Colorful origami from around globe cheers up tsunami-hit city


Numerous origami cranes spanning the colors of the rainbow have been sent from around the globe to cheer up passersby in the Miyagi Prefecture town of Minamisanriku, which lost its “color” after the devastating tsunami on March 11, 2011.

Chains of the paper birds, sent by individuals and schools from across Japan and overseas with handwritten messages of support and encouragement to the tsunami-ravaged town on their backs, are being strung along a wall by a national road running through it. The chains have been hung on 14 large panels that read “Zen-sekai-no-minasan-arigato!” or “To all around the world, thank you!”

The huge tsunami that followed the earthquake nearly wiped out the coastal town, destroying houses, shops, signboards, cars and ships. The debris was cleared and only concrete foundations have remained in the town.

“A year has passed and some people in Tokyo and outside the Tohoku region think recovery has proceeded to a certain level. But it has just started,” said Dai Ichikawa, leader of the Orizuru (origami crane) Project. “The cranes can tell the Tohoku people they’re not alone.”

The 31-year-old company employee in Tokyo said he and a group of 15 volunteers started the project jointly with residents of the Utatsu area in Minamisanriku in January to “commemorate the victims of the Great East Japan Earthquake,” and also to let the people in disaster-hit areas “know that we’re not forgetting (the tragedy).”

“After the removal of debris, the town’s landscape became colorless and turned gray,” he said. “We’re hoping to add color here to lift people’s spirits.”

Of about 70,000 origami cranes have so far been sent to the group from throughout Japan and foreign countries, including the United States, New Zealand, Austria and Germany, and 25,000 pieces had been displayed as of March 10 after being threaded into chains of paper birds. The group expects more to arrive.

In Japan, threaded origami cranes are made to wish for peace, happiness and recovery.

After the arrival of the cranes, made of waterproof paper, the group sorts them by color, threads 80 pieces onto a 5-meter-long fishing line and coats the chain with a waterproofing chemical to resist rain and snow.

As a place for display of the colorful sets of paper-bird strings, which are 40 meters wide, the group selected a space of wall below the 14 panels, which express gratitude for support from around the world to the town.

The panels, painted by local children, were set up last June by residents and the group alongside a busy national road so that drivers and pedestrians can see them.

The setting up of the panels came after a request by residents who were seeking ways to convey their gratitude for worldwide support after the devastating tsunami engulfed their hometown.

Along with the quake, the double disaster killed nearly 900 people in Minamisanriku, which had a population of about 17,000 before the tsunami, and about 55 percent of the facilities in the Utatsu area were damaged or destroyed, according to town data.

Within a year, however, moves toward reconstruction by residents were seen. In mid-December, some stores, including a barber and a cake shop, gathered to reopen a small shopping street using temporary facilities.

“I was so happy when we could open the shopping street again,” a female staff member of a reopened tourism agency said. “But, I’m hoping for more stores to open. It’s a little sad to have fewer stores (than before the disaster).”

To enliven Utatsu’s economy and tourism, Ichikawa’s group is also set to help activate the community by opening an outdoor stage where local groups can perform traditional performing arts of music and dance.

“Voices seeking revival of traditional performances arose and some said they can’t let it fade away (despite the disaster),” said Ichikawa, adding that such voices did not arise at first as some members of local performing groups or members of their families lost their lives last March.

“The stage can become a venue for them and provide opportunities for people to take a step outside from temporary housing,” he said.

The project is now under way, taken over by a professional event planner born in Minamisanriku who heard about the project, and a traditional drumming performance is slated to be held at end of March.

Among the many origami cranes are those made by local residents, who wrote messages to loved ones who perished in the tsunami, or expressions of determination for reconstruction.

“Our connection (between the volunteer group and the town) is based on gratitude and bond. Even if it’s a small contribution, it would be our honor if we can be helpful for the town’s recovery,” Ichikawa said.