James Minoru Sakoda 1916-2005
I am sure that I am only one among hundreds of paper folders who are deeply saddened to read the news that James Sakoda died on 12th June 2005 at the age of 89. I am amazed to read that he was aged 89 because he seemed much younger and was certainly young in spirit. Unlike many paperfolders in the academic world, he did not have a mathematical background. He was survived by his wife, Hettie and his son, Bill.
James Minoru Sakoda was born of Japanese parents who were immigrants to the United States. He gives an outline of his background on pages 16 and 17 of his book "Modern Origami". The family lived in Los Angeles. His parents tried to ensure that he did not lose his Japanese culture and in addition to attending ordinary school, James was sent to a Japanese language school and also to a Buddhist Sunday School, He recalls that he learnt things like judo and also some of the traditional origami figures of origami. When he was seventeen he was sent to Japan for six years, returning to the United States to work for his BA degree at the University of California. During the War, like other Americans of Japanese origin, he was coinfined to "relocation centers" in California and Idaho. Continuing his studies at the University of California, he was awarded his Ph D in 1949.
By 1952, James became an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Connecticut, where the head of the department was Weston Bousefield. Bousefield's father had been a missionary in China, where he had become interested in paperfolding and passed on the interest to Weston, who, in turn passed on the interest to James Sakoda.. It should be remembered that this was before Akira Yoshizawa came to the notice of the Japanese people through the publication of his models in the picture magazine Asahi Graf in January 1952. It was before the exhibition of Yoshizawa's paperfolding at the exhibition organised by Gershon Legman in Amsterdam in the autumn of 1955, and long before the foundation of the Origami Center in New York in 1958. James increased his knowledge of paperfolding from paperfolding books. Just a few such books were available, including "Fun with Paper" by Joseph Leeming (1939) and "The Art of Chinese Paperfolding" (1948) by Maying Soong, who was herself an immigrant from China. "Paper Toy Making" by the South African Margaret Campbell (1937) was still in print in England and may have been available in the United States.
James Sakoda wrote that he began to create models in 1955, when he designed a four-pointed star, followed by an eight-pointed star. By unfolding and refolding this he found he could make several animals including a Pegasus, an angelfish, a camel, a seal and a kitten
In 1962, James moved to Brown University in Rhode Island, where he became a Professor of Sociology and Anthropology. He became involved with computers early and taught computer programming and statistics. He remained at Brown University until he retired in 1981, but after his retirement he remained close to his university and was awarded the title of Professor Emeritus.
All the time, James maintained his interest in Origami. It is not known when James first came into contact with the Origami Center, and he is not mentioned in the early issues of the Origamian. However, the issue of the Origamian for Winter, 1964 has a report that he attended what was called "The Second Origami Convention", which was held at the Origami Center (Lillian Oppenheimer's own home) in New York on 31st October and 1st November, 1964. The report states that he taught his six-legged insect which was folded from a blintzed bird base folded off-center, so that the legs emerged in series rather than from the same spot.
Obviously, James Sakoda made a big impact at the convention because the same issue of the Origamian features a long profile of him, withm a photograph and information about how he came to develop his models. The Profile also gives his views on cutting and origami (a topic which had recently been recently raised by Fre Rohm) and James's recent preference for using metal foil for folding. (He was also a keen advocate of the artificial paper, "Forbon" for folding.) The centre pages of the same issue of the Origamian include folding instructions for his Eight-Pointed Star and a Star-based Owl.
A young friend of the Origami Center was Martha Carnog (who was in her younger days known as Mardee). Mardee is mentioned several times in the early issues of the Origamian and by now she had become a student at Brown University. In a letter to the editor, she relates how she had plucked up the courage to get in touch with Professor Sakoda. To he delight, although she was a very junior member of the University, James was happy to meet her for a session of folding. In a letter to the Origamian, Mardee gave an enthusiastic account of James's folding, although she admitted that she did not find at all easy.
In 1967, James entered the first International Paper Airplane Contest. The competition to fold paper aircraft was divided into several sections and James won the competition for an origami plane.
James's early experience with computers continued after he retired. He was firmly wedded to the Mac and quickly took up the challenge of diagramming models on the computer. He experimented with Coral Draw and Coral Paint which enabled him to compile his bi-monthly news sheet, "MacOrigami". This formed the greater part of his contributions to Fold, but he also produced other separate copies for distribution to other paperfolders.
I first "met" James though the private collaborative origami magazine "FOLD" in 1987. We we used to conduct our discussions about the history and other aspects of Origami. He had the great advantage over me in that he could read Japanese and put me right on many matters. The one that I best remember is that he pointed out that there were two kinds of "Chinese" Junk" and two ways of folding it. The Western way had two blunt ends and was quite cumbersome, but the Japanese way of folding what was called a "Treasure Ship" was elegantly pointed at one end. At that time I had not yet managed to acquire a copy of Kosho Uchiyama's "Origami Zukan" which was published in 1958, the year following Yoshizawa's "Origami Dokuhon of 1957. and. James sent me a photocopy of the pages which included the Treasure Ship. In that way he not only taught me about the different kinds of Chinese Junk, but he also taught me how to compare and contrast the two great Japanese masters of the mid-century revolution in origami.
Always meticulous, James recorded his origami discoveries in a diary that he kept. He compiled extracts from them in his "Origami Diary" and his "Origami Diary 2" which he printed and bound himself and generously presented to his friends. However, his main origami book was "Modern Origami" which was first published by Simon and Schuster of New York in 1969. A revised edition was published by Dover Publications in 1997. The book clearly illustrates the somewhat angular style that he adopted which contrasted to Yoshizawa's moulded style and use of wet-folding.
Later, James turned he attention to a completely new style of origami which he termed "Hikari-Ori", which means "Shining Light Folding". He introduced it in May, 1979 and he said that his object was to follow cubist philosophies of art. For this he usually used foil paper, which he creased into geometrical patterns, in some ways resembling tessellations. His object was to form faceted surfaces of the paper which would reflect the light in different and interesting ways. He would suspend them from a height and as the folded sheet revolved in the draught, it would reveal a constantly varying pattern of light and sh ade. His ambition was that it should be regarded as an art form.
Very different was his interest in folding flowers and he issued "Origami Flower Arrangement in1992. This is a compendium of the art of folding origami flowers and includes folding stems, leaves and flowers. Not least, the book contained a chapter which amounted to an introduction to Ikebana, the art of Japanese flower arrangement. The book was revised and republished by Dover Publications with the title "Origami Flowers" in 1999.
I came to meet James several times at origami conventions, most notably at New York in 1955 and at the Second Meeting of Origami Science at Otsu in Japan in November, 1994, where I remember him setting up his display of his Hikari-Ori
It was about this time that Fold ceased publication and after that my contacts with James were subsequently fewer although we still occasionally exchanged e-mail. A few months ago I heard that he was not so well and it came as shock to hear that he had died.
James was fortunate to be inspired in paperfolding by Weston Bousefield, although it doesn't appear that Weston's link to China was the main inspiration for James's folding. This came from the familiar books which were available in the United States. It cannot be said that any of them were very inspired, but it became clear that James had an inventive mind and that he made his own vital contribution to the development of modern origami. Poised between his Japanese background and his Westernised culture he was ideally placed for making a vital contribution to Origami when Yoshizawa's innovations became available through the Origami Center, James Sakoda was uniquely placed to build his own bridges between the paperfolding of the East and the West and he made a great contribution to the development of modern origami..
12th July, 2005Back to the index