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Origami in Schools in Japan and the West

Marilyn, (Abbmackdes) has, this morning, 19th March, drawn our attention to a very interesting web site about the blind Japanese folder, Saburo Kase. I had the pleasure to meet Mr. Kase at the first Conference on Origami in Education and Therapy at Birmingham in England in 1991 (COET '91). He is a remarkable folder and a remarkable man.

Marilyn reproduces an excerpt from a web page (which was not written by Mr. Kase) which attributes the suppression of origami in Japanese schools after 1945 to the American General MacArthur, who is alleged to have taken the view that origami merely trained children to follow rules and to behave in uniform ways, instead of developing liberal democratic attitudes.

I find it difficult to believe that General MacArthur personally took any interest in origami or in its educational effects. This is not to say that he did not wield enormous power in post-war Japan. He was the guiding architect of the new Japan and had the good sense to retain the Emperor, but as a constitutional monarch instead of as an absolute monarch. Without his foresight, Japan could hove lost much more of her traditional character than she has done. During my visits to Japan, I have been very impressed by the way the Japanese have preserved as much as possible of their traditions while developing into one of the most advanced industrial nations in the world.

Nor do I believe that it was because of General MacArthur that schools in the United States also came to look with disfavour on paperfolding (as it was then known in the West until around 1958).

It will be recalled that paperfolding was introduced into schools throughout the world in the latter part of the 9th century - in Europe, in South America, in Great Britain, in North America and in Japan, where the first Froebel kindergartens were opened in the 1880s and soon spread throughout the country. Friedrich Froebel, the German educator and one-time disciple of Pestalozzi at first looked upon paperfolding as a means of teaching simple geometry. It is not known precisely what part he personally took in encouraging paperfolding as an artistic craft, but after his death in 1852 his followers were actively advocating not only mathematical paperfolding (Folds of Truth), but also, by way of introduction to folding, the traditional European children's folds (Folds of Life) and also the folding of what we should now call blintzed patterns (Folds of Beauty). The blintzed patterns were seen as encouraging artistic creativity in children.

So, paperfolding in schools spread throughout the world with varying degrees of success. Unfortunately, many later teachers did not understand the rationale of Froebelian ideas of paperfolding and came to teach it mechanically. Without proper understanding quickly it became a mere repetitious following of pre-set patterns, devoid of the intended creativity.

In Japan, the Froebel folding merged with and were eclipsed by Japanese traditional origami because Japan it had a much richer repertoire of traditional folds than the West. Nevertheless, the "blintzed patterns" were also practised in Japanese kindergartens and several albums containing collections of them still exist in Japan.

The tragedy of the situation was that in both the west and in Japan, the Froebel movement and other schools that copied Froebelian principles entirely missed the possibility of the folding by children of new creations in the style of the traditional models (or "Folds of Life"). Creation of new folds in the style of the Folds of Life (the sort of creative folding most of us pursue) did not really get started, even among adults until Unamuno in Spain in the first years of the 20th century and Yoshizawa in Japan in the 1940s began to devise their own designs. Yoshizawa called this "Origami Sosaku" or "Creative Paperfolding"

The heyday of paperfolding in schools was from 1880 to 1914. Already, by then, paperfolding, as it came to be taught in practice was thought to be stilted, repetitive, uncreative and was not considered to be worth its place in the school curriculum. The new cry was for "self expression". Consequently, in the West, from 1918, there was a sharp decline in the employment of paperfolding in schools. Other art and crafts such as painting and modelling in clay took its place. Even so, Margaret Campbell's book, "Paper Toy Making" was published by Sir Isaac Pitman and Son Ltd., the educational publishers in London in 1937. It also seems that paperfolding continued to be favoured in Japanese schools, because its links with the Froebel movement had been eclipsed by the native tradition for origami that had been transferred from the home into the school.

There can be no doubt that American educators under the general supervision of General Macarthur and the occupying administration influenced Japanese education after the Second World War. It would be very surprising if they did not. But the exclusion of origami from schools is unlikely to have been a decree of General Macarthur. He may have been concerned to exclude militancy from schools, but origami hardly came within this remit. The very strong educational principle of "free expression" had already been affecting Japanese schools and teachers since some yers before the Second World War. This was not so much a political as an educational issue. In the Kodensha Encylopedia of Japan, Akira Yoshizawa wrote that "In the beginning of the Showa period [that is during the reign of Emperor Hirohito, which lasted from 1926 until 1989] creativity came to be emphasised in Japanese education and origami was criticised because children were required to handle the paper in standardised ways".

