Sending a sick person a thousand paper cranes, each one folded from a single square of paper, is a tradition that originated in Japan and has spread all over the world. Here's the story of a little girl who helped turn it into an international phenomenon.
In the fall of 1954, an 11-year-old Japanese girl named Sadako Sasaki came down with what her family thought was a cold ...until they found large lumps on her neck and behind her ears. That was enough to terrify any parent, but Sadako's family had a special reason to worry: They lived in Hiroshima, and and were just a mile from ground zero on August 6, 1945, when the U.S. dropped an atomic bomb on the city in the closing days of World War II.
Sadako, two years old at the time of the bombing, had escaped the blast with only minor injuries. But she and her family were caught in the shower of "black rain" -radioactive fallout- as they fled the city. Now, nearly a decade later, as Sadako's condition worsened her parent's thoughts turned to "A-bomb disease," the catchall name that many Japanese gave to radiation-induced illnesses. In early 1955, doctors confirmed the Sasaki's worst fears: Sadako had leukemia, most likely caused by exposure to radiation. She had less than a year to live and needed to be hospitalized right away.
Sadako's parents could not bring themselves to tell her what was wrong or what her prognosis was. They just told her that she would have to stay in the hospital until her lumps went away.
While Sadako was living at the hospital, a group of high school students from Nagoya sent the patient a gift of senbazuru -a thousand folded paper cranes, strung together like beads on a necklace. In Japan and other Asian cultures, the crane is symbol of long life, and it is common to give paper cranes as gifts to newlyweds, to children, and to the sick. The high school students intended the cranes as a gift to the hibakusha ("bomb-affected people") at the hospital, to give them strength.
A WISH UPON A CRANE
(Image credit: Flickr user Jonathan Moreau)Tradition also has it that when a person folds a thousand paper cranes, the mythical crane of Japanese folklore will grant a wish. Inspired by the gift, Sadako began folding her own paper cranes in the hope that the crane would grant her wish for a cure.
Paper was scarce in postwar Japan, so Sadako used whatever she could get her hands on: wrapping paper from the gifts she received, envelopes from get-well cards, notebook paper that her classmates brought when they came to visit, and even the tiny pieces of waxed paper that many of her pills were wrapped in. She cut everything into squares and folded the squares into cranes. When the squares of paper were too tiny for her to fold with her fingers, she made the folds using a straight pin.
In the eight months that Sadako lived in the hospital, she folded more than 1,300 cranes in all. She went on folding them until the middle of October 1955, when she became too ill to continue. She passed away on October 25 at the age of 12.
Sadako's death was expected, but it was still a shock to her classmates, a third of whom were also survivors of the Hiroshima blast. They wanted to remember Sadako in some meaningful way, and decided to rise funds for a monument that would memorialize not just her but every child who'd been killed by the atom bombs. When they passed out leaflets at an annual meeting of junior high school principals, their local campaign grew into a national one. Many of the principals brought the idea back to their own schools and encouraged their students to get involved. Japanese newspapers and radio stations got behind the effort, and soon Sadako's classmates had more than enough money to pay for the memorial. On May 5, 1958, just two and a half years after Sadako's death, the Children's Peace Monument -a bronze statue of Sadako atop a giant pedestal, her outstretched arms holding a giant folded paper crane- was dedicated in Hiroshima's Peace Memorial Park.
(Image credit: Wikipedia user Robert Atendido)After the Children's Peace Monument was dedicated, Sadako's story began to spread beyond Japan. Over the years it has been the subject of numerous children's books, songs, plays, and musicals, as well as film and television shows. her story is taught in schools all over the world. Many include paper crane folding as part of the instruction, and the school send the completed senbazuru to the Children's Peace Monument in Hiroshima, where they are put on display. Today, more than a half century after the statue was dedicated, the monument still receives more than ten tons of folded paper cranes each year from children (and adults) all over the world.
CRANES FOR KUWAIT
After the liberation of Kuwait from Iraqi occupation in 1991, Sadako's story was taught in Kuwaiti schools, and the children there learned to fold paper cranes as a means of helping them deal with the trauma they experienced during the occupation. Following the World Trade Center attacks on 9/11, many strands of senbazuru were left on the fence surrounding Ground Zero in a spontaneous outpouring of sympathy for the victims of the tragedy.
Today Sadako Sasaki's older brother Masahiro, now in his late sixties, travels the world telling his sister's story as a means of furthering the cause of peace. The Sasaki family long ago donated all but five of Sadako's original cranes to the Children's Peace Monument in Hiroshima. On the sixth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, Masahiro Sasaki presented one of the family's five remaining cranes, folded by Sadako out of the waxed paper from one of her pills, to the WTC Visitors Center in New York. Small enough to fit on a thumbnail, the tiny red crane is on permanent display along with the senbazuru collected from the fence at Ground Zero. "I hope that by talking about the small wish for peace, the small ripple will become bigger and bigger," Sasaki says.
(Image credit: Tribute WTC Visitors Center)IN PERSON
If you ever visit Hiroshima's Peace Memorial Park, be sure to visit the Children's Peace Monument and see the thousands of folded paper cranes on display there. Ring the Peace Bell, another popular memorial, and visit the Peace Flame. Unlike many memorial flames, this one is not eternal: It will be extinguished when the last nuclear weapon has disappeared from Earth.
___________________The article above was reprinted with permission from the newest volume of the Bathroom reader series, Uncle John's 24-Karat Bathroom Reader.
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