Embedