Long ago, the Japanese learned how to use bark fiber from shrubs like kozo and gampi to make a thin but strong paper. The paper found its way into homes for fusuma sliding doors and byobu screens. A strong paper was required for this, so manufacturers developed techniques for placing the fibers in a number of layers. The paper could then be used to cover the empty spaces in the shoji sliding doors, to provide a degree of privacy while letting light through. Chochin lanterns and andon lamps, used widely from the late 12th century until the 17th century and later, also allow some light through the paper. The collapsible chochin lanterns required a paper strong enough to resist repeated folding and unfolding each time they were put away, then later used again. That type of paper, known as washi, would later be found suitable for origami, as well.
The four distinct seasons of Japan have long fostered different farming activities which, together with festivals associated with agriculture, marked significant events within the annual cycle. The events became associated with a culture emphasizing formality and good manners—for example, offerings to the gods were placed on formally folded paper, and festive objects were wrapped in paper in an established, formal manner. These practices, which we can assume began in ancient times, were later reflected in the formal manners and sense of decorum of the martial society of the Muromachi period (14th to 16th centuries). It was around this time that the custom of wrapping gifts beautifully in paper developed. The custom of formal decorative paper folding, called orikata or origata, is a foundation stone in the development of origami.
Orikata was widely practiced during and after the Muromachi period, spurred on especially by a book called Hoketsuki (“Wrapping and Tying”), published in 1764. It was written by Ise Sadatake, the head of the Ise Family, which advised the Shogunate government in Edo (today's Tokyo) on matters of etiquette. Another book, Senba-zuru Orikata (“Folding a Thousand Cranes”), written by the monk Rokoan in 1797, gave 49 methods for folding paper cranes so that they are linked together. It seems that orikata evolved into a common pastime for working class folk from the early 1700s to the mid-1800s, and this pastime developed into what we know today as origami.
During the latter half of the 1800s, many books based on Ise Sadatake's Hoketsuki were published, teaching orikata paper folding and tying techniques to an ever wider audience in ordinary homes. The boom was driven in part by texts and illustrations explaining how to make formal decorations, and by the books' obvious enthusiasm for Japan's folding culture.
Before long, origami designers appeared, publishing one book after another and making origami a popular pastime.
Our Nippon Origami Association, founded in 1973, unified the different symbols and terms that had once explained and illustrated origami techniques, and enthusiasts have since adopted the common vocabulary and iconography. We have sponsored 12 World Origami Exhibitions to date, and held many other exhibits in Japan and abroad.
The monthly magazine, Gekkan Origami, was launched in 1975. It still shows how to enjoy folding paper, and is contributing to the spread of origami worldwide.