The disrepute of paperfolding in schools throughout the world increased after the end of the Second World War in 1945 and even UNESCO began to take an interest

In the Origamian for autumn, 1963, Yoshizawa wrote:

"In 1954, UNESCO's International Study Conference on Arts and Crafts in Education decided against including origami in its list of educational arts programs. This isn't really surprising when you consider that origami in those days was only an endless repetition of the old traditional figures."

He also added: "Curiously the Japanese people still think of origami as a sort of plaything for children, while paperfolding circles are being formed by university students and their professors in other lands, to say nothing of origami centers. I fear that origami may some day be more popular abroad than at home in Japan."

In writing this, Yoshizawa was being at the same time too pessimistic and too optimistic. He was too pessimistic about origami in Japan. Even as he wrote new generation of creative folders was emerging which was soon to seize the new techniques of western folders such as Fred Rohm and Neal Elias and bring Japan back to the front rank of creative and innovative paperfolding. On the other hand, up to the present, paperfolding cannot realistically be seen to have developed in schools to the extent that he hoped.

The successful teaching of origami in schools depends upon skilled and enthusiastic teachers. Unfortunately the average, ordinary schoolteacher does not have these special skills. The teachers' colleges do not teach origami and it is not a skill that can be picked up in a few minutes by skimming through the pages of a book before a lesson. Only where individual teachers or outside visitors who have developed their skills in origami (and their skills in teaching origami) can an enthusiasm for origami be communicated to the children. Fortunately, there is a slowly increasing number of such teachers, but they remain in a small minority.

This is nothing to do with the potential that children have for creative origami. In the 1970s, Robert Harbin presented origami in the last of his series of television programmes on British Independent Television and children began to send him models that they had themselves created. The number of excellent models that were sent to him by children down to the age of six or less astonished him. They were shown in his television programmes and became a regular feature of the magazine, "TV Times". In 1977 Robert Harbin published a collection of these folds in a book with the title, "Have Fun with Origami". This book vividly demonstrates what a great opportunity the Froebelian paperfolders missed when they failed to perceive that the creative process could be applied to the Folds of Life.

Nevertheless, all the folds sent to Robert Harbin were created by the children at home and not at school. Creation in paperfolding requires time and private contemplation, things that are not readily available at school. Even such a creative folder as the late Eric Kenneway, an artist and a schoolteacher, found difficulty with the idea of teaching origami in schools. In his Profile of Eric in the Origamian for spring, 1972 John Smith gives an account of Eric's views on Origami in schools. Eric was trying to find crafts suitable for teaching and it was this that led him to write to Lillian Oppenheimer at the Origami Center in New York. He soon found himself fascinated by and then personally involved in creative origami. However, he still did not consider origami to be a craft suitable for use in school. He said: "I do not think origami has a place in an art and craft course in the way it is taught at present - i.e. everyone copies what teacher does. Apart from being hard work, teaching this way, there is only one level of success in origami. In origami there is a certain level of manual ability required. If a child does not have this, his model will be clumsily folded and a badly folded model in origami is useless."

But Eric also added: "Folding in small groups with able children for fun is all right." He went on to ask if some new way of exploring origami could be found - perhaps by setting a subject for free folding straight away, and then the teacher introducing procedures such as sinking, reverse folding etc. along the way as a means of overcoming specific obstacles the pupils have encountered.

Whether or not General Macarthur was personally implicated in criticising origami in Japanese schools, the history of teaching origami in schools does show that there are problems to overcome before paperfolding can be An effective part of the standard curriculum in all schools. Many enthusiastic paperfolders, teachers and lay visitors to schools are trying to show the way, but we will need to gain a proper understanding of just what is involved if paperfolding is to thrive in the formal education of children. From our experience with individual children and small, dedicated groups we know that 0rigami has exceptional and divers merits in education. It is the hope of us all that origami will develop and prosper as a force in eduction.

David Lister Grimsby, England.

   
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