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Isao Honda

This is a copy of the Obituary of Isao Honda which I wrote following the death of Honda during the summer of 1975. It appeared in British Origami no. 56 in February, 1976. It is offered as an interim source of information about Isao Honda pending my proposed further article about him. I have still not been able to discover the date Honda died and shall be grateful if any reader can give me this information.

David Lister.
27th October, 2005-10-27


Isao Honda

With the death of Isao Honda which has recently been announced, the world of origami has lost the doyen of its members, a man whose grandmother was born in 1840 (so giving us links with paperfolding in a comparatively remote period) and who was himself forging cultural links between Japan and the West before the First World War.

Isao Honda was born of an ancient Samurai family in Tokyo on 29th February 1888 (some references give 1885, but the later date seems to be correct). He attended high school in Tokyo, leaving school in 1905. Then in 1908 he travelled to France to study printing techniques, where he stayed for four years. In addition to his studies of printing, Honda studied Western-style painting at the Academie Julien in Paris and also for a time in London at an art school run by a Mr. Cove.

Isao Honda had learnt traditional ceremonial folding from his mother and, no doubt, recreational folds as well, for he would fold for children he met in Europe. He has also told of an occasion when his host at a dinner party in France asked him how the Japanese folded their dinner napkins. At the time the Japanese did not even use napkins, so he covered up by adapting some of his paper folds and created a great impression.

At the end of his four years in France and England, Honda toured other European countries and returned home by way of China. In Japan he took up design and made a name for himself. Then in 1920, he and a friend opened a high school for girls, with Honda himself as head of arts and crafts. Honda had by now developed a particular interest in paper-folding and in 1931 he published his first book, which is listed in Legman's Bibliography of Paper-Folding as "Origami Pt. 1". Honda claimed to have written three books in Japanese, but the only other one we appear to have noticed in the West is "Origami Shuko". Something of a mystery attaches to this book which in any case is very rare, because most copies were destroyed as a result of bombing during the war. Even Honda himself declared that he no longer possessed a copy. There is confusion about the date of publication: the book itself bears the date 1944, but Honda repeatedly said that it was published in 1941. Many of the models in the book are the traditional folds which are familiar to us from his English books, but there is a section of two-piece models (of the kind which also occupy a large proportion of his English books). Honda steadfastly claimed these as his own, but each one has the name of Yoshizawa printed by it. Honda did indeed claim Yoshizawa as his pupil, but went on to denigrate his work as employing curved lines. (Is this possible in plane folding?) and being so complicated that only Yoshizawa could fold them - and therefore not true origami. Yoshizawa countered by publicly accusing Honda of copying his models, and by claiming that he taught Honda paper-folding. The peacock with the pleated tail became a particular point of contention, but Honda steadfastly and unambiguously maintained that this was his own model.

Honda has said that after the Second World War he spent a great deal of time and effort in gathering traditional and ancient origami material from all over Japan.

His first books in English (including "Origami: Penguin Book" 1957 and "Origami: Monkey Book" 1958) were published under the nominal auspices of the Toto Origami Club of Tokyo, but it is said that this was merely a publishing convention. Certainly the same models were repeated in later books published under Honda's own name, for published they were, and in abundance. They number no less than eighteen titles and it is possible that there are others. Unfortunately the number of titles is not indicative of the creativeness of the author for the same folds are repeated over and over again. The whole are summarised in "All About Origami" (1960) and in Honda's magnum opus "The World of Origami" (1965).

Perhaps the most important of Honda's books in English was "Noshi", published in 1964. This is the only treatment of Japanese folding in English which can in any sense be described as adequate although even this book does not remove all obscurity from a very introverted and esoteric subject. Perhaps this is merely indicative of the gulf between Eastern and Western ways of thought.

Apart from his paper-folding books, Honda also published two lively books in English on paper-cutting (called "mon-kiri" not "kiri-gami"). Related to these is a more serious book entitled "Monsho", about "mon", which are the Japanese equivalent of European coats of arms, one of the few books dealing with this subject in English.

Writers of books on paper-folding may be divided into those who create new folds and initiate new techniques, and those who popularise the art. Honda was firmly one of the latter group and it is significant that he did not look upon himself as a creative folder, but rather as one who collected together an ancient recreation and passed it on to others. No-one has excelled his books in the art of colourful and attractive presentation, with their actual folded examples used as illustrations. "How to Make Origami" (1961) is an outstanding example.

The development of modern origami does not spring from Isao Honda: the movement has other roots in Japan as well as in Europe and North and South America, but his books came to Europe and America at just the right time. They provided a background for other developments, stimulated interest and attracted new followers. Above all Isao Honda showed the world that paper-folding was not limited to a routine dozen or so traditional folds and he opened Western eyes to undreamed of vistas. Perhaps by deliberately employing the Japanese word "origami" in the titles of his English books, Honda popularised in Western languages the very name of "origami" by which the traditional pastime of paper-folding came to be identified when it emerged from its chrysalis as a new art form. We may all be grateful that Honda lived to see this day.

David Lister

February, 1976.

   
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