Akira Yoshizawa: The grandfather of origami

Akira Yoshizawa: The grandfather of origami

Akira Yoshizawa, the 'grandfather of origami,' is acknowledged all over the world for the skill of his folding and elevation of origami from a children's craft to a form of figurative art.

Akira Yoshizawa peacock Photo by Peter Engel

Yoshizawa has published 18 books of origami and is said to have created more than 50,000 models.

He introduced new techniques such as wet folding, which gave models a more sculpted look and also established the Yoshizawa-Randlett folding notation—a standard system of arrows and dotted lines speakers of any language could understand.

Yoshizawa's work is realistic and detailed, but what's most striking about it is the movement. His models are so lifelike you almost expect them to start moving. His fans admire him most for his ability to create such movement and energy in his models, as well as the creativity of his designs.

Most of his models are inspired by the world of nature. He made fish, birds, animals, plants and even landscapes. A few of his most notable creations include a lifelike gorilla complete with sunken eyes, peacocks with no feather detail left out, and a tiny elephant so small it could fit on top of a thimble. He once spent over six weeks trying to figure out how to create an ear of rice for a landscape to be used in an exhibition in Spain.

Black Swan origami by Akira Yoshizawa Photo by Tuan Nguyen Tu

As a child, Yoshizawa loved origami. He moved from his family's dairy farm to Tokyo to find work in a factory when he was 17. He was soon promoted to the position of technical draftsman where he would use origami to visually illustrate geometric concepts when teaching junior employees.

At age 26, he quit his job in order to devote his life to origami. For the next two decades, he lived in total poverty, taking jobs selling dried fish door to door in order to survive. His hard work paid off in 1951 when his work was published in an issue of Asahi Graph.

Spring origami

This was accompanied by a showing of his work at the Toden Service Center in Ginza, which was the first time that his work was widely seen by the public. He became an instant celebrity and by the mid-1950s had his first international art show at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam.

Because he was able to travel around the world showing his work, he began to serve as a kind of goodwill ambassador for the government of Japan. He was given the Order of the Rising Sun, one of the greatest honors for a Japanese citizen, by Emperor Hirohito in 1983.

Akira Yoshizawa died in 2005, exactly 7 years ago, from complications related to pneumonia at age 94. To commemorate what would have been his 101st birthday, a Google doodle was put online made with each letter turned into a little origami piece in his honor.