Grab a sheet of paper. What do you see? If you’re like most people, you see an empty vessel—a canvas for writing. But if you’re a practiced origami expert, you might see all sorts of potential. A turtle. A dog. A crane. A dragon. A set of possibilities limited only by your skill in the art of origami.
From two Japanese words meaning folding and paper, origami is the ultimate way to conjure art out of what seems like thin air. But bringing out your origami skills isn’t quite complete unless you can tell a story with your art. Below, you’ll find a comprehensive list of origami animals and the animal symbolism behind them.
The oldest book on origami, Hiden Senbazuru Orikata, dates to 1797. At that point, both Japanese and European culture had grown accustomed to the practice of paper-folding. In Japan, people often attached folded paper to gifts—similar to the way we attach greeting cards today.
In Hiden Senbazuru Orikata, the practice of paper-folding included instructions on creating origami birds. Anyone familiar with paper planes knows that paper can make for great wings. But in origami, paper birds also have subtle features like long necks, long tails, and even wings that flap when you pull them. People have been doing this for hundreds of years, and there’s a good reason why. There’s no mistaking an origami bird for any other animal.
In Japanese culture, cats have the same allure as they do the world over. Cats are mysterious, playful, and hard to figure out.
Origami cats might not share the gracefulness of origami swans, but they emphasize key features, like a cat’s pointed ears. Many people also draw eyes onto the prominent head, making it even more clear that what you’re seeing is a cat.
Cranes have special significance in both Japanese culture and in the art of origami. Historically, the crane was seen as the bird of happiness—a strong bird with powerful wings, capable of bringing souls to heaven. In fact, the oldest origami book, Hiden Senbazuru Orikata, includes detailed instructions for creating cranes.
It also comes with some fun luck symbolism: There’s even an old tradition that says that if you fold 1,000 origami cranes, all of your wishes will come true.
It won’t come as a surprise to learn that in Japanese culture, dogs tend to symbolize security,
friendship, and protection. The same is true in many Western cultures. In urban areas, it’s more common to keep small, highly domesticated breeds that can handle themselves in a crowd or a limited living space—though the Akita, a larger dog breed, is unique to Japan.
Because dogs symbolize security, companionship, and protection, it should come as no surprise that origami dogs often carry the same connotation.
The dragon has been a prominent symbol in Japanese culture for hundreds of years. While Chinese dragons tend to symbolize power and strength, Japanese culture values the symbol of the dragon for wisdom and balance. That’s why a good origami dragon will show off its symmetry.
In the animal symbolism behind fish, Japanese and Western culture separate from each other. In traditional Western culture, the fish has sacred and religious overtones. In Japan, fish like the koi are seen as symbols of luck and fortune.
Koi ponds find their origins in Japan but are recognizable across both cultures. For that reason, many people associate large, flat-sided origami fish with the koi—although most origami fish aren’t any particular species.
Even the name fox in western culture tends to suggest something devious and clever. If you’ve been outwitted, you’ve also been outfoxed.
In origami culture, the fox or kitsune tends to symbolize the same, with a special emphasis on the animal’s intelligence. The Inari Foxes, in particular, have a unique status in the Shinto religion, often serving as guardians in religious temples.
In origami, a fox is a difficult shape to achieve. But it’s eerily easy to achieve the essence of a fox with a few simple folds.
Fold a Sly Origami Fox!
Origami: Fold a Fox
The frog can be a popular animal in origami due to its symbolic meaning. A common association with frogs is the wise spending of money—and the receiving of money in return. This is one reason origami frogs can be so popular to make from a napkin at the dinner table, just when the check is about to come.
Many people also keep likenesses of frogs in a purse or wallet, a reminder to spend money wisely.
All around the world of animal symbolism, horses get the best treatment. We associate them with power, strength, nobility, courage, freedom—you name it. In origami, it’s too difficult to fold a piece of paper into the four long, skinny legs that make horses so recognizable.
The solution? Fold one of the more recognizable parts of the horse, the shoulders and the head, as well as a simple fold to represent the long face and tipped nose. The origami horse ends up capturing the essence of the horse symbol. You can see all the strength and nobility there, even without the legs.
Rabbits symbolize all sorts of pleasant things across the world—spring, youth, energy, luck, cleverness. In Japan, even the name for rabbit carries an association with getting rid of bad luck. For that reason, a rabbit is a great trinket to fold and then hand to someone as a gift.
In origami, the turtle represents speed, swiftness, and—okay, just kidding. We all know turtles aren’t fast. Origami culture tends to emphasize the same virtues that we all associate with turtles. That means wisdom and longevity above all.
Known as the kame in Japanese culture, there is special emphasis on the dual nature of turtles. There’s the hard shell on top, its connection to the wisdom of heaven. The creature underneath is the turtle’s representation on earth.
While you might assume the whale gets the same treatment as the turtle, the two are symbolically distinct. While the turtle represents wisdom and longevity, the whale has two unique features you might not guess: compassion and solitude.
Compassion may come from how friendly whales can be, given their size, while solitude comes from their singular nature among animals.
Thanks to their straightforward shape, whales are relatively easy in origami. All that’s required is getting the basic shape down with a few extra finishes to denote the fins.
We all know the unicorn symbolizes the otherworldly. In Japan, the unicorn-like Kirin or Qilin is the equivalent. Japanese versions of “unicorns” tend to have more of a deer-like quality, while in the west, unicorns more resemble a species of horned horse.
In origami, unicorns can be just as rare and special. After all, it’s tough to get that horn just right. But they’re also one of the chief delights of folding paper into something wholly unique.
Origami Animal Meanings Made Easy
Origami is a pure form of art: taking something ordinary and rendering something completely different. But the more you embrace the underlying animal symbolism, the more impressive the feat is.
Don’t just make an origami frog—make one that hops right into someone else’s purse. Don’t just fold a crane—know why people started folding origami cranes in the first place. The more you know about origami animals, the better you’ll understand the culture that helped create them.
Bring Your Origami to Life!
Fold an Origami Frog that Jumps