gurus in the world. Having started making origami sculptures at two years old, his designs are famously complicated and combine Manga, mythology and nature. Satoshi's record-busting origami dragon, Ryujin 3.5, has 275 steps and takes around four weeks to fold!

In recent times, wet-folding has become an increasingly popular folding technique, as well as using of a growing range of materials to create astounding origami sculptures.

Today, origami remains a much-loved form of both art and entertainment for children and adults around the globe. Wherever the truth lies as to its first origins, it is clear that paper folding crafts like origami and kirigami are here to stay.