Origami and its Cultural Influences

By -


Let’s get the world to fold! Hello and welcome to the world of Japanese paper-craft— origami (折り紙)

by Roman Diaz and Daniel Naranjo, via grulla

No one knows when origami originated in Japan. Historians generally credit the invention of paper to a Chinese eunuch named Ts’ai Lun (Cai Lun) during the early 2nd century AD. A generally accepted date among historians is 105 AD. This invention led to Cai Lun posthumously obtaining global recognition. Previously all writings in China were archived on pieces of silk called chih. The procedure was costly; and inconvenient, so the newfound medium of communication spread like a wildfire in China, reaching countrywide use as early as the 3rd century. It is believed that paper was introduced in Japan somewhere between the 6th and 7th centuries. With the gradual rise of Buddhist influence, Japan saw an influx of Buddhist traditions, and the monks brought with them paper to Japan’s mainland, and with them, the art of paper folding. Paper in Japan, was used in many purposes, ranging from architecture to decoration. Generally considered costly in Japan, paper-craft was seen as a luxury in Japan and were often used as offerings in religious ceremonies—also known as Shinto. It became a significant part of Japanese culture by the Heian period. Here we see resemblance among the Japanese words for paper and God. However, the way of writing differs, with God spelled as (kami) and paper spelled as (kami).

Paper talismans to keep evil spirit away

The art of paper-craft evolved differently in different parts of the globe. It was called papiroflexia in Spain—who incorporated the art from the Arabs in 12th century AD. Donna Serena Da Riva, in her paper – Paper Folding in 15th Century Europe, discusses in length to the development of paper-craft in Europe—from the development of Fabrino paper mills in Italy, to the earliest known European paper-craft evidence in a Venetian text by Johannes de Sacrobosco called the Tractatus de Sphera Mundi (1490).

Tractus de Sphera Mundi

By the end of the seventeenth century, origami evolved as Scherenschnitte in Prussia, Germany and Austria (current Deutschland and Switzerland). Literally meaning “scissor cuts”, it became widely popular in the 18th centuries. Scherenschitte has now become one of the finest paper crafts in the world. Though historians widely agree on the fact that origami is widely of Japanese invention. But, it gave spectacular contributions from the global community, like this origami depiction of the celebrated scene of the “Killing of the Dragon” via happyfolding.

The chief difference between global and Nipponese (Japanese) paper-craft is the presence of scissor cuts and glues. Traditional origami as we know it consists only of folding of paper, no cutting or gluing is involved. Early directives and archival about origami are scarce. The first written directive was Hiden Senbazurur Orikata ( Secret to Folding One-Thousand Cranes ), which was published in 1797 AD by Yoshinoya Tamehachi. There is a different school of paper-art which allows the cutting and gluing of papers. Known as Kirigami (切り紙 ) (kiru=cut). Coined by Florence Temko in 1962 in her book Kirigami, the Creative Art of Papercutiing, Kirigami is mostly of newer origin. In the land of kirigami, the most famous structure may be of that of the paper snowflake. Bekah Gjerde has some beautiful examples for us in this regard.

Example of Kirigami

There is no limit to imagination—and consequently the number of things that one can make with origami. However, there has been a few standardized techniques that became widely popular over the years. Akira Yoshizawa, the grandmaster of modern origami and Sam Randlett laid down the groundwork for some standard set of origami symbols, in what is called, the Samuel-Yoshizawa system. The system first debuted in the book, Art of Origami in 1961 and had, since, been the holy grail and the Bible of origami artists. 

Akira Yoshizawa

One of the innumerable contributions of Yoshizawa is the modern technique of wet folding. It involves the use of heavily sized paper such as parchment or Wyndstone’s marble. The water needs to be spread evenly with utmost care on the paper with the help of a damp towel. To complete the procedure, one needs to hold the paper in the way they want with soft clips. When the paper dries, it will wrinkle and fold in a smooth contour in the regions of the folds. Thus giving rise to beautiful shapes, including the shapes of the fox that is presented as featured image.


Due to its intricate connection with the Japanese way of life, Origami had been entwined inside the Japanese culture. A popular story is of the Senbazuru (千羽鶴). Literally meaning, “to fold a lot” the word is denoted to signify “a thousand paper cranes”, it is said that the wish of someone who has made a Senbazuru is granted. A story that goes is of Sadako Sasaki; a twelve years old girl who was struck by leukemia right after the bombing of Hiroshima. She wished to make a thousand paper cranes to wish her back to health. However she could not finish it in her life, and passed away. But after her death, her friends completed the Senbazuru, thus fulfilling her wish. Usually, Senbazuru is often made in a group, such as a school club as a group activity. And one can choose any color they want with the cranes, without any restriction.

And due to the extent of hard work and toil they ascertain, a Senbazuru is a sacred piece of art, and should not be handled without care or respect. It is fitting to donate it to a temple or shrine if one wishes to part from it. It is believed that upon burning a Senbazuru in a temple, the wish returns to its owner and the cycle is completed. Their burning is a pious affair in itself and calls a ritual for it.

Here is a rare example, video-ed by user Zukkoku51, on Youtube of burning of cranes in Miyajima.

Of course, this is not the only one. Stop-motion animation company Laika’s new film, Kubo and the Two Strings confounds origami in storytelling itself; as Kubo brings his little paper characters alive in a Pinocchio-ques magic. And on the other hand, origami paper planes fly from the ISS (international Space Station) to Earth surface, journeying 400 kilometers and standing temperatures of 200 degrees Celsius and speeds of mach 7. And there is an entire culture around origami, the same community celebrating the World Origami days from October 24th to November 11th in the honorarium of Lilian Oppenheimer, the forerunner of American origami.

So, as the paper crane becomes the symbol of pious peace in Japan, let us embrace this tranquil and patient art. Quietly appreciate the silent craft. Envision the world as those Buddhist monks had, when they offered these fine pieces of artslike ephemeral snowflakes—to their all powerful gods and deities as a symbol of faith and peace. Let us gape in awe before creativity. and celebrate an empire of origami……….



Daniel Defoy

Daniel is a part of our core writing force. (May it be with you.) His writing is in-depth, engaging, and opinion-based. Anyone who reads his smart words is left thinking or arguing. Btw, if we publish his articles without breaking his paragraphs down into smaller chunks, Nihonden will soon be an academic journal of sorts.