After papermaking was introduced to Japan from the Asian continent at the beginning of the seventh century, Japanese people developed a way to make a type of thin, durable paper that became known as washi. At first it was mainly used for official record-keeping and Buddhist religious writings. Washi came to be used in Shinto religious rituals as well, and it became customary to wrap offerings to the gods, and many other things, in paper. Eventually people began to focus on particular ways to fold paper when wrapping gifts or offerings, and they developed formal folded ornaments to make the wrapping more attractive. During the Muromachi period (1338-1573) the Ogasawara and Ise families established various rules of etiquette, and formal folded ornaments became a requirement for proper wrapping. This tradition lives on today: paper is folded to make traditional ornaments called noshi, which adorn wrapped gifts, and butterfly-shaped folded paper ornaments called mecho and ocho are used in wedding ceremonies.
Quite apart from any rules of etiquette, people also eventually came to enjoy paper folding for its own sake - this is known as origami. Mass production of paper increased during the Edo period (1603-1868), making it easier for ordinary people to enjoy origami. The world's oldest book on origami, published in 1797, is titled Hiden Senbazuru Orikata (How to Fold a Thousand Cranes), which provides detailed instructions for folding paper cranes. During the Meiji period (1868-1912) origami began to be taught in kindergarten, as well as in elementary school manual arts and drawing classes, and became increasingly popular. Origami is now popular all over the world, and many groups of origami fans enthusiastically practice this craft.
Photos courtesy of Nippon Origami Association.