A Tribute To Akira Yoshizawa 1911 - 2005
This tribute was posted to Origami-L and to BOSmail on the morning of 115th Marc, 2005.
After recent photographs showing how frail he had become, it was something we were expecting. Yet it still came as a shock to hear that Akira Yoshizawa had died after a long and very fruitful life.
Yohizawa has been a living legend for over fifty years, ever since in the early 1950s his genius was discovered by the Asahi Graf picture magazine. For genius, he was. I have often compared him with a genius in another field, Andrés Segovia, the Spanish guitarist. Like Segovia he was self-taught and went on to transform an existing, though languishing, art form. Like Segovia, he radically transformed his art by developing new techniques, by extensively enlarging the repertoire and encouraging others to create, by his own superb performances. Just as one can instantly recognise guitar music played by Segovia, so one instantly recognises a model folded by Yoshizawa.
I feel fortunate to have known him for many years and to have met him at origami meetings in Japan, Europe and England. He came to no less than three conventions of the British Origami Society and many years ago he was made a Vice-President of the Society, a distinction that he cherished.
Yoshizawa lived a long and rewarding life. He was born into a small-holding farming family, where the arts were cherished. Later he became a technical draftsman and worked in a factory making machine tools, where he taught the apprentices geometry through using origami. He later left the factory to try to make his living by origami, He studied for two years as a Buddhist priest, although he did not enter a monastery and he remained a devout man all of his life. The Pacific War broke out before he could succeed in his ambition to make origami his living and he served in the medical corps of the Japanese army in Hong Kong, where he decorated the beds of sick patients with origami. He himself fell ill and returned to Japan, where he suffered ill-health for a number of years and eked out a bare living. This lasted until in 1951, he was discovered for Japan and the World by Tadasu Iizawa the editor of the Japanese picture magazine Asahi Graf, which published his twelve models or the Japanese Zodiac. A major exhibition of his work in the Ginza, the shopping district of Tokyo followed
It was sheer good fortune that caused Yoshizawa to be discovered by Gershon Legman. This led to the exhibition of his work in Amsterdam in1955 followed by his introduction to Robert Harbin in England and to Lillian Oppenheimer, the founder of the Origami Center in New York. She helped to organise another exhibition of Yoshizawa’s folding in New York 1959.
From then onwards, Yoshizawa’s career has never looked back. Indeed, he is now seen as the instigator of the modern origami movement, notwithstanding that it has diverged in many new directions, some of which certainly did not meet with his approval. For it was his belief that his models of animals and birds should live. He breathed life into his models, and although he acknowledged that geometry was the basis of all origami, if geometry dominated, a model was incapable of having life breathed into it.
The Japanese government recognised Yoshizawa’s genius and for the remainder of his life they sent him most years as an ambassador to many countries around the world to demonstrate paperfolding and the artistic contribution of Japanese society to mankind. The Emperor made him a member of the Order of the Rising Sun.
I have countless cherished memories of Yoshizawa. I remember him in Birmingham producing an hotel bath mat and folding it into an exquisite swan. Then I remember the exhilaration with which he produced a mallet and proceed to hammer the swan’s beak flat! In a wet-folding session, I remember the care with which he insisted that the paper should be dampened. Wet folding was his own invention and it enabled him to sculpt his models to a greater life. I remember him picking up an Elias model that someone had folded from foil paper and the disdain with which he regarded it. I remember him praying before folding and sitting with him at a folding session and calling him Sensei (Master) I remember him at a meeting at Munich where he spent several minutes stomping up and down the hall to get his circulation working. I remember him beaming with pleasure when something had gone particularly right. I remember him taking us to a Buddhist temple in the back streets of Kyoto, not a grand temple, but a homely one where the ladies of the neighbourhood served us with food. It is here that Yoshizawa hopes to be buried.
Looking back, before Yoshizawa, there were many paperfolders who made names for themselves, but there were no great folders. His revolutionary bases, folding techniques and wet folding; his insistence on creative folding; his great devotion to going on folding until he reached perfection, the sheer multiplicity of his models all add up to his immense achievements. Unexpectedly, one of his greatest legacies to us was his simple, but highly effective method of diagramming, using dotted lines and arrows. If this is compared with paperfolding instructions that went before, we can readily see how his diagrams made possible exchanges of models between folders and accordingly made possible the modern origami movement.
Last summer saw the return to Yoshizawa of some fifty of the models which he folded in the 1950s and which he had been led to believe had been lost for ever in a disastrous conclusion to an additional small exhibition in New York. Then, quite unexpectedly, two boxes of models were found by Mrs. Judith Legman among the effects of late husband, Gershon Legman’s. Eventually the models were returned to Yoshizawa with the help the British Origami Society. His joy at receiving back these models from fifty years ago was immense and it shines through his letters of gratitude.
Now he is slipped away. I understand that there is to be a museum devoted to his work and it may be there that future generation who never met him be able to catch a glimpse of Akira Yoshizawa. For us he has enshrined his creative spirit in the countless magical models that he has bequeathed to us, and in the books that enshrine them. But perhaps is not too much to say, in the Origami Movement itself is his memorial and it is when we fold paper that we come closest to him.