Japanese origami traditions

The Japanese have the reputation of being very “square”, particularly careful and meticulous. While this is of course a stereotype, rigor is nevertheless part of the national culture and the image that Japanese industrialists seek to convey to the outside world. Just take the example of the car manufacturer Toyota. No other vehicle designer matches their recruiting tests. Maths, logic and mechanics tests, repetition of a particular procedure, motivation interview,… The group leaves nothing to chance. Each stage is eliminatory. This constant search for excellence is one of the hallmarks of Japanese manufacturers. We then better understand the place of an art such as origami in Japanese culture.

Origami, a story that unfolds over nearly half a century

“Origami” comes from the Japanese “oru” (to fold) and from “kami” (paper). The objective of this art is therefore to fold paper. However, the activity itself has a more important role in the Japanese tradition since for over 400 years, Japanese mothers have been teaching their children folding techniques. The technique dates from the Edo era (1603–1867). This is an activity considered to be very useful. And for good reason, it allows you to learn rigor, patience and dexterity while developing creativity. Traditionally, the folding paper used is washi but everyone knows that origami can also be designed with classic paper. If this material was developed from mulberry bark around the year 100 by the Chinese, it was not introduced to Japan until five centuries later by a Buddhist priest.

Democratization of an art traditionally dedicated to the wealthier classes

At the time, paper was a very expensive material, which made origami an art practically reserved for the upper classes. It was mainly used during ceremonies or rituals but the strict rules which governed its exercise were transmitted only by a master. Origami was used in particular to decorate sake jugs for religious ceremonies. During a wedding, they could also represent two butterflies (ocho for the male and mecho for the female) which were then fixed around the neck of two jugs of sake, each butterfly representing one of the two spouses. To recognize the sacred union of the two beings, the tradition wanted that one then places a butterfly on the other and that one mixes the contents of the two jugs. Even though these rituals still exist today, paper has become significantly cheaper. Origami has therefore developed as a popular art.

Folding is a very serious business. Three works in particular prove this. The Senbazuru-origata and the Chushingura-origata were both published in 1797 and describe folding techniques to obtain, for example, cranes linked together. The Kan-no-mado, for its part, appeared in 1845 and could be the equivalent of a handwritten encyclopedia of which two volumes concern folding. If making an origami airplane is relatively easy, crabbing is notorious for not being made for beginners. Muzukashii desu (it’s difficult) …

Photo: Jack Lyons

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