Since about the first century AD, the time when it is believed that paper was first invented in China, people have been folding paper into various shapes. The Chinese developed some simple forms, some of which survive down to this day. When the secret of paper was carried to Japan in the sixth century AD by Buddhist monks, it was quickly integrated into their culture. Paper was used in architecture and in the many rituals of everyday Japanese life and of the Shinto religion. In fact, the word for paper, kami, is a homonym for the word for spirit or god. The designs associated with Shintoist ceremony have remained unchanged over the centuries.
The Japanese transmitted their designs via an oral tradition, with the recreational designs being passed from mother to daughter. Because nothing was ever written down, only the simplest designs were kept. The first written instructions appeared in AD 1797 with the publication of the Senbazuru Orikata (How to Fold One Thousand Cranes). The Kan no mado (Window on Midwinter), a comprehensive collection of traditional Japanese figures, was published in 1845. The name origami was coined in 1880 from the words oru (to fold) and kami (paper). Previously, the art was called Orikata.
Meanwhile, paper folding was also being developed in Spain. Arabs brought the secret of paper making to North Africa, and, in the eight-century AD, the Moors brought that secret to Spain. The Moors were devoutly Muslim and their religion forbade the creation of representational figures. Instead, their paperfolding was a study of the geometries inherent in the paper. After the Moors were driven out of Spain during the Inquisition, the Spanish went beyond the geometric designs and developed papiroflexia, an art this is still popular in Spain and Argentina.
Modern creative paper folding (as opposed to repetitions of traditional designs) owes its existence to Akira Yoshizawa. Beginning in the 1930's, Yoshizawa has created tens of thousands of models of every conceivable subject. He, along with American Sam Randlett, is the originator of the system of lines and arrows that are used in paper folding instructions. Exhibitions of his work in the West in the 1950's inspired many Westerners to fold, and, by the mid 1960's, paper folding was developing as quickly in the West as in Japan. Today, Yoshizawa, aged 83, is a living treasure of Japan.
Today, master paper folders can be found in many places around the world. New and improved folding techniques have produced models that would have astounded the ancients. They still manage to astound many people today. Where once it was considered a feat to fold a representational insect that gave the impression of a segmented body and multiple legs, anatomically correct insects are now considered commonplace and the feat is to create insects that are of a recognisable species. Happily, not all paper folders have reduced paper folding to greater and greater achievements of technical skill. The artistry of paper folding is also flourishing.
Composition and paper choice plays an important role in this newfound artistry. Yoshizawa has also led the way in this area, producing fabulous displays that capture the life of his subjects, whether shown as a diorama, as a mobile, or in a shadow box. He has developed a technique known as backcoating that is the lamination of two layers of handmade mulberry paper (such as unryu or chiri) to produce a paper that is unparalleled for folding. Also, a technique known as wet folding, where a heavily sized paper is folded while wet, allows the folder to sculpt his model into soft curves and 3D forms.
Origami has become a very popular pastime, not only in Japan, which has special shows on how to make certain models, but also in the western world, as forms of therapy and relaxation for stressed people and also mental patients.

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