The paper is patient

Things have been slowing down at work, not really because there isn’t much to do, there is! No, it’s because things take a lot longer to accomplish right now. From the exporter which can take a while and ties up your PC to the converter where we check all our stuff running in code which has some seriously doubtful decision making behind it, like having to sit through the health warnings, company logos and title screen before we’re allowed to load up the test models. Whatever the reason I find myself having to kill short bursts of time and there are only so many cigarettes a man can smoke.

It started with me sitting at a colleague’s desk, as he hadn’t come in that morning yet, while I waited for the converter to boot up. He had a stack of almost-square Post-its and rather distractedly I peeled one off and started folding it. Not a few minutes later there was a small origami crane on the keyboard as I was checking my collision models. Naturally a colleague spots this and goes “ah, a crane!” School kids in Japan make these en masse for festivals and such. Something about a 1000 cranes being good luck or whatever – I’m not quite up to speed on the details. So to not be shown up said colleague folds a crane too.

Now it may be that I’m pretty competitive, deep down or maybe something stirred deep inside my childhood memory banks but before I knew it I had peeled off another Post-it and with the aid of a bent paperclip to get the smaller folds right I fashion an Inca mask, with lips, brows, a nose, earrings and whatnot. My colleagues are amazed. “Where did you learn that?” they ask. “I learned it when I was young. Don’t you know origami?”
And here another silly misconception dies. I have no idea why, as thinking about it makes little sense, but I’ve always had the impression the Japanese could fold paper. The art itself is from here and if you see the speed and craft with which shopkeepers wrap presents or the intricate way money gift envelopes are folded you’d be forgiven for thinking all of Japan is bought up on origami. Not so. Most school kids can fold a crane or a paper box to put peanut shells in but that’s about it.

For me origami began when I was a very young boy visiting my grandparents’ house. Trying to keep me busy my grandmother found an old book she had by an American stage magician called, if I recall, something-or-other Renquist. It was a massive, clothbound old tome and had little biographies of the, what I presumed were, the famous paper folding artists of the time, all American. The pages were yellow and old, the lovely smell of old books The models started out simple; a box, a star, a parrot, etc. By the end of the book there were some more challenging designs; a peacock with fully patterned tail, a seal balancing a ball, an angel. The book is long lost to me but I can conjure up its look and feel to this day. Addiction had set in almost immediately.

I knew little about the history of the art. The fact it was Japanese only became clear to me with the first book I owned, a present from parents keen to invest their offspring with a sense of art. This book, a large square one with a badly glued spine, also taught me about the history and background and focused mainly on some past Japanese masters. I joined a local origami society, not to socialize, as the members consisted mostly of a horrid kind of sandal-wearing CofE types, but because it was the easiest way to get hold of paper. There were some nice sets of Japanese patterned paper, some too gorgeous to fold. Through them, I also ordered what was to be the very first Japanese book I ever bought, I believe it was called “The Art of Origami” and was a series of two books with some incredible designs in them; brontosaurs, a seamless and almost life-like rose, a devil complete with pointy tail, five fingers on each hand, horns and a mouth with protruding tongue. It’s very strange to think back of these books now and imagine those funny little squiggles I couldn’t read at the time. That was Japanese, huh? If you had told me then that in 20 years I’d be able to actually read all that I wouldn’t have believed you. It’s probably not entirely true anyway.

Origami never fuelled any kind of desire to move to Japan, it just sort of happened. I was once folding intricate designs, the next moment I was working in Japan; the two were never connected. But coming here reminded me of the fun I used to have turning a simple square piece of paper into a tiny statuette, the precision and mathematics of the folds, the sculpting of the edges. I have on occasion picked it up again since moving here. I even visited an origami convention at a university together with another interested ex-pat. We didn’t sign up so we couldn’t join the lectures, which I presume were lessons or demos, but at the time I probably couldn’t have understood them anyway. But we did meander through the hallways with the many tables with beautiful and amazing origami on them: a tiger folded from two-sided paper, one side yellow the other black, causing a fantastic stripe effect; a dinosaur with many horns on its back, and tail, a two-tone orca, a horse that was almost realistic. I must stress for those who do not know: in origami you do not cut or tear, you only ever fold a square piece of paper. Sure, there are those who think cutting is acceptable or paper can be any shape, but they are heathens.

Mostly it’s fun to occasionally fold something just to out-Japanese my Japanese colleagues. They all stare in wide-eyed amazement that this foreigner can fold something with such detail so easily while they themselves can only manage the simple crane. I can make them feel really bad about themselves by asking them why they can’t do likewise “I thought all Japanese could fold paper”, knowing fully that this isn’t really the case. It always pleases me no end to outdo them at their own games. It’s all in the name of fun and ribaldry though, as I wink and nudge at them.

The only origami books and paper widely available in Japan are the simple, kids’ stuff. You’ll need to go to specialist shops to find the really nice patterned rice paper, but it can be found without too much bother. For books I have no idea though. We found some fantastic samples at the aforementioned origami expo but bookshops generally don’t stock anything above “how to fold a cane and goldfish” level. I can recommend anybody to give origami a go. It’s cheap and fairly easy and trains your spatial skills. Any 3D artist who can’t fold probably isn’t worth his salt. It’s also quite calming; I remember folding one particular peacock and it taking me well over two hours, all of it flying by. It is certainly helping me pass the time between exporting my level models and getting to see them running in code.


  1. You being British makes me think the magician you are thinking of is Robert Harbin.

  2. Harbin...that may well have been the chap! My memory is not what I think it may have used to been.

  3. I know Robert Harbin as the man who created the Zigzag girl illusion (something I used to perform) and in my research I found out he was obsessed with origami and wrote a bunch of books on it.