The Language of Origami


Reiko Chiba Tuttle, circa 1960, at the American Library Association

Charles E. Tuttle was only half of the team who built Tuttle Publishing. His partner in work and life was his wife of almost 50 years, Reiko Chiba Tuttle. Known for her wry and self-deprecating sense of humor, Reiko was the warm, personal focus of Charles’ life-long passion for Japanese culture. The inspiration and deft-hand behind hundreds of Tuttle books that taught the US and the world about Japanese culture, history, language, and arts, Reiko would have celebrated her 97th birthday on January 24.

To mark the occasion, I have the pretty amazing privilege of unveiling a birthday gift to Reiko. This spring, we’re publishing a new book called Origami Butterflies, a collection of original designs by master folders, best-selling authors, and traditional paper-makers Michael LaFosse and Richard Alexander of Origamido Studio. To celebrate the completion of the book and Reiko’s life, LaFosse and Alexander dedicated a unique butterfly named in Reiko’s honor.


The “Reiko” origami butterfly by Michael LaFosse and Richard Alexander

A recent article in the Annals of Foreign Language, a quarterly journal of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) underscored the mnemonic power of learning a foreign language in connection with something else you have an interest in. You might know (or be), for example, someone who bombed in high school French but who, thanks to an interest in haute cuisine, uses words like bain-marie, mirepoix, and velouté like a native. To honor Reiko’s birthday and her butterfly, and in the spirit of learning words in the context of a past-time, I thought I’d review some basic origami terminology.

Origami 折り紙
The first element in the word origami comes from the verb oru (折る, fold), hence the basic polite conjugations of orimasu “fold”, orimashita “folded”, and orimashō “let’s fold”. The second element is kami (紙, paper), although here the ‘k’ is voiced and becomes ‘g’ through a process called “rendaku”. The change isn’t entirely foreign to English; think about how the ‘tt’ in “letter” sounds like ‘d’. So “origami” means “folding paper”.

As an aside, China and Korea both also have paper-folding traditions—the Chinese invented paper. The term there is also “folding paper” (zhézhǐ in pinyin), and it’s written 摺紙 in Traditional characters, where the second character is identical to the Japanese. In Simplified characters, the word is written 折纸, where the first character is identical to the Japanese, but the three dashes in the lower left-hand corner of the second character have fused into one line. A big thank-you to Janet in the UK who helped me sort this out. She contributed some very illuminating comments to this blog that I’d encourage you to read.

In Korea, one says 종이접기 (jongi jeopgi). It’s written phonetically in hangul now but in the past would have been written in Chinese characters, only in reverse: 紙摺, which is “paper folding” instead of “folding paper”. As loanwords, neither zhézhǐ nor jongi jeopgi have gotten as much traction as origami yet, but you can find websites dedicated to them. In the meantime, rather than write “Chinese origami”, it’s more common to say “Chinese paper-folding” or “Korean paper-folding”.

In origami there are two basic folds: the yama-ori (山折り, mountain fold) where the crease points up, and the tani-ori (谷折り, valley fold) where the crease points down. The second element in each word (ori) is exactly the same ori as in origami. In front of that come the everyday Japanese words for “mountain” (山, yama) and “valley” (谷, tani). These words are both extremely common in Japanese family names. You hear yama in Yamashita (below the mountain), Yamada (mountain field), and Murayama (village mountain). Readers of the NY Times will recognize tani in the name of Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Michiko Kakutani (corner valley).

My favorite fold name is the 蛇腹折り (jabara-ori), which means “snake-belly fold”. In English, alas, that’s become an “accordion fold”, which has a whiff of a pizzeria. Another fold whose meaning was twisted in English was the Japanese “cushion” fold (座布団, zabuton, or, literally a “sitting futon”). In English, that’s a “blintz”, which, even worse, is named after an Eastern European pancake that’s more often rolled than folded.

48053100463740Many origami folds start with one of four bases. If you’ve ever folded a crane, the first 5-6 steps of a crane constitute a “crane base”, from which you can complete not just the crane but many other birds or shapes. The four bases are the crane (鶴, tsuru), the iris (あやめ, ayame) or frog (蛙, kaeru), the fish (魚, sakana, remember that from two weeks ago?), and the gate (とびら, tobira).

Last, if you’ve ever heard of kirigami, that’s the art of paper cutting. It’s written 切り紙, where the first element comes from the verb kiru, to cut. (If you’re not a Japanese speaker yet, all Japanese verbs end in -u; e.g., oru, “fold”, kiru, “cut”, yomu, “read”, kau, “buy”.)

To keep with the origami theme, this week we’re raffling off a copy of the most recent best-seller by Michael and Richard, Trash Origami. In it, they show you how to “upcycle” things like used gift wrapping paper, catalogs, circulars, and other paper that would otherwise go to waste. If you’d like to win the book, click here to email me and put “Origami” or “折り紙” in the subject line. As a bonus, everyone who writes gets the folding instructions for the Reiko butterfly!


Free Book Friday: Japanese Karakuri and the Medicine Trout

I get to tell a funny joke on myself at Christmas. The common word for Christmas in Japanese is Kurisumasu (クリスマス in katakana), which reflects our pronunciation “Krismas”. In the late 80s, when I’d been living in Japan for a couple of years, a good friend took me aside and let me know that all December I had been mixing up the second and third syllables; I was not saying ku-RI-SU-ma-su, but rather ku-SU-RI-ma-su. This was causing some Christmas cheer and chuckles among my Japanese friends, because by wishing them a happy Kusuri-Masu (薬鱒) , I had turned the holiday into “the Medicine Trout”. That still cracks me up.


No batteries required: Andrew Dewar’s Karakuri Kit.

With just another 11 days till Christmas, we still have time to squeeze some stocking stuffers into Free Book Friday, and I’m doing a Japanese two-fer. First is Andrew Dewar’s Krazy Karakuri. Karakuri are traditional Japanese toys that move. The etymology of “karakuri”, according to the monumental Nihon Kokugo Daijiten (日本国語大辞典) is “糸を引っ張って動かす”, “to move by pulling with a string”. And karakuri, like the similar word shikake, generally means “mechanism”. Andrew made a great video that shows exactly what the walking, spinning, and tumbling projects in this great little kit do. Click on this video link to watch his creations in action.

Dewar is one of our favorite papercraft creators, and in this kit, you’ll get everything you need to make 24 traditional toys that move, crawl, float, or shimmy all on their own on Christmas morning.

As an aside, those of you who spy “origami” in the title, please don’t hate us. Origami (折り紙 ), you probably all know, comes from the renyōkei stem of the verb oru (折る, “fold”) and kami (紙, “paper”). In Japan, origami and karakuri are two quite different hobbies. As the word “origami” has traveled beyond Japan, however, as often happens with loan words, its meaning has become elastic. The word is now applied to all sorts of papercrafts in the US.


A kid-friendly intro to Japanese for kids and adults.

For the second part of my Japanese two-fer, check out I’m Learning Japanese. Like My First Book of Chinese Calligraphy, I’m Learning Japanese was a book we discovered in France (where the original title was J’apprends le japonais). We loved the simple introduction to Japanese, in which a talking, hakama-wearing red fox named Kitsune teaches three rambunctious teenagers the basics of Japanese.

The teaching is all done in full-color, manga-style illustrations. Like many books written for kids, it has found a big audience with adults who like the fun, low-pressure, colorful approach to the language.

You can still get these books in time for Christmas. Click here to email me and put “Karakuri” in the subject line.