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1,000 Origami Cranes - A story of destruction and hope

Origami is the art of paper-folding. Its name derives from the Japanese words ori (“folding”) and kami/gami (“paper”). Traditional origami consists of folding a single sheet of square paper (often with a colored side) into a sculpture without cutting, gluing, taping, or even marking it.

The craft dates back to the creation of paper itself but due to scarcity it was reserved for the elite or as part of a ceremony until paper became more readily available and affordable due to mass-production.

The skill evolved slowly, and knowledge of traditional models was handed down from person to person for centuries. Written instructions for paper folding first appeared in 1797, with Akisato Rito’s Sembazuru Orikata, or “thousand crane folding.” In 1845, Adachi Kazuyuki published a more comprehensive compilation of paper folding with Kayaragusa; by the late 1800s, the term for paper folding had morphed from orikata (“folded shapes”) to what we know today.

A Japanese legend promises that anyone who folds a thousand origami cranes will be granted a wish by the gods. Some stories believe you are granted happiness and eternal good luck, instead of just one wish, such as long life or recovery from illness or injury. Whatever the case may be the crane is synonymous with origami and the act of folding a 1,000 is a significant act. Personally I have completed this task on 8 separate occasions giving the cranes away as gifts at my wedding, in geocaches or to cherished friends.

Sadako Sasaki was a Japanese girl who became a victim of the Atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki when she was two years old. Though severely irradiated, she survived for another ten years, becoming one of the most widely known “hibakusha” – a Japanese term meaning "bomb-affected person". She is remembered through the story of the one thousand origami cranes she folded before her death, and is to this day a symbol of the innocent victims of nuclear warfare.

Sadako Sasaki was at home when the explosion occurred, about 1 mile from ground zero in Hiroshima. She was blown out of the window and her mother ran out to find her, suspecting she may be dead, but instead finding her two-year-old daughter alive with no apparent injuries. While they were fleeing, Sasaki and her mother were caught in black rain (residual radioactive material from the nuclear fallout). Her grandmother rushed back to the house and was never seen again.

Sadako grew up like her peers and became an important member of her class relay team. In November 1954, Sasaki developed swellings on her neck and behind her ears. In January 1955, decolorization and rashes formed on her legs. Subsequently, she was diagnosed with acute malignant lymph gland leukemia (her mother and others in Hiroshima referred to it as "atomic bomb disease"). She was hospitalized on February 20th 1955, and given no more than a year to live. At the time she was admitted, her white blood cell count was six times the average.

In August 1955, she was moved into a room with a girl named Kiyo, a junior high school student who was two years older than her. It was shortly after getting this roommate that cranes were brought to her room from a local high school art club. Sadako’s father told her the legend of the cranes and she set herself a goal of folding 1,000 of them in the hopes she would be granted a wish. Although she had plenty of free time during her days in the hospital, she lacked paper, so she used medicine wrappings and whatever else she could scrounge including going to other patients' rooms to ask for the paper from their get-well presents.

A popular version of the story is that Sasaki fell short of her goal of folding 1,000 cranes, having folded only 644 before her death and that her friends completed the 1,000 and buried them all with her. However, an exhibit which appeared in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum states that by the end of August 1955, Sasaki had achieved her goal and continued to fold 300 more cranes. Sadako's older brother, Masahiro, confirms this in his book The Complete Story of Sadako Sasaki saying that she exceeded her goal.

During her time in the hospital, her condition progressively worsened. With her family and friends around her, Sasaki died on the morning of October 25th, 1955, at the age of 12. After her death, Sasaki's body was examined by the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission (ABCC) for research on the effects of the atomic bomb on the human body.

After her death, Sasaki's friends and schoolmates published a collection of letters in order to raise funds to build a memorial to her and all of the children who had died from the effects of the atomic bomb, including another Japanese girl Yoko Moriwaki. In 1958, a statue of Sasaki holding a golden crane was unveiled in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park. At the foot of the statue is a plaque that reads: "This is our cry. This is our prayer. Peace in the world."

In 2012 a friend of mine visited the shrine on a work trip and laid a crane I folded at the memorial. Additionally, he brought back a souvenir crane encased in acrylic from the annual world peace day event that occurs there each year on August 6th. This lovely piece of art continues to hold a place of honor in my office.

Sasaki has become a leading symbol of the effects of nuclear war. Sasaki is also a heroine for many girls in Japan. Her story is told in Japanese schools on the anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing.

Artist Sue DiCicco founded the Peace Crane Project in 2013 to celebrate Sadako's legacy and connect students around the world in a vision of peace. DiCicco and Sadako's brother co-wrote a book about Sadako, The Complete Story of Sadako Sasaki, hoping to bring her true story to English speaking countries. Their website offers a study guide for students and an opportunity to "Ask Masahiro".

Interested in trying your hand at folding an origami crane? Here is a video I recorded with instructions.

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