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60 years after Sadako Sasaki’s death, the story behind Hiroshima’s paper cranes is still unfolding

by Peter Chordas

Contributing Writer

“They called us the ‘ragged class,'” recalls Tomiko Kawano of her sixth-grade group at Noboricho Elementary School in Hiroshima. “Half our class had lost family in the atomic bombing or were survivors themselves.”

Among them was Sadako Sasaki, the now-famous little girl who developed acute leukemia 10 years after being exposed to radiation during the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Inspired by the age-old Japanese belief that anyone who makes 1,000 origami cranes will see their wish come true, Sadako spent her last days folding paper cranes on her hospital bed in the hope she would recover.

Less known are Sadako’s friends and classmates who, at Sadako’s wake in 1955, swore an oath before her cremated remains that they would build a monument in her honor. Their efforts sparked a children’s peace movement and fundraising campaign that swept through Japan and transformed the origami crane into an international symbol of peace. The Children’s Peace Monument in the center of Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Park — the culmination of their efforts — celebrated its 60th anniversary this year.

Passing the baton: The
Passing the baton: The ‘ragged class’ relay team in 1954, with Sadako Sasaki in the center, next to Tomiko Kawano (second from left). After training every day for a year, the team won first place, in large part due to Sadako, their anchor. | COURTESY OF TOMIKO KAWANO

But in 1954, Sadako was just another bright young girl in the “ragged class.”

“She was my best friend,” says Kawano, who was a classmate of Sadako’s from second grade on. In school photos, the two are often standing next to each other. “We had a lot in common,” Kawano explains. “Both our families ran businesses out of our homes — and of course, both of us had survived the bombing.”

Kawano was 3 years old when a deadly flash filled the windows of her house on the morning of Aug. 6, 1945. Startled, she ran across the room toward her mother but tripped and fell. Through sheer luck, a mosquito net on a nearby chest of drawers fell on top of her, sheltering her from the barrage of splintered wood and glass shards that seconds later erupted through the room.

She emerged without a scratch.

At the end of sixth grade, Kawano and her classmates formed a group called the Unity Club so they could stay in touch after graduation. Members took turns visiting Sadako in the hospital. Though they didn’t know it at the time, the Unity Club would form the embryo of the Thousand Cranes Movement, which would bring the Children’s Peace Monument to fruition. The Unity Club still meets regularly, more than 60 years after Sadako’s death.

The Children
The Children’s Peace Monument is unveiled on May 5 (Children’s Day), 1958, in Hiroshima. | COURTESY OF TOMIKO KAWANO

Keeping Sadako’s story alive

Today Kawano works as an A-bomb storyteller, business owner and chair of Peace Minds Hiroshima, an organization she founded to spread Sadako’s story — and Hiroshima’s message of peace — to children around the world. Peace Minds Hiroshima aims to reach that lofty goal, appropriately enough, on the wings of the roughly 10 million paper cranes sent to the Children’s Peace Monument each year. Together, the origami offerings amount to 10 metric tons annually — more than the weight of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atom bombs combined.

Faced with the significance and staggering quantity of paper cranes (or orizuru, as they’re called in Japanese), the city of Hiroshima started looking for appropriate ways to recycle the overflow.

Through their Orizuru Notebook Project, Peace Minds Hiroshima now recycles the Peace Park’s cranes into notebooks for distribution to children overseas. Each notebook features information in Japanese and English about Sadako, the bombing of Hiroshima, the need for peace and nuclear abolition — and, of course, instructions on how to fold paper cranes.

Yuya Naka, President of the Thousand Crane Club at Hiroshima International School, displays a string of 1,000 cranes sent from Primarschule Neuwies, a school in Germany.
Yuya Naka, President of the Thousand Crane Club at Hiroshima International School, displays a string of 1,000 cranes sent from Primarschule Neuwies, a school in Germany. | COURTESY OF THE THOUSAND CRANE CLUB

“To get started, we handed out flyers at the Mayors for Peace meeting in Nagasaki last year,” says Kawano. “The cities of Malakoff, France; Hannover, Germany; and Fremantle, Australia, requested that we send notebooks to schools in their cities to promote peace activities.”

