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Origins of the Sonobe Module

Florence Temko has written to me, asking about the Sonobe Module, which I mentioned in my posting about the visit of the Japanese folders to New York at the time of the New York World Fair in 1965. (Incidentally, the 'World Fair also continued into the next year, 1966). Florence said she always thought that Toshie Takahama created "Toshie's Jewel" and that it later became known as the unit for the Sonobe Cube. I wrote about the Sonobe Module last April, but it was in a private e-mail in response to an Enquirer and I do not think I posted it to the list. At Florence's request, I am now sharing it with Origami-L. As always, I shall greatly value any corrections or added information. I should still like to know more about the actual origins of the Sonobe Module.

Thank you for your e-mail received this morning asking about the origin of the Sonobe Module. I wish I could give you a precise answer, but I regret that while I do not think there is any doubt at all that Mitsunobu Sonobe originated the module attributed to him, I have never been able to find any authoritative statement that he certainly did so. I have been making a study of early modular folding and this is one of the biggest gaps in my knowledge of the subject.. The Sonobe module first came to my attention through its use by Toshie Takahama in her fold known as "Toshie's Jewel". Three Sonobe modules are fitted together to form a hexahedron which then squashes in with a satisfying popping action to make the jewel.

I suppose that I first saw it in the 1970s at a British Origami Society convention. The Jewel appears in Toshie Takahama's "Creative Life with Creative Origami" Volume I (published in 1974), which I bought soon after publication. She makes a number of these jewels and strings them together to make a necklace or a wall hanging.. The Jewel also appears in other books by Toshie and it was thought at the time that Toshie herself had invented the basic module. In her books, as far as I know, there is no attribution to Sonobe of the module she used but, of course, Toshie's books are in Japanese and I can't read Japanese, so I can't be definite that nothing is said. At that time, modular folding had scarcely begun to develop, so little attention was paid to the constituent module for the Jewel.

The first publication I have found of the Sonobe module, so far, is in the second of the seven magazines issued by the Sosaku Origami Group 67, which bears the date 1968. It was probably published in the second part of that year. On pages 10 and 11, instructions are given for folding a cubic box made from six classic Sonobe modules. The same cube appears in other, later books by Sonobe and in books by him jointly with Toshie Takahama. The caption to the drawing of the finished model has the words in English: "Finished model By Sonobe Mitsunobu". However it still leaves unanswered the question whether Sonobe was the originator of the module itself or merely created the composite cube from a pre-existing module..

In the summer of 1965, the Japanese folder Toyoaki Kawai had led a group of folders to visit New York for the New York World Fair. Mrs. Toshie Takahama, who spoke English was a very junior member of the group. Lillian Oppenheimer entertained the group at a meeting of the Origami Center at her home. Toshie said little, but noticed much and she was very impressed by the free association of folders in a western members' society, which contrasted sharply with the master and pupil relationship in existing Japanese groups. When she returned home to Japan, she made at least two attempts to from a similar society in Japan and the most successful of these was the Sosaku Origami Group 67. Among the members of the group were Mitsunobi Sonobe and Kunihiko Kasahara. It can truly be said that this small group transformed Japanese origami.

Because of their membership of the group, Toshie Takahama and Mitsunobu Sonobe were closely associated and they went on to write a series of elementary origami books under their joint names. Disappointingly, however, none of these books contains anything further using the Sonobe Module. Sonobe also wrote several books of his own, but, again, these were quite elementary and didn't use the module. So far as I can see, therefore, Sonobe himself made very little constructive use of his module.

There may, of course, be models by him which I have not seen or which have not been published. One of the first accounts of modular origami, is by Alice Gray of the Origami Center, whose article "On Modular Origami" appears in The Origamian volume 13, no 3 which was published in June 1976. It is clear from the article that modular origami was then only in its earlier stages of development. Toshie Takahama's Jewel is mentioned as an outstanding example, without any mention that the basic module was by Sonobe. In fact, Alice seems to think that the module was by Toshie. Interestingly, Alice Gray continues: "It was Steve Krimball, a pupil of Ray Cooker's and only 17 years old at the time, who first perceived the possibilities of Toshie's module. By simply reversing the direction, and sometimes changing the angle, of one crease, he gave the element a new and amazing versatility. Steve's most impressive construction is a 30-piece ball. I saw it at Rae's house, and in attempting to duplicate it arrived at other constructions before achieving success. Apparently my experience is typical: I know of at least three other folders who have shared it. You cannot play with that module without becoming creative, whether you want to or not".

It seems evident that the great blossoming of modular origami can be dated to around 1976 and that Steve Krimball, who developed the Sonobe module and its use was one of the main catalysts. Following it there was a huge development of modular origami, much being based on the Sonobe module and variants of it. I was not myself very interested in modular folding, but I became more directly interested in Toshie's Jewel when Mark Kennedy mentioned it in the issue of FOLD no. 15 for September to October, 1987. (FOLD was a private collaborative origami magazine having twenty members.). The Jewel was subsequently mentioned several times in later issues of FOLD and there was some effort to discover its source.

Another Member of FOLD was Michael Naughton and a few years later, beginning with FOLD 55, issued in June 1994, he wrote a series of contributions about the Sonobe module and its variants. The origami community had come to recognise the merits of the Sonobe module and the name "Sonobe Module" was in general use. By now, it had become a major part of the currency of modular folding. Elementary modular folding had existed since as long ago as the 18th Century, and there were even modules created by the Froebelian folders in the later 19th century with new experiments by folders such as Robert Neale and even Akira Yoshizawa in the 1950s and 1960s. However, it was only with the popularisation of the Sonobe module itself that the real beginning of modern modular origami can be dated. I am inclined to think that Sonobe really was the originator of the module, even if I still lack final confirmation. If he really did discover the basic Sonobe module, Mitsunobu Sonobe made one of the very greatest contributions to modern origami. It is most unfortunate that his achievement should be so poorly documented. I will continue to look out for more information. If you yourself can add anything, fill in any details or tell me where I have gone wrong, please let me know. I am particularly anxious to know more about the work of Steve Krimball and also about another Japanese modular folder of the 1970s called Norishige Te

David Lister. Grimsby, England.

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