The traditional Japanese arts are, generally speaking, all about making things with natural materials and as little “processing” as possible. The idea is that human creations should appear to be as natural as possible. Thus, the ideal ikebana flower arrangement should appear not to be arranged at all, but rather, to have just fallen into place naturally.

But aside from ikebana and Japanese garden design, which aims for the same effects, there are few Japanese arts as simple as kirigami (paper cutting) and origami (paper folding), since all that is required to make them is the material itself, along with a knife or some small implements such as tweezers and bones for folding the paper.


Kirigami – from the words kiru (to cut) and kami (paper) – is the lesser-known art outside of Japan, though every schoolchild around the world cuts out a snowflake, or a chain of paper dolls, at some point. But kirigami takes such creations to an entirely different level. Intricate card designs, three-dimensional pop-up “architectural” kirigami – even entire dresses made of cut paper – are among the creations that have blossomed in this remarkable art.

The basics of kirigami are in the folds, and in the precision and care with which the cuts are made. Most often paper is folded once, then twice, and even sometimes a third time. Each fold adds layers of difficulty, but also adds to the subtlety of the final design. For this reason, very thin paper is needed, and the Japanese, who absolutely love paper – think about the rice paper shoji screens in homes, or the wrappings so often lavished on packages, and Japan’s ongoing love affair with books – are happy to oblige. Like everything else in Japan, the great subtleties and varieties of paper are mind-boggling.

By contrast, there are no holes in the paper when origami is done, for the main difference between the two arts is that origami does not allow for the use of anything but folding. Kirigami allows not only folding and cutting, but even gluing and taping. But even with these added elements, kirigami is one of the least expensive arts to undertake, as all that is really needed is the paper and perhaps some small implements to manage the tiny folds and cuts.

One doesn’t even need a knife to make origami, which is still the more popular of the two related arts, and it is no wonder: The grace and beauty of origami creations are one of the wonders of Japanese culture. While most visitors may be aware of the folded cranes that pop up everywhere in Japan, from table settings to ryokan pillows to the “thousand crane” hangings that are traditional gifts that grant happiness and good luck, origami creations can be remarkably elaborate.


The secret is in the folds, of which there are nine basic forms, from the “mountain” folds to the “pleat” and “crimp” folds, as well as the “bases” upon which those folds are made. Another technique that has arisen is the “wet fold,” which allows the creation of more organic, less angular shapes that can be rounded and achieve a more natural look. Other variations are based on the different papers used, either sheets with different sides (plain or colored or even foil). The paper used is called washi, and comes from the gampi tree, but everything from bamboo to hemp papers are often used.

It should be noted that Japan is not the only place where paper cutting art is practiced, and paper-folding traditions from China and as far away as Germany have influenced Japanese design. In fact, it was from the German paper-cutting art known as Scherenschnitte that the restrictions on cutting were introduced into Japan in the late 19th century.

In modern times, the precision of computers has allowed cuts of such detail that a medieval artisan would even be impressed. The pop-up creations sold for a pittance on the streets of China, Vietnam and even New York City are not considered true kirigami, but they are the latest combination of this paper-cutting and -folding crafts with computer technology. These cheap souvenirs are as impressive as they are increasingly common.


The artistic exploration made possible by kirigami and origami – people are constantly creating new forms – has also allowed these crafts occasionally to attain the status of fine art. The late Akira Yoshizawa, whose work led him to be called Japan’s origami master until his death in 2005, was reckoned to have created tens of thousands of unique designs, which have been shown in Europe and elsewhere.

But both kirigami and origami designs are widely available to beginners, in books and on websites. If the patterns are closely followed, even a novice can create beautiful designs almost immediately, making these two of the most enjoyable and widely-practiced of Japan’s many arts and crafts.