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Japanese Attitudes to Origami

Don Connell wondered why the members of the Japanese community were so reluctant to come to meetings of his origami society, known as TOFU. It may be just the ordinary reluctance we all have to do something new or to get involved or to emerge from our own cosy world. Dr. Solorzano experienced the same thing in Argentina in the early years of the 20th Century. There was a community of Japanese immigrants in Buenos Aires who formed their own origami society. Solorzano was also trying to form an origami group, but he found that the Japanese and Argentinian folders remained quite separate and did not forge any links between them. I get the impression, however, that Don felt there was more to it than just this and used the word "weird" in describing the attitude of his Japanese neighbours. I imagine "weird" is too strong a word. Perhaps "unexpected", or even "funny" in Lewis Carrols immortal phrase, "funny- peculiar" might be more appropriate.

We should be grateful to Deborah Foreman-Takano for her very interesting contribution in reply to Don. From her e-mail address, it appears that she lives in Japan and from her name, it seems she is at least part Japanese and accordingly in a very good position to view Japanese attitudes objectively. Her explanation of the three traditional levels in Japanese learning: SHU, HA and RI is very illuminating.

Many of us have met Japanese and, perhaps inevitably, the subject of Origami has come up. Usually our Japanese acquaintance has been able to fold the paper Crane, something learnt at primary school. But that is all. It is surprising how often I folded that cousin of the Crane, the Flapping Bird for Japanese (non-origami) friends, much to their surprise and delight!

As Westerners, we have learnt about the traditional system of Japanese apprenticeship in which the pupil attaches himself to a Master (Sensei) and becomes obedient to him for an indefinite period of time, spending perhaps many years doing menial tasks before being allowed to take up the particular art or craft. While a pupil may, after a long period, become a master in his own right, he never relinquishes his attachment to his master and is for ever his pupil, at an rate in spirit. This is the source of the possessive attitude that some of the older origami masters have had towards their former pupils, which has led to them to resentment and jealousy when their pupils have independently started teaching or publishing books of origami.

However, things have not stood still in Japan and attitudes and ways of associating in the context of origami have been changing for some forty years now, along with many other attitudes brought about by widespread communication with the West. Origami is not in any sense a rare pursuit for adults in Japan. In recent years there has been an enormous growth of interest in Origami in the United States, something not yet paralleled in Europe or other parts of the word . But until this rapid growth, the were many more paperfolders in Japan than in Western countries. NOA itself had far more members than any other Western country, except perhaps for Holland,and has regularly produced a sumptuous origami magazine finer than anything in the West. There are origami clubs or societies in many parts of Japan, and more recently Origami Tanteidan has been formed to cater for the mainly younger proponents of advanced technical folding. There have always been countless origami books for children published in Japan, but there have, in addition, been numerous, well-produced books on paperfolding for adults, covering every aspect of the art from advanced technical folding to modular folding and from the history of Origami to the geometry of folding. Public exhibitions of origami are commonplace in Japan and are organised both by origami societies and by individual folders. Perhaps the most outstanding demonstration of Japanese achievement in the field of Origami was the late lamented magazine "Oru". It is impossible to say that Origami has only an insignificant place in Japanese society.

The change in Japanese attitudes during the past forty years is well illustrated by the experience of Toshie Takahama. In 1965. She was a member of a Japanese party of paperfolders who visited New York for the New York World Fair. They were led by the distinguished Japanese master,Toyoaki Kawai, who was very much the leader with Mrs Takahama very much in the background. The group was entertained by Lillian Oppenheimer enabling the Japanese to meet American folders. Despite the fact that she spoke fluent English, Mrs. Takahama remained silent at the meeting, in accordance with Japanese etiquette. It was not her place to take any initiatives. But she could understand everything that was being said and made a mental note of everything. She quickly understood how different from the Japanese were the attitudes of American paperfolders, meeting in a free atmosphere and exchanging models and teaching on a basis of equal participation. When Mrs. Takahama returned to Japan, she decided to form an origami society of her own, following the lines of what she had seen in New York. So, in 1967, the Sosaku Origami Group 67 was formed, the first Western-style origami group in Japan. The Nippon Origami Association., which followed soon after had a different emphasis. It was formed by a group of businessmen and was a national group of pupils meeting at the feet of their Sensei.

Despite all this origami activity, attitudes to Origami in Japan have, so far as the general population is concerned, been ambivalent. Origami has never held the status of some other recreations or crafts such as ceramics, textiles, lacquer, doll-making and, interestingly, paper-making. Some Westerners have confidently believed that Akira Yoshizawa has been appointed Treasure". (Strictly speaking, the term is applied not to the craftsman, but to what he makes.). But this is not so. Origami does not hold sufficient official status in Japan for such an appointment to be considered. (Nevertheless, it should be pointed out that Yoshizawa has not gone unrecognised. He has been honoured in another way by appointment by the Emperor as a member of the Order of the Rising Sun.)

