Origami, the art of folding paper to create objects or animals, is a Japanese tradition that is important in many celebrations. The true origin of origami is the subject of much speculation. Although the practice was the most extensive in Japan, there is evidence supporting a tradition of paper folding as an art form in China, Spain, Germany, and many other countries. Direct evidence is difficult to find as paper is very quick to decompose, so references in the published materials of the times have to be trusted.
The earliest pieces of evidence that can be found to suggest paper folding existed and was practiced in Europe are the picture of the tiny paper boat that exists in the Tractatus de Sphaera Mundi (1490). Western paper folding is thought to have been started by the race known as the Moors. Whether this knowledge was obtained on the silk route or independently-acquired is unknown.
The earliest reference that clearly supports paper folding in Japan is the short poem written in 1680 by Ihara Saikaku. This poem describes a dream that involves paper butterflies. These paper butterflies were made with the technique of origami to symbolize the brides and grooms in Shinto wedding organizations. This type of paper folding had become part of these important ceremonies by Japan’s Heian Period, which lasted from the end of the eight century to the end of the twelfth century. Samurai warriors also exchanged origami in the form of folded paper strips, called Noshi, which were tokens of good luck.
Japanese calligraphy, which is called shodō in Japanese, is the artistic writing of Japanese characters. It has similar techniques and principles to Chinese calligraphy. The usual method of practicing Japanese calligraphy is by writing the characters in ink (sumi) on mulberry paper (washi) and incorporates the same basic styles of writing that are included in the Chinese counterpart. These writing styles include seal script (tensho), clerical script (reisho), regular script (kaisho), semi-cursive (gyōsho), and cursive (cāoshū).
Japanese calligraphy dates back more than 4,000 years. During the Twenty-eighth Century BC in China people inscribed religious pictographs onto bones. These writings eventually evolved into instruments of the state. The Qin Dynasty’s prime minister, Li Si, decided there was a need to have a uniform script. The script he sanctioned involved characters that could all be written by using a maximum of eight strokes for each and could fit into boxes of a designated size. Li Si also decided all of the horizontal strokes would be the first to be written, and the characters to be drawn from the bottom to the top and from left to the right. These symbols were very angular, due to the sharp instruments that were used to make them. The invention of the ink-wet brush made it possible for people to write the characters more smoothly and to vary the weight and thickness of the lines. Thanks to this technological advancement, style could now be conveyed by how a character was written.
This style became popular in Japan around 600 AD. It came to be known as karayō and is still practiced today in Japan. The oldest example still in existence is the inscription written on the halo of the Bhaisajyaguru statue. This Shakeitai text can still be found in the Hōryū-ji Temple today. Another treasure of this temple are the bibliographic notes of the Lotus Sutra (Hokke Gisho), written around the seventh century. This is considered to be Japan’s oldest text and is written in cursive script. From this work it is evident the calligraphy of the Asuka period was already highly-refined.
Japanese calligraphy has evolved and is now taught as a required subject in Japan’s elementary schools. In Japanese High Schools, calligraphy is an elective art class, similar to painting or music. Many Japanese universities, including Tokyo Gakugei University, Fukuoka University of Education, and the University of Tsukuba, have whole departments that are dedicated to the study of calligraphy and train students to teach the art form.
Bonsai (tray cultivation) is an ancient Japanese art of growing miniature trees by using containers. Dwarfing is often confused with this practice. However, dwarfing is actually a practice that is used for research purposes to create miniatures of plant species. Bonsai grows smaller trees from normal seeds and stock. Pruning, potting, root reduction, grafting, and defoliation are techniques that Bonsai artists use to create trees that have similar shapes and styles of full-sized mature trees.
There are many different styles of bonsai trees. The distinctions come from the different shapes that are formed by the trees’ branches and all have different names. Many of these styles are shaped to imitate features of the natural world, like cascades and waterfalls. Bonsai is meant to be used to encourage contemplation, instead of being used to produce food, medicine, or yard or park-sized landscapes, like most other practices of plant cultivation. Bonsai’s focus is on growing and shaping trees in containers over long periods of time. It is an art that can take a good deal of time and training to master.
Bonsai is accepted as a beautiful art form and a great way to find relaxation and refocus the mind. It is a unique art that is enjoyed by many people in Japan and around the world.