Akira Yoshizawa, an innovative practitioner of origami who was widely considered the master of the art form, has died. He was 94.
Yoshizawa died of heart failure complicated by pneumonia, on March 14, his birthday. He had been hospitalized near his home in Ogikubo, Japan, outside Tokyo, according to June Sakamoto, a board member of Origami USA in New York.
"He was the first creative, modern origami artist," said Robin Macey of the British Origami Society, who photographed Yoshizawa at work on several occasions. "He introduced new techniques that had not been thought of before. When he began, people generally did not create their own designs. It was expected that you follow the traditional models."
Yoshizawa developed several hundred new models, mostly wildlife, fish, birds and domestic pets. As his reputation grew, he was declared a national treasure in Japan and toured the world to lecture and demonstrate his work.
"Yoshizawa's works appear to be simple, but they are full of life," Sakamoto said.
Folded-paper figures are not necessarily realistic but his were unusually precise, she added. "You can immediately recognize a figure of his. You don't wonder whether it is a horse, a goat or a dog. He captured the muscle structure, the characteristics and features of whatever he was making. Every piece was a work of art."
He invented a system of symbols that allows a person who does not read Japanese to follow his directions and recreate his designs. It has been adopted worldwide for origami books and workshops. He also invented a "wet fold" technique that makes use of dampened paper, which dries to a hard finish for a three-dimensional effect.
From his childhood in Tochigi prefecture near Japan's eastern coast, Yoshizawa was fascinated by nature. He discovered origami at age 3 when he received a gift of a folded-paper boat. Soon afterward he began to design origami versions of the animals he observed outdoors.
"I grew up in the country and often used to walk barefooted on the path between the rice fields," he wrote in the 1987 book "Origami Museum I: Animals." "If I was quick enough, I could catch a tiny frog in my hand."
He considered nature his most important teacher. "By closely watching a tiny insect that is doing its very best to survive, you cannot help but feel love for it," he wrote to accompany his instructions on how to make a folded-paper cicada. "When you have this feeling of love it will invariably show up in your work."
The son of a dairy farmer, Yoshizawa left school at age 13 to work in a Tokyo factory making machine tools. He became a technical draftsman and taught geometry to apprentices using origami as a teaching aid.
He quit his job at 26 to make origami his full-time occupation, supporting himself by selling fish products door to door.
For two years, he also prepared to be a Buddhist priest. He did not complete his studies but remained devout throughout his life.
"While I fold, I pray that I might create something beautiful," he told the Japan Times in 1999. "It becomes possible when I forget my desires and concentrate on my work."
The recognition he needed to get established as an origami master came in 1952 when a popular Japanese magazine, Asahi Graph, hired him to make folded-paper zodiac figures to illustrate an article.
Two years later, Yoshizawa published the first of more than a dozen books he wrote on his subject. He also helped to establish the Origami Center in Tokyo, which published an origami magazine, and the Japan Foundation, which promotes Japanese arts and culture.
Spending months at a time to perfect more difficult models, he invented origami frogs that jumped when he pressed them in a certain spot, and tops that sustain a spin. He once recreated an entire Japanese countryside, down to the rice. "My work looked like the real thing. I was so glad I couldn't help crying," he said of his rice plants.
"Mr. Yoshizawa took origami from a child's plaything to an art form," said Jan Polish, a board member of Origami USA whose 1,800 members promote origami worldwide.
"He had strong opinions on how to work," she said. He believed that origami figures should be made in a color close to nature.
"Students at workshops would use orange paper for an elephant and Mr. Yoshizawa was aghast," Polish said.
He also believed the right way to fold paper is to hold it in the air, not press it against a hard, flat surface which results in flatter figures.
Beginning in the 1950s, Yoshizawa's work was exhibited, first at shopping centers in Japan and later at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam and the Louvre in Paris.
A 1959 exhibit at the Cooper Union in New York first called attention to his origami in the United States. Currently, his models are part of a group exhibit at the Mingei International Museum in San Diego in a show that opened in 2003 and was scheduled to close after three months. It was so popular that it is still on view.
Yoshizawa is survived by Kyo, his wife of 49 years.