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On the History of the "Kan no Mado" Dragonfly

by David Lister with a foreword by J.C. Nolan
Edited by Sara Adams

Back in 1995 when Creating Origami was first published I knew a whole lot less about copyright than I know now. I learned most of what I know a few years later in my career when I wrote a few articles as a part of my day job. When preparing for the re-release of Creating Origami, I discovered that one of the two plates that I'd included on the Kan-no-mado dragonfly, which I'd actually thought was public domain, wasn't, and was under the charge of the BOS.

One of the people who was a big helping in connecting with the right people and sorting it all out was David Lister, who is a brilliant historian in the realm of origami with over 50 articles relating to history which are published on the BOS website.

It turns out that the Dragonfly that had inspired me to create the book in the first place had also inspired many other creators over the years. In his correspondence with Hank Simon (who was also helping me out) David wrote a wonderful accounting of the known history of the model, where it originated and how it was passed down over the years.

Originally I intended to included David's email in my article on synchronicity in art (which also includes two sets of diagrams for a dragonfly by Patricia Crawford, who took inspiration from the Kan no Mado dragonfly), but I felt that it stood better on its own. And so, I've included the original email, mostly in entirety below.

-- JC Nolan, Nov '12

Editor's note: The below included text is a slightly modified version of the email David Lister sent. David Lister went to the effort of adding some further details, which came to his attention through further research after his correspondence with Hank.

Dear Hank,

Thank you for your e-mail dated 19th July giving more information about your request for information relating to the reproduction on the old plate with instructions for a dragonfly. This reply will be longer than expected, but I hope that it will give you most of the background to a fascinating story.

Kan no Mado DragonflyExcerpt from Kan no Mado featuring partial diagrams for a dragonfly

It is clear that the dragonfly in question is that which is included in the mid-19th century copy of the Japanese manuscript encyclopedia which is generally known in the West (by error) as the Kan no Mado. According to Japanese writers, the work should be known as Kayaragusa, although that is the title of only that section of the complete work in which the paperfolding appears. (Because it is familiar to Westerners, I will continue to use the name Kan no Mado here.) The work is generally estimated to date from the mid-19th Century and 1845 is often suggested by Japanese writers. It is thought to copy sections of several other works containing paperfolding of different kinds dating from earlier years, including lost works from the school of the Senbazuru Orikata (The Thousand Cranes), which date from the late 18th Century or perhaps the early 19th, and also a work containing formal wrapping folds and another showing instructions for folding paper dolls.

The complete encyclopedia is in 233 slender volumes covering many and diverse subjects and it is not known who compiled it. Two of the volumes, volumes 27 and 28, contain paperfolding. At the end of the complete work (volume 233), it is stated that it was written by Katsyuki Adachi, but he may possibly have been just a copyist.

Professor Frederick Starr, an anthropologist of the University of Chicago, was interested in Japanese culture and visited Japan on several occasions in the earlier 20th Century. Among many other subjects he became interested in Japanese paperfolding. Around 1920, he visited Japan again and his attention was brought to the Kan no Mado by the Osaka Asahi newspaper which owned it. I have myself been privileged to see the two volumes of the Kan no Mado which contain paperfolding on two visits I have made to Japan.

Professor Starr arranged for a manuscript copy of the paperfolding section of the Kan no Mado to be made for him, which he either took back home or which was sent on to him later. He subsequently wrote an article in English for the American magazine Japan, dated 1922, with the title, The Art of Paperfolding in Japan. In it he describes his experiences of paperfolding in Japan, including his visit to see the Kan no Mado (he uses this term, himself). Among the illustrations accompanying the article is a single page of the instructions for the dragonfly which show the final steps leading up to the completed model. There is no clue about the earlier steps in this one page.

When he was researching paperfolding following the end of the Second World War in 1945, Gershon Legman came across a copy of Frederick Starr's article in a library and was fascinated by the diagrams of the dragonfly. He made enquiries and found that the original Kan no Mado was then apparently lost. Subsequently he wrote that it was imperative that the Kan no Mado must be found again and he reproduced a copy of the partial instructions on the cover of his booklet A Bibliography of Paperfolding which was printed in 1952. Fortunately the original Kan no Mado was found later, when the newspaper company in Osaka which owned it moved into new offices and was able to have access to its archives.


Robert Harbin picked up the dragonfly in his book Paper Magic

Robert Harbin was put in touch with Gershon Legman around 1954 and he, too, was fascinated by the dragonfly and included a copy of what was later found to be only the fourth page of the complete instructions on p. 25 of his book, Paper Magic, dated 1956. The book was a best-seller and brought the Kan no Mado to the notice of Western folders scarcely any of whom had ever previously been aware of its existence.

Unfortunately the absence of the earlier parts of the instructions made it virtually impossible to discover how to fold the dragonfly and it remained a puzzle. But the model was clearly far in advance of any other paperfolding known at that time and it continued to exercise a fascination for all paperfolders who saw it. Following the publication of Paper Magic they now numbered many thousands.

Both Gershon Legman and Robert Harbin were in touch with Ligia Montoya of Argentina and inevitably a copy of the fourth page of the instructions came to her, probably from Legman, who was the first to correspond with Ligia. It was subsequently reported that she was the first Western person to solve the mystery of the dragonfly. Somehow she discovered that it was folded from a base which was a piece of paper in the shape of a six-pointed star, deeply cut between the arms almost into the centre.

The paperfolding revival in the West was, by now, well under way and it developed with a basic assumption that paperfolding must be from a plain square and must not use any cutting, gluing or decoration (as Robert Harbin stated on page 13 of Paper Magic). The Kan no Mado dragonfly clearly went against these rules. However, paperfolding in Japan had no such constraints and it would be wrong to criticise the Japanese for their historically more relaxed attitude to folding. More recently Western paperfolders have come to realize that there are different kinds of paperfolding and that in some of them cutting is permissible.

Professor Starr died in 1933 and following his death, his copy of what he knew as the Kan no Mado was lost. There were many searches for it, but it was not found until March 1960, when it was traced among some of Professor Starr's papers deposited in the Library of Congress, after Julia and Martin Brossman had asked for a new search to be made. Most of Starr's papers were bequeathed to the University of Chicago, but some were bequeathed to the Library of Congress and apparently Starr's copy of the Kan no Mado had accidentally been buried among them.

At the back, or outside, of Starr's copy of the Kan no Mado there appears scribbled characters which have been interpreted as the Japanese words Kan no Mado. This may be a misinterpretation, but it is the reason why Starr, and through him, Westerners generally, have come to know the work as the Kan no Mado. The scribbled characters do not appear on the original work and this is why the name Kayaragusa is to be preferred. The apparent meaning of the words, "kan no mado" is "Window on the coldest season" (suggesting recreations for indoors).

Julia and Martin Brossman published a copy of the Kan no Mado as A Japanese Paperfolding Classic in 1961, so that the full instructions for the dragonfly became available for all to see. Their book remains the most accessible edition for Westerners, although it must be borne in mind that it only reproduced the Starr copy and not the original Kan no Mado. Copies of the original Kan no Mado have been made available, but they are not readily obtainable. Nevertheless a comparison between a reproduction of the original Kan no Mado and the Starr copy shows how very accurate the copy is. Only a very close examination discloses the minute differences.


A reprint of A Japanese Paperfolding Classic is available on Lulu

A slightly reduced facsimile copy in paperback of the Brossman's book (authorized by them) was issued around 2009 by Lulu Publishing. It is probably still available from Lulu. I found it to be inexpensive and excellent value for money.

An examination of Brossman's book quickly reveals the full extent of the instructions for folding the Kan no Mado dragonfly. The six-pointed star is used not only for the dragonfly but also for five other models, a bee, a dancing monkey, a wild boar, Fukusuke (a prosperous man), and Saya Otome (a rice-planting maid). The folding of the base used for the six models is given on three preceding pages which are mysteriously headed with the title Onibi (Elf Fire). The final steps for each of the six derivative models is shown on a single page and it is the final page for the dragonfly that was printed by Professor Starr in his article in the magazine Japan and which, after many years, was found and reproduced by Gershon Legman and later by Robert Harbin.

On pages 64 and 65 of his book, Secrets of Origami (1963), Robert Harbin includes full instructions for folding the dragonfly from the heavily cut six-pointed star. He introduces the model by writing: "The original picture of this model, lent to me by Gershon Legman, appeared in Paper Magic. Ligia Montoya successfully discovered the method of folding from the available diagrams." (Harbin omits to point out that Ligia managed to fold it from only a quarter of the diagrams!)

While the diagrams he shows in Secrets of Origami may have been derived from Ligia Montoya reconstruction, they were, as they were actually printed, probably drawn by Robert Harbin himself. The method of folding is similar to that in the Kan no Mado itself, but the later stages are considerably abbreviated, perhaps to get them on a single page.

After giving the textual instructions for the model, Robert Harbin further writes: "As a matter of interest, Senorita Ligia Montoya has produced a dragonfly without making any cuts". I sought for a long time to find this creation by Ligia Montoya, but without any success. But recently I have received a copy of Ligia's model. It turns out to be folded, not from a square, as one might expect, but from a six-pointed star. But unlike the star in the Kan no Mado, it does not have any cuts towards the centre between the arms of the star.

The whole story of Kayaragusa or Kan no Mado is a most interesting one and I hope that this background information will be found to be as fascinating for you as it is for me.

Best wishes,
David Lister, July '12