What is Origami?

      What is origami? This topic is often discussed on the origami list, and can be quite a complex question. Does origami refer to folding paper, or does it include other mediums, like sheet metal or edible paper-thin pancakes? Is origami a craft or an art? Can it be both? Should the definition of origami allow some gluing and cutting, as long as the origami model is arrived at mainly through folding? In an email to the origami list dated 21 Jan 1999, Joseph Wu provided this simple yet encompassing definition, which I happen to like quite a bit:

Origami is a form of visual / sculptural representation that is defined primarily by the folding of the medium (usually paper).


 You may have your own ideas on this subject. As has been pointed out on the origami list, the search for an exact definition might at first seem impractical: put simply, who cares? Well, suppose someone were to set up a permanent origami exhibition at a museum, or a charitable trust for the promotion of origami. Both of these situations would require the organizers to set down a definition of origami for legal purposes.

      As for the word itself, it is commonly known that the word is Japanese in origin; oru means "to fold", and kami means "paper". But did you know that the folding of paper was not always called origami? Hatori Koshiro provides an interesting history of origami, as well as some thoughts on my original question of what is origami.

The History of Origami

      David Lister, one of the foremost Western historians in the field of origami history, was nice enough to send me his "TWO MISCELLANEOUS COLLECTIONS OF JOTTINGS ON THE HISTORY OF ORIGAMI". In describing the piece, he writes:

I intended to cover the whole of the history of paperfolding in three short pieces. However, the third piece, covering Origami in the West since the formation of the origami Center in 1958, still has to be written. It is partly because I am still chewing round how to select and organize the enormous amount of information, and partly beause I have been busy with other things.

Mr. Lister cautions that these pieces are by no means a complete History of Origami, and that there may be errors and omissions. We are all looking forward to David Lister's complete origami history in a published format, but in the meantime we can still learn so much from his wonderful "miscellaneous collections of jottings", presented to you here:

Enjoy! I know I did!

The Origins of the term "Origami"

      If you are interested in some of the more detailed information that David Lister can provide on the history of origami, a good place to start might be with the very first use of the word "origami". David Lister explains in an email to the origami list dated 17 Jan 1999 that the first use of the word "origami" in Japan did not refer to what we now think of as paperfolding but instead to paper certificates. Mr. Lister's email is provided here, again with his cautions that there may be errors and omissions: is a fact that the first use of the word "Origami" in Japan was not for our familiar recreational paperfolding, but for certificates. I have several references, including the following from an article by Yoshizawa translated in The Origamian in autumn 1963:

We have an expression in my country, "Origami Tsuki" meaning "certified or "guaranteed". The phrase stems from our ancient custom of folding certain special documents - such as diplomas for Tea Ceremony masters, or masters of swordsmanship - in such a way as to prevent unauthorized copies from being made.

      In FOLD, issue 45 (September - October 1992) Professor James Sakoda wrote the following:

I consulted the 1932 edition of a Japanese encyclopedia put out by Heibonsha under the title "origami". An early use of the term referred to Japanese paper folded in half, thirds or smaller sizes.......Folded paper came to be used for certificates which accompanied valued objects such as swords or gifts presented to others. The term "origami" referred to such documents, while the term "origami tsuki" ("accompanied by origami") meant that a gift was accompanied by a certificate - i.e. that it was authenticated. An early document is dated ....... 1185, so that this usage is an old one.

      Dominique Buisson, who carried out research into Japanese arts and crafts in Japan, refers to "origami-tsuki" in his book Manuel pratique d'origami, Paris, 1988. I translate:

Folding was, then, a ceremonial act, contrasted with private use which was therefore concealed. This was so, for example, with "origami-tsuki" which one placed on a work of art concerning its appraisement during the Muromachi era (1333-1573). This fold was none other than a certificate folded in two and having the same meaning as the word "diploma", rendered into Latin as "a letterfolded into two."

      Buisson dated origami-tsuki to the Muromachi era, but it will be noticed that James Sakoda's source puts the origins of "origami-tsuki" back into the Heian era. Clearly, too, there are differences of emphasis between the three accounts I have quoted.

      This was the first usage of the word "origami" so far traced in Japan. The word "origami" came to be used occasionally for another kind of ceremonial folding, namely for "tsutsumi", or formal wrappers, by the beginning of the 18th century. However, its use for recreational origami of the kind with which we are familiar did not come until the end of the nineteenth century or the beginning of the twentieth. Before that, paperfolding for play was known by a variety of names, including "orikata", "orisue", "orimono", "tatamgami" and others. Exactly why the switch came to "origami" is not clear, but it has been suggested that the word was adopted in the kindergartens because the written characters were easier for young children to write. I have suggested that the word "origami" was a direct translation of the German word "Papierfalten", brought into Japan with the the Kindergarten Movement around 1880. My theory has not found favor with Japanese historians, but I think it would be wrong to rule out the possiblility of any influence of the German word.

      "Noshi" are a kind of ceremonial fold entirely distinct from "origami-tsuki". Put simply, they are not certifictes, but are attached to gifts to express "good wishes". But "noshi" are another subject.

      The wonder is that both the ancient Greeks and the Japanese adopted the use of folded paper (presumably vellum or parchment in the case of the Greeks) for a certificate. Were these two entirly separate developments, or was it a usage that spread from one end of Asia to the other, at a time and by some means hidden in the remote past?

Other Origami History Web Sites

      Here are some links to more information on origami history. But be warned! Even well-known and well-respected origami books such as Peter Engel's Folding the Universe contain incorrect information on origami history. The historical section in Engel's book, for instance, is merely a compilation from various books that he mentions in his bibliography, some of which contain incorrect information or state conjectures as though they were established facts. If you are using these pages to do research on origami history, make sure you check your facts!

Notes on the History of Origami

(written in 1996 by John S. Smith of Norwich, England)

History of Origami

(an article by Hatori Koshiro, mentioned earlier on this page)

The East and West of Origami

(an historical essay by Edward Crankshaw)

Origami: A Brief History of the Ancient Art of Paperfolding

(a short history of origami provided by Joseph Wu)

Origami Origins

(thanks to the General Libraries at the University of Texas at Austin)

Did you know? Japanese Origami - Paper Folding 2012