In February, a representative of Peace Minds Hiroshima, Tomoko Nishizaki, delivered orizuru notebooks in person to an elementary school in Cuba.

However, the project isn’t without its challenges.

“For a start, we’re all from pre-internet generations,” says Seiji Okamura, a supporter of Peace Minds Hiroshima who, at 64, handles their social media presence. “As a result, most of our members don’t know about social media or how to connect with people online. This also makes fundraising difficult.”

Global school, global mission

Fortunately for Peace Minds Hiroshima, they’re not the only group in town looking to connect with overseas students through paper cranes.

Tomoko Nishizaki presenting orizuru (origami crane) notebooks to schoolchildren in Cuba in February.
Tomoko Nishizaki presenting orizuru (origami crane) notebooks to schoolchildren in Cuba in February. | COURTESY OF PEACE MINDS HIROSHIMA

Hiroshima International School, the only school in the Chugoku region offering an international education in English for ages 3 through 18, hosts a student group dedicated to handling paper cranes sent to the Peace Park.

“The Senbazuru Club, or Thousand Crane Club, takes care of paper cranes sent from outside nations to Hiroshima,” explains Yuya Naka, senior student at Hiroshima International School and current president of the club. As with roughly one-third of the Hiroshima International School’s student body, Naka comes from a family with one Japanese and one foreign parent — in his case his German mother.

According to Naka, the Peace Park’s cranes usually come from schools where, as part of a history lesson, students learned about Hiroshima and folded 1,000 cranes as a class activity.

“However, often the cranes we get aren’t in very good condition,” says Naka. “Sometimes they aren’t folded properly, or they don’t have a string connecting the 1,000 together — they’re literally just a heap of paper cranes. So our club strings loose cranes together and refolds the ones that aren’t quite presentable.”

If you’ve ever visited Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Park and noticed that all the paper cranes look picturesque, now you know why.

When Kawano visited Hiroshima International School as an A-bomb storyteller, Naka spoke with her about giving orizuru notebooks as thank-you gifts to schools that send cranes to Hiroshima.

“We’re still working out the best way to get the notebooks overseas, since shipping is so expensive,” says Naka, “but current ideas include asking recipient schools to cover postage, and perhaps even a crowdfunding campaign.”

For a friend: Tomiko Kawano and Seiji Okamura of Peace Minds Hiroshima show the notebooks their group began making this year from recycled paper cranes.
For a friend: Tomiko Kawano and Seiji Okamura of Peace Minds Hiroshima show the notebooks their group began making this year from recycled paper cranes. | PETER CHORDAS

Unlike the pre-digital-era members of Peace Minds Hiroshima, at age 17 Naka isn’t likely to experience much trouble connecting with people online. And for Kawano, that’s exactly the age group she feels most comfortable talking to.

“Sadako fell ill when we were in sixth grade,” she explains, “and our next four years were consumed with the campaign to build the Children’s Peace Monument. I feel like children that age can best understand what we went through.”

To Kawano, the most important things for them to understand are the value of peace and the preciousness of life.

“Behind that stands unity and continuation,” she says. “The Thousand Cranes Movement started with us and spread to Hiroshima. From Hiroshima, it spread across Japan. Today paper cranes arrive at the Children’s Peace Monument from all over the world. It’s because we stuck together and didn’t give up.”

Vivica Daniel, former president of the Thousand Crane Club, agrees that the power of connecting to foreign nations through paper cranes shouldn’t be underestimated.

“Sometimes I hear opinions that folding 1,000 cranes doesn’t mean anything, and that we should stop because it’s a waste of time and paper,” says Daniel. “But I think there are so many things that paper cranes can tell people. They connect us with the history of Hiroshima. I’ve seen many people who first believed that the A-bomb was necessary, but after learning about what really happened in Hiroshima, changed their minds.”

In his last year at Hiroshima International School, Naka intends to establish a way for the Thousand Crane Club to increase its outreach overseas.

“The symbolism of paper cranes is much more powerful than mere statistics,” he says. “By sharing these notebooks that Kawano is creating, I think we can impact many more people.”

Peace Minds Hiroshima: www.pm-hiroshima.com; Thousand Crane Club: www.facebook.com/1000craneclub

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