Arts & Culture

The 2-minute guide to Japanese origami

Origami translates literally from Japanese to “folding” (ori) “paper” (kami). While many of the original forms of the art come from Japanese practices in the Edo period, modern origami refers more broadly to papercraft art influenced and practiced by various cultures. Origami generally starts with a square piece of paper and proceeds without the use of glue, cutting, or marking.

History

Photo of a pair of hands folding brightly colored paper
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Paper was invented in China by 105 AD and reached Japan by the sixth century. Early on, paper was a handmade luxury item available to the elite and used in ceremony. During the Edo period, mass production led to wider availability. With more paper at hand, the practice of folding it was used both as a pastime and part of ceremony. When Japan opened its borders in the 1860s, it brought in influences from European papercrafts including the stipulation of proceeding without cuts or glue. This period served as a revival of the art form, which would once again see change in the modern age.

A century later, Akira Yoshizawa, considered the grand master of origami, brought new techniques to the craft, including “wet folding” to produce organic shapes, as well as a systematized approach to folding instructions.

Foundations

Photo of a pair of hands folding brightly colored sheets of paper
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All of the traditional origami sculptures are based on a series of simple folds. The most basic of these are the mountain fold and the valley fold. Paper folded away from your point of view leads to the appearance of a peak (or mountain) and paper folded towards your point of view leads to the appearance of a valley. The other foundational folds include:

  • Inside reverse fold
  • Outside reverse fold
  • Squash fold
  • Pleat
  • Crimp
  • Petal fold
  • Petal old variation
  • Swivel fold
  • Open sink

You can find illustrations of these folding techniques here. These techniques are often used to form the base from which more complex sculptures are crafted. The different bases (also found at the link above) include:

  • Kite base
  • Square base
  • Water bomb base
  • Bird base
  • Fish base
  • Frog base

To fly with a thousand wings

Photo of colorful origami cranes
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The most famous origami sculpture is the paper crane, or “orizuru” in Japanese. In Japanese folklore, the red-crowned crane is said to live for a thousand years and carries souls to paradise. Drawing from this folktale, the practice of folding one thousand paper cranes was said to grant one a wish and later became a gesture of healing, solidarity, and perseverance through difficult times.

The paper crane starts from a bird base. You can find illustrated instructions here, as well as a video tutorial here.

Paper petals

Photo of paper flowers
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The kusudama flower is considered a precursor to modern origami as it involves the use of glue or tape to combine multiple pieces of paper. This is also an example of modular origami, which refers to sculptures that involve the combination of multiple units to form a final piece. Each sheet is folded into a single petal and combined with several to make a flower. The kusudama flower starts with a helmet base. You can find illustrated instruction for both the base and the rest of the folds here.

Get creative

Illustration of origami cranes
Credit: Paul Campbell/ iStock

The modern practice of origami has branched out from its early origins, in large part due to the work of masters like Yoshizawa. Today, origami sculptures encompass everything from anthropomorphic masks to complex geometric forms. There are plenty of resources available for traditional and modern tutorials on the art of origami. By starting simple and building your way up, you can learn the techniques used to arrive at specific shapes and eventually consider your own twists on the classic form to create unique original sculptures.