HIROSHIMA – Masahiro Sasaki was only 4 years old when the B-29 bomber Enola Gay dropped its atomic bomb on Hiroshima, wiping out the central part of the city on that sunny Aug. 6, 1945, morning.
In just one moment, the “Little Boy” A-bomb turned the beautiful city into ashes, and about 140,000 people were killed, immediately or in the weeks and months that followed due to radiation exposure.
Sasaki was at home with his 2-year-old sister, Sadako, his mother and his grandmother, just 1.6 km from ground zero.
Together, they ran to a nearby river to escape the fire and together they huddled as the “black rain” poured down on them. Without knowing it at the time, they were all exposed to a massive amount of radiation.
But in the end, Sadako was the only one who fell ill. She was 12 years old when she died of leukemia. And to this day, she remains a symbol of all the innocent lives that were lost during the war.
“She was such a cheerful little girl that lit up the room when she was around. . . . It tore us apart that she had to go through so much suffering — not only did she have to bear the physical pain and the emotional strain of being sick, our family’s financial situation prevented her from getting enough medication,” Sasaki, 71, recalled during a recent interview with The Japan Times. “But this 12-year-old girl held all of her troubles inside her heart and endured the pain.”
She was hospitalized in February 1955. Throughout the months that followed, she folded paper cranes in the hope of recovering from her illness. Her efforts were based on a Japanese legend that if one folds 1,000 cranes, his or her wish will come true. Paper at that time wasn’t cheap and Sadako made the origami cranes with whatever scraps she could find, including wrapping paper from her medicine and gifts.
With the help of her family and friends, she was able to achieve her first 1,000 cranes and was in the middle of her second round when she passed away.
And to the day she died, she never let her family know that she was aware of her disease. It was only in notes she had written that were found later with records of her blood tests that the family realized the young girl had known she was dying.
“I think folding the cranes helped distract her mind from the sadness, the suffering and the pain. . . . Those cranes are not just any paper cranes — they are filled with Sadako’s emotions,” Sasaki said.
Saddened by Sadako’s death, her classmates started a movement to collect money to build a monument in Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park. Eventually, her story was picked up by the media, donations poured in from across the nation, and in 1958 the Children’s Peace Monument was built. It features a statue of a little girl holding up a crane. On the monument are the words “This is our cry. This is our prayer. For building peace in the world.”
Through books and movies that were translated into other languages, the story of Sadako and her 1,000 cranes became famous throughout the world.
The Sasaki family, however, was more than a little bewildered.
Sasaki said his father was especially wary of the way Sadako had become commercialized and expressed concern that the stories being told about her weren’t necessarily true.
“We had originally been reluctant to talk about her. . . . But we realized that as the Sasaki family, we had the responsibility to tell her story to the world, to tell about what really happened and the pain she endured,” Sasaki said.
To tell her story, Sasaki, a hairstylist who lives in Fukuoka Prefecture, began traveling around Japan in 2000, holding lectures and giving speeches. He and his family also established the Sadako Legacy, a nonprofit organization, in 2009.
It was through these activities that Sasaki met Clifton Truman Daniel, the oldest grandson of U.S. President Harry Truman — the man who ordered the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Daniel became interested in Sadako’s story when his son, 9 years old at the time, read about the young girl and her paper cranes.
Both Daniel and Sasaki have expressed their happiness at being able to meet and work together to overcome the tragedies of the past.
More than 10 years after their initial contact, Sasaki succeeded in inviting Daniel to attend the annual ceremonies in Hiroshima and Nagasaki earlier this month on the 67th anniversaries of the bombings.
Sasaki recognized that it was not an easy choice for Daniel to come to Japan, especially since his visit might not have been welcomed by some hibakusha who are still suffering from exposure to the bombs’ radiation.
“When someone from Japan says ‘no more Hiroshimas,’ someone else from the U.S. says ‘never again Pearl Harbor.’ These two sides always clash. But (Daniel and I) were able to share the hope of overcoming” the past, Sasaki said.
After Sadako’s death, her father gave away most of the cranes to people he met who wanted to hear her story. Eventually, the family had just five left.
Instead of holding onto them, Sasaki decided to donate them one by one to places around the world, starting in 2010 with the Tribute WTC Visitor Center in New York, which commemorates the people killed in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
The second one was donated to a peace museum in Austria.
And next month, with the help of Daniel, the Sasaki family will deliver the third crane to the USS Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor.
“The sadness that (led to the establishment of these memorials) are the same as Sadako’s. We are placing her cranes all around the world with the message that we hope such tragedies will never occur again,” Sasaki said. “And by placing one at Pearl Harbor, I hope it will lead to a true beginning of the end of the war between Japan and the U.S.”