Even childrens Origami has not had unstinting support in the schools in Japan. Soon after the Second World War, Origami was removed from the official curriculum because, it was contended, it was not a creative art and did not stimulate the children sufficiently. This is a long-standing misunderstanding about paperfolding and it is true that if Origami is taught in an unimaginative way, it results in children merely following a rigid set of instructions to arrive at an inflexible result. The same criticism has been made in the West. It has even been enshrined in UNESCO recommendations, but it still comes as a surprise to find that the same ideas also apply in Japan.

Despite the strong tradition of childrens folding, which, in most peoples minds, dominated Japanese Origami until the 1950s, it is not true that until the advent of Akira Yoshizawa recreational Origami in Japan was solely a childrens recreation. Quite apart from the religious forms of paperfolding and the ceremonial use of paperfolding in the form of wrappers or tsutsumi and noshi, there have been two strands of origami in Japan, (three if the Froebelian folding introduced into Japanese schools towards the end of the 19th Century is included). Childrens Origami has (apart rom a few masterpieces like the Chinese Junk or Treasure Ship) always been simple, with a limited number of traditional forms and it has been, for the most part uncut. This tradition continues today in just the same way.

But parallel with childrens folding has been a different kind of paperfolding pursued by adults. The first evidence we have of this is in the Senbazuru Orikata (Folding the Thousand Cranes), a printed book dated to 1797. This is a book which demonstrates many ways of folding linked cranes from specially cut squares of paper. Of the same date and from the same school of folding came the Chushingura Orikata, not a book, but a printed sheet, which gave instructions for folding the personages from the popular play. Indications in the Chushingura Orikata suggest that other books in the same series as the Senbazuru Orikata may have been published, butm so far they have never come to light.

A later window on the world of adult Origami is seen in Kayaragusa (popularly known in the West as the Kan no mado), dating from around 1850. This is an encyclopaedia of over two hundred volumes in manuscript of which two of the volumes deal with both ceremonial and recreational Origami. The suggestion has been made that some of the folds may have come from the missing volumes of the Senbazuru Orikata school of folding and that Kayaragusa was a private collection of knowledge compiled by someone for his own private use.

The folding in all these sources is far from the familiar traditional childrens folding. It is much more complex. But its main characteristic is that it is heavily cut, much more so than anything that would be found acceptable by folders today.

Adult folding was carried on through the 19th Century and into the 20th Century. Kosho Uchiyama recalled that his grandmother, who was a lady-in- waiting, was a keen paper folder. He regretted that part of her collection of folds was destroyed in the Tokyo earthquake in 1923 and the remainder were destroyed as a result of bombing in the Second World War. However, when Kayaragusa came to light in the early 1960s, he was delighted to find that some of his grandmothers models were the same as in that book. There was clearly a long-lasting tradition of Japanese adult folding in the cut style.

Kosho Uchiyamas father, Michio Uchiyama published several books of origami. He followed the cut style of origami, which he called "kirokomi" using based where the paper was slashed or cut into deeply before folding. He argued that this method divided the paper into sections which could be separately folded. In fact, he contended, it saved paper. Michio had several styles of folding and in 1931 a book of his work titled "Origami Kyo Hon" was published by Naozo(?) Ishimi. It is mainly of Japanese figures resembling paper Hina dolls and once again, the squares of paper are heavily cut before folding.

Kosho Uchiyamas own first book, generally known as "Origami Zukan" was published in 1957, the year following the publication of Akira Yoshizawas "Origami Tokuhon 1". To some extent Uchiyama follows his fathers tradition of cut origami. However, the book also contains some uncut childrens origami and some forward looking new ideas, including an analysis of bases and a forerunner of the later uncut style of folding variously known as "box folding" or "box pleating". Origami Zukan seems to be for both adults and children and with its publication at the same time that Yoshizawas work was coming into prominence, we can se the old tradition of adult origami merging into the new.

Since the 1950s, Japanese Origami has changed, just as it has in the West. East and West have drawn closer together and we how have a shared tradition of Origami or Paperfolding. But we still retain our regional differences and Japanese Origami still has a characteristically different flavour from Western paperfolding. So, too, do Japanese folders differ from the folders of other countries. But, even if we must never underestimate them, the differences are one only of degree and we should be proud of the way our pastime brings together people from every corner of the World.

David Lister

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