Japanese American Traditions

Origami: The Art of Paper Folding

A favorite pastime for Japanese-American children (and adults!), origami is the Japanese name for the art of paper folding, which comes from the Japanese verb oru (to fold) and the noun, kami (paper). Although the origins of origami are not clear, it has been around for centuries. Simple designs were passed from generation to generation. It wasn’t until the 1950s and 1960s that origami really began to gain worldwide popularity with the establishment of an international origami circle, exhibitions of intricate origami works, and the publishing of many origami books that provided step-by-step instructions to a mass audience.

Growing up, many Japanese-American children learned early on to fold the complex design of a tsuru, or crane, a symbol of peace and hope in Japanese culture. A long-standing wedding tradition for the bride and her family is to fold 1,001 (gold) origami cranes to bring good luck, good fortune, longevity, fidelity, and peace to marriage. The origins of the orizuru (origami tsuru) used as a symbol of peace can be traced to a courageous 11-year-old, and her desire for worldwide peace.

In the mid-1950s, 11-year-old Sadako Sasaki developed leukemia or “atom bomb disease,” a result of her exposure to radiation as a baby during the atomic bombing of Hiroshima in 1945. Tradition held that if you made a senbazuru (a thousand paper cranes) and made a wish after completing each one, your wish would come true. Sadako set about making the tsuru, wishing for her own recovery, but as her health declined, she began to wish for world peace, so that children and adults alike would never have to suffer and die from the effects of war. She managed to fold 644 cranes before succumbing to leukemia; her school friends then completed the remaining cranes, and dedicated them to Sadako at her funeral. This story helped inspired the Children’s Peace Memorial in Hiroshima, and a statue of Sadako in Seattle. Each year on Peace Day (August 6), thousands of origami tsuru are sent to Hiroshima by children all over the world, in honor of Sadako’s efforts for world peace.

Today, origami is enjoyed worldwide by a diverse group of people as a way to express their creativity, or simply for the fun of it! The only requirement is a piece of paper, making it one of the most accessible arts. The standard “origami paper” is thin, strong, and holds a crease very well. It is usually white on one side and colored on the other side, and in some cases, dollar bills are used as “origami paper” for creating very imaginative gifts. In addition to the popular tsuru, paper folders enjoy folding turtles, frogs, flowers, and Hawaiian leis.

Below are some origami instruction books, as well as other origami-inspired items. Enjoy!

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