March 14th saw the 115th birthday of Akira Yoshizawa, widely recognized as origami’s one and only grandmaster. Yoshizawa was responsible for innovative techniques that brought unparalleled realism to the craft, and for the standard diagram notation that you see in instructional booklets today.When we think of artists today, we think of individuals attempting to shock and awe with stunning exhibitions, or bizarre figurations. But Akira Yoshizawa represented art at its most pure–free of profit, miniscule in scale, magnificent in meaning.
Akira Yoshizawa’s Misunderstood Art
It was 1959 when Akira Yoshizawa had an open exhibition at the Japan Center in New York. Yoshizawa had published two books already, and had numerous successful exhibits in Japan. However, worldwide interest in origami had not quite solidified yet. During the exhibition, visitors somehow mistook his models as free souvenirs. Before anyone could intervene, the entire display had disappeared in the hands of strangers. The incident speaks volumes about the importance and strangeness of origami, as Yoshizawa practiced it. Its humility and elegance was baffling, incomprehensible to these Western tourists. After all, how could mere folds transform paper from common trash to priceless craft?
It takes a lot to appreciate what it means to devote yourself to an art that no one else recognized as art, and that no one outside your culture knew existed. Akira Yoshizawa was born to a dairy-farming family. He pursued origami in his youth and in his 20s while working in a machine factory. With the help of night classes, he attained a position as a draftsman for the same factory. There, he used origami to demonstrate geometric principles to new employees. Both his work and his art impressed Yoshizawa’s employers, who didn’t seem to mind his practicing folds during business hours. Yoshizawa left at the age of 26 to pursue origami full-time and supported himself by selling fermented tsukudani side dishes door-to-door.
Onto the World Stage
While serving in the military’s medical corps during World War II, Yoshizawa continued to practice origami. In the hospital quarters, he created pieces to soothe and distract the ailing soldiers. After the war, Yoshizawa didn’t get his break until 1952. The graphic magazine Asahi Graph took notice of his work and commissioned a series of pieces based upon the zodiac animals. The magazine set him up in a hotel and bought him clothes so he could change out of his army uniform, his only outfit at the time. After he worked day and night to finish the pieces, the issue was published. And the world finally took note of Akira Yoshizawa, soon to be the most renowned origami craftsman of his time.
He eventually lifted himself out of complete poverty with Atarashi Origami Geijutsu (New Origami Art) in 1954, the first book to use the Yoshizawa-Randlett notation. Even if the name doesn’t sound familiar to you, anyone who’s followed origami directions has seen them. They use a variety of curved arrows, solid lines, and dotted lines to indicate the many folding techniques required in origami. Up until that point, there was no standard notation for origami visual diagrams, certainly none that achieved the elegance of Akira Yoshizawa’s system. He went on to found the International Origami Center in Japan, and was eventually sponsored by the Japan Foundation to travel and teach origami worldwide as a cultural ambassador.
Aside from his eponymous diagram notation, Yoshizawa was also known for inventing the technique of wet folding. This involves wetting the paper beforehand in order to give the folds a more organic, rounded feel. Such a relatively simple innovation allowed origami to achieve new levels of realism, and quickly came into use by successive artisans.
Akira Yoshizawa reportedly made over 50,000 pieces without the use of scissors or glue. As a trained Buddhist priest, he took care to pray before every folding session. None of his pieces were ever sold; he only ever gave them away as gifts, or lent them out for exhibition. Origami never ceased to be a thing of beauty for Yoshizawa, something to be shared but never exploited.