If you’ve ever eaten at a Benihana or other Japanese restaurant, you may have been struck by the presentation of the food and of the dining elements – specifically how your napkin was folded.

Your place setting might have been graced by an origami swan, or maybe the napkin was folded into a cunning pocket for your chopsticks...

Did said restaurant have red paper lanterns on display, possibly with ideograms painted on them?

Although those lanterns are reinforced with wire, they nevertheless fall under the origami umbrella because they are primarily made of paper.

Incidentally, it is not difficult to make such a lantern; you can follow these easy step instructions to make origami paper lanterns of your own...

To take the relationship between Japan and origami one step further: it wouldn’t be much of a stretch to conclude that a kimono, the traditional Japanese wrapped garment is akin to making origami.

One must wrap the kimono and fold the obi – the wide waistband just so; origami must also be precisely folded.

It was during Japan’s Edo period (1603-1867) that the kimono became truly stylised; it was also during that time that origami found its place in Japanese culture.

These days, while kimono-wearing has been relegated to special occasions, especially weddings, origami remains a pastime for young and old. However, it is quite common to make kimonos out of money.

Money origami is a niche art, especially using US currency because a dollar bill does not have the same dimensions as standard origami paper.

But we’re not talking about origami in the United States; our topic today is origami in Japan, specifically why that paper art is such an integral part of their culture.

Still, if you must know, origami is quite popular in the states; so much so that the Ginter Botanical Garden in Virginia routinely puts Japanese paper creations on display and lets children of all ages float origami boats in their ponds.

Enough about that! Our focus is the chain of islands on the other side of the world and what origami represents for them.

Let's get on with it!

Why Origami is Attributed to Japanese Culture

It is harder to fold a kimono than an origami flower
A kimono is decidedly harder to fold than an origami flower! Image by Sasin Tipchai from Pixabay

You may be disappointed to find that origami did not originate in Japan, nor were/are they the only culture to practise the art of paper folding.

If you are a Japanophile, you may already know that the Chinese ‘invented’ paper and had been plying paper as an art form long before Buddhist monks introduced papermaking in Japan.

To this day, the ancient art of paper cutting, kirigami in Japanese, is more popular in China than in Japan.

Kirigami and kusudama – glueing or sewing several origami shapes together used to feature in Japanese origami but, when the Shogun ruled the country (off and on between 1192 and 1867) they standardised origami and made origami folding a part of their training.

Are you wondering how sitting for hours, folding origami can train someone to handle a samurai?

Even simple origami takes patience and precision to execute; those are two qualities every warrior needs. Besides, the ability to visualise – to see shapes in an otherwise unremarkable sheet of paper promotes thinking skills and imagination.

Finally, using both hands to make a mountain fold, a valley fold and a multitude of creases improves hand-eye coordination, a quality every soldier needs.

These reasons to turn sheets of paper into distinct shapes still hold true today; they are why classes in origami for kids offers so many educational benefits even though they are not being conditioned to swing samurai swords.

Meanwhile, before paper made its way to Europe, people there amused themselves with napkin folding but, once paper came along (and became affordable), it was not uncommon for children to amuse themselves by making toys out of paper.

For example, the fortune teller has a centuries-long history on the continent and it made its way to our shores almost 100 years ago.

All of that still does not explain why the art of folding paper is attributed to Japan exclusively.

We need to find more reasons...

You can model protein in origami
Did you know that protein sequences have been modelled using origami? Image by _Alicja_ from Pixabay

The Meaning of Origami

Let’s say that, for you, a square piece of paper represents unlimited possibilities.

You might make an origami rose out of it, or an origami box that, once a few coats of lacquer are applied, will make a wonderful gift.

You might make a paper aeroplane to distract a young child or a paper boat s/he can set afloat in the pond.

What does origami mean to you? Do you build origami models for the sake of creation? For stress relief? To hone your fine motor skills?

What do you want to represent in the origami designs you make?

In no way are these questions ambiguous for Japanese origami enthusiasts. Their ancient Japanese traditions speak to them loud and clear as they make their folds.

  • the origami dragon is a symbol of power, wisdom and success
    • by contrast, the dragonfly represents strength, courage and good luck
  • the origami butterfly is symbolic of a girl growing into a young woman
  • an origami frog in the pocketbook means that spent money will return
  • the origami cat stands for strength, self-assurance and independence

These origami animals are all significant in but there is one origami bird that outshines every animal you might make out of folded paper.

Cranes have a special significance in Japanese culture.

Not only are they thought to live for 1,000 years – hence they are a symbol of long life, but they believe that folding a thousand cranes will make their fondest wish come true.

You can learn more about the symbolism of origami in our related article.

Origami cranes are made more poignant by the story of a young, cancer-stricken girl.

In the aftermath of the Hiroshima blast, many were afflicted with life-threatening illnesses. Young Sadako, embroiled in a fight for her life, set out to fold one thousand paper cranes so that her wish to be rid of her cancer might come true.

Upon entering the children’s cancer ward she realised the futility of her exercise but continued to fold every origami crane she could, believing that, if she attained senbazuru – literally ‘a thousand cranes’, her wish for lasting peace would come true.

She exceeded her goal and, having folded a total of 1,300 such birds, leaving an unrivalled legacy.

Touched by her story, after her death, her classmates petitioned for a statue of her to be erected as an eternal plea for hope for peace. To this day, people from all over the world send origami cranes to be laid at her memorial.

If you didn’t know the story behind the iconic paper crane until now, surely it will persuade to you pick up a pack of Washi paper and learn how to fold them.

If you don’t yet know how to make an origami crane, you can find video tutorials or written folding instructions online.

See the different available art courses near me here.

Origami boxes make personal gifts
Origami boxes such as these are often traded in Japan; usually they contain a sweet or a lucky star Image by Letterblade from Pixabay

The Breadth of Paper Crafts in Japan

Think back to your school days or, if you’re currently in school, take a moment to review the type of work you do there.

Did/does any of it involve paper craft? Do you remember being assigned any origami projects?

It is quite common for students in the UK to work with coloured paper and tissue paper, especially up to the first Key Stage but, after that, we get into more ponderous topics like art appreciation or painting and drawing.

In our schools, we’re not actually taught how to make origami let alone how to make paper, which is surprisingly easy.

Now, let’s take that thought a bit further: were you shown how you can use easy origami to understand geometry and vertices or create tessellations? Have you modelled any complex shapes using 3D origami?

Would you be wildly surprised to learn that such learning is commonplace in Japan primary schools?

There, children learn folding technique before they are old enough for school. Parents help their children make easy paper constructions; maybe an origami heart or origami flowers.

As little fingers fold and crease, they hear the stories of their culture. They learn how bokashi – the shading or gradation of paper can enhance their designs and how to create kawaii creatures.

Kawaii is Japan’s particular brand of ‘cute’.

All of this happens before they are enrolled in school so that, by the time the teacher hauls out the square paper, they already know how to fold origami.

Even better: they are already endowed with the patience to sit still for long periods, the perseverance to work through frustrations and precision to fold just about any origami model, as long as it is not too complex.

From an early age, Japanese children are indoctrinated into the wonders of origami – Satoshi Kamiya, the world’s most renown origami artist, avers he started folding when he was two years old.

There is no doubt that origami is important to the Japanese; possibly more important to their culture than any other – even though it is extensively used to model engineering applications all over the world.

For their culture of cute, for their traditions and history, even for all of the Japanese words that populate the vocabulary of origami, we could rightly say that origami is Japanese art.

Even if people in other countries have long amused themselves by folding paper origami.

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