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How Paper Cranes Became a Symbol of Healing in Japan

Every day school children visit the monument for the child victims of Hiroshima adorned with a statue of Sadako Sasaki holding up an origami crane. The museum receives millions of paper cranes from around the world. Photograph By Ari Beser.

Hiroshima, JAPAN—Origami, the Japanese art of folding paper, often conjures images of paper cranes, or orizuru in Japanese. I began to wonder, where does this fabled art form originate, and why are paper cranes regarded as a symbol of peace?

After some digging, I discovered that paper folding was reserved for ceremonies around the 6th century A.D., since the paper came from China and was expensive for commoners. Folded paper butterfly figures were first used in Japan to decorate sake cups at weddings, and paper was folded in Shinto shrines for good luck. Decorative figures of paper cranes began showing up on ceremonial kimonos as far back as the 16th century.

The use of paper became widespread worldwide by the 20th century. Origami as we know it was popularized and taught in Japanese schools in art class, and has since evolved as a childhood pastime.

In Japanese lore, the crane—a type of large, migratory bird—was thought to live for 1,000 years, and the animals are held in the highest regard.

The 1797 book Sen Bazuru Orikake, which translates to "how to fold 1,000 paper cranes," contains instructions for how to make these special objects.

But it doesn't talk about the legends. In every resource I found, the story of Sadako Sasaki was the reason why it became popular to fold them and make a wish.

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Sadako pictured with her father on July 18, 1955, shortly before she died of leukemia, a result of exposure to the atomic bomb's ionizing radiation on August 6, 1945. Photograph courtesy of Yuji Sasaki.

Sadako survived the Hiroshima bomb when she was only two years old, but by 1950 she had swollen glands. Officials at the Atomic Bomb Causality Commission, set up by the U.S. government in post-war Japan to examine Hiroshima’s citizens for health effects of the atomic bomb, recommended that she go to the hospital. She was diagnosed with leukemia, a cancer of the bone marrow, and died in 1955.

“How did Sadako become the girl who folded 1,000 paper cranes?” I recently asked her brother, Masahiro Sasaki, who lives in Fukuoka and is co-founder of the NPO Sadako Legacy, the organization that carries on the message of Sadako Sasaki.

“She let out both the pain of our parents and her own suffering with each crane. She hid her suffering and was very tolerant of the pain. She didn’t want anyone to worry. She didn’t complain to her friends or to us. Her spirit encouraged others around her to speak of her bravery," Sasaki told me.

“If it were me, I wouldn’t have been able to stand the pain, but I’m not Sadako.”

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Cranes that Sadako made rest in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. Her family donated over a hundred of them to the museum, which has agreed to give them back to her family one crane at a time. Photograph by Ari Beser

In 2007, Sadako Legacy began donating Sadako's paper cranes around the world to places in need of healing.

They started with the National September 11 Memorial and Museum in New York City. Twenty-four Japanese citizens were killed in the attack on the World Trade Center, and it got back to Sadako’s family that people were leaving paper cranes at the fence near Ground Zero.

Museum staff added the cranes to the memorial, including thousands donated by Japanese students. Moved by this, Sasaki decided to donate one of Sadako's cranes, which was unveiled at the museum in 2010.

In attendance was Clifton Truman Daniel, the grandson of U.S. President Harry S. Truman, who ordered the 1945 atomic bombings. Sasaki, carrying the last crane Sadako ever folded in a box, placed it in Daniel's hand and asked him if he would help them send a message of peace.

In addition to the September 11 memorial, Sadako Legacy has donated a crane to Pearl Harbor’s USS Arizona Memorial with the help of Daniel, The Peace Library at the Austrian Study Center for Peace, and the city of Okinawa.

This fall Sadako's brother Masahiro and his son Yuji Sasaki will donate a crane to the city of São Paolo, Brazil, which has a community of more than a hundred atomic bomb survivors, and one to the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum in Independence, Missouri.

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This origami crane, Located in Kaisezen Park, Koriyama, Fukushima was melded from steel recovered at the World Trade Center site in New York City. It was gifted to Koriyama City by the September 11th Families' Association and the 9/11 Tribute Center. Photograph by Ari Beser

In 2011, tragedy hit Japan again: A devastating earthquake triggered an even more devastating tsunami, which caused a core meltdown at Fukushima Dai Ichi Nuclear Power Plant.

In 2012, the 9/11 family association donated to Japan a paper crane welded from World Trade Center debris as a symbol of hope and resilience in the face of disaster. Consoled by Sadako's crane, they dedicated their own crane, which now rests in the city of Koriyama, Fukushima, a town less than 50 miles (80 kilometers) away from the crippled nuclear power plant.

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Sadako's nephew, Yuji Sasaki, holds the paper crane his aunt folded in Koriyama City, in Fukushima Prefecture, before donating it to the mayor. Photograph by Ari Beser

On August 21, 2015, Sadako's nephew Yuji Sasaki brought the story full circle: He brought one of her cranes to Koriyama.

“Hiroshima and Fukushima have both had nuclear disasters, but at different speeds. In a way they are the same kind of disaster, and people of both city are affected by radiation," he said at the ceremony.

"I hope that even [in] this hopeless situation, we never give up, together."

Ari M. Beser is the grandson of Lt. Jacob Beser, the only U.S. serviceman aboard both bomb-carrying B-29s. He is traveling through Japan with the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship to report on the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the fifth anniversary of the Great East Japan earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdowns in Fukushima. Using photo essays, videos, and articles, Beser will give voice to people directly affected by nuclear technology today, as well as work with Japanese and Americans to encourage a message of reconciliation and nuclear disarmament. His new book, “The Nuclear Family,” focuses on the American and Japanese perspectives of the atomic bombings.

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