Wings of Peace: Sadako Sasaki’s Cranes

The 6th August 1945 started out like any other sunny morning in the Japanese city of Hiroshima in the Chūgoku region of Honshū, the largest of the country’s four main islands. Hiroshima’s 350,000 residents went about their business, ignorant of the fact that the city had been chosen as the target for ‘Little Boy,’ the American codename for the first atomic bomb to be used as a weapon of war. Seconds after Little Boy was dropped, the once bustling metropolis became a scene of apocalyptic carnage.

It is estimated that up to 80,000 people were killed instantly, with a further 70,000 suffering horrific injuries. The majority of Hiroshima’s buildings were reduced to rubble. Dr Michihiko Hachiya who witnessed the dreadful aftermath and kept a diary of his experiences, which would later be published in 1955, remembered how, ‘There were the shadowy forms of people, some of whom looked like walking ghosts. Others moved as though in pain, like scarecrows, their arms held out from their bodies with forearms and hands dangling.’

Above: British Pathé footage of the bombing of Hiroshima (1945)

No-one could ever imagine the terrible effects that the residual radiation would have on many of the survivors and even on those not yet born.

Sadako Sasaki was 2 years-old when her home near Hiroshima’s Misasa Bridge was destroyed. Her grandmother died in the blast that forced Sadoko out of a window, and she was found by her mother seemingly unharmed. After the city of Nagasaki on the island of Kyushu was the target of the equally devastating ‘Fat Man’ a second atomic bomb, Japan finally surrendered to the Allies on 15th August 1945. Efforts were made to re-build both cities after the war, and in 1949, the Japanese government declared Hiroshima to be a City of Peace. In 1954, the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park was constructed in memory of those who had lost their lives.

In December that year, Sadako, who had gone on to become an exceptionally bright and popular girl, who regularly took part in her school’s sporting events, complained of feeling dizzy immediately after a win by her school relay team, she had also noticed strange swellings and marks on her body. Her concerned parents took her for tests and she was diagnosed with leukaemia. Since 1945, cases in Hiroshima had soared and it had come to be known as the ‘A-bomb disease.’

Two months later, Sadako began her treatment, although her heartbroken family were warned that the outlook was bleak. In hospital, Sadako befriended Yukiko Amamiya, who was two years old than her and also suffering from leukaemia. Yukiko told her of senbazuru, an ancient Japanese legend that promised a wish would be granted to those who folded a thousand paper cranes. Tanchōzuru – the red-crowned cranes of Japan, were often called ‘fairy cranes’ and said to live for a thousand years because they carried an immortal ‘fairy’ or ‘spirit’ with them. Cranes also played an important role in other Asian cultures, including those of China, Korea and Vietnam. A traditional Vietnamese superstition being that, when a person died, a crane would help to lift their soul up to heaven.

Sadoko mustered up what little energy she had left and set about making paper cranes, and as her older brother Masahiro Sasaki believed, ‘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.’ However, her greatest wish was for a future in which nuclear weapons had no place, and she told her creations, ‘I will write “peace” on your wings, and you will fly all over the world.’ 

On 25th October 1955, Sadako died. She had managed to fold 644 paper cranes and after her death, her mother gave some of them away to her daughter’s friends as a reminder of her courage and as a token of good fortune. As Sadako had requested, her body was donated to the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission in the hope that she might be able to help other victims.

Built in 1958, the Children’s Peace Monument stands in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park. Inscribed with the words, ‘This is our cry. This is our prayer. For building peace in the world,’ the statue shows Sadako with arms stretched heavenwards as one of her cranes carries her.

Selected Sources:

Hiroshima Diary: The Journal of a Japanese Physician, August 6-September 30, 1945 – Michihiko Hachiya (1955)

The Encyclopedia of Contemporary Japanese Culture – Sandra Buckley (2009)

One Thousand Paper Cranes: The Story of Sadako and the Children’s Peace Statue – Takayuki Ishii (2012)

Brother keeps Sadako memory alive