It is commonly know that origami originated from either Japan or China. Except that this is not true. The truth is that we actually do not know, where the idea of folding a paper and turning it into an object came from.
Creation of paper
The first rough paper was made in China somewhere around 200 BC, but it wasn’t until around 100 AD that the paper became fine and suitable for writing. When paper was introduced into Japan a couple of hundred years later around 550 AD, they immediately created a better version, which is so typical of the Japanese.
So, we know when paper was created, but we don’t actually know when people started folding it. Some people argue that paper was still very expensive at this point in history and therefor not suitable for folding. Others argue that there must have been some bits and pieces of paper laying around, which would have encouraged people to start folding it into figures. All of this however is mere speculation and we do not actually have any proof.
We have no records of recreational paperfolding, which we today know as ‘origami’, from Japan until mid 17th Century. However, when paperfolding finally emerged, it was a very developed craft and it is therefor argued that it must have an earlier history. It could reasonably have been a craft developed from before the 1600th.
When thinking of Origami many people associate it with Asia, but the art of paperfolding has actually been found in Europe, just as early as it has in Japan. The first evidence for folding in Europe is perhaps the patterns of the diagram used for horoscopes in Europe from the 12th century.
There also appears to be illustrations of paper boats in a book published in Venice in 1490 and later in 1614, an English play mentioned the paper fly-trap, which today’s paperfolders may know as ‘the waterbomb’.
Napkin folding, which is closely related to paperfolding using many of the same techniques, also became very fashionable in the aristocratic society in Italy before the 1600th.
Paper folding has actually a long history in not only Asia but also in Europe. Therefor the question is, whether folding in the East influenced the folding in Europe or vice versa. Or whether the separate regions of the world actually developed this craft simultaneously with each other.
Origami and Lillian Oppenheimer
Today, the art of paperfolding is most commonly know as ‘origami’, which is the Japanese name for paperfolding. It therefor also encourages the belief that origami originated therefrom. But there is actually a lot of reason to why, this name became the standard name of this craft.
In the 19th Century Japanese paperfolding was way more advanced than that of in other countries. For example were figures like the ‘The Flapping Bird’ and ‘Jumping Frog’ introduced into Europe and North America around 1870 by Japanese conjurers. Before this Japan had been a closed country, but with the opening of her frontiers in 1854 the rest of the world became exposed to the advanced world of origami.
Lillian Oppenheimer was on the lookout for an attractive word for paperfolding in 1957 and when she opened the Origami Center in October in New York the very next year, her decision had fallen of the Japanese one. From this point on paperfolding became commonly known as origami and books upon the subject soon streamed in from Japan to the Western world with the name ‘origami’ in the title, which further reinforced Oppenheimer’s choice of this word. This naturally supported the misconception that paperfolding originated from Japan, which is simply not true.
Later in the 1960s, when the English Dictionaries first introduced the word ‘origami’ into their volumes, they defined it as the Japanese art of paperfolding. From then on the deal was set, because who doesn’t believe the information they receive from their brick of a dictionary? What brings even more ridicule to the story, is that the word ‘origami’ was actually first used in Japan around 1890. The word itself is therefor not nearly as old as the craft itself, and the major reason for its fame is due to a choice one woman made a couple of decades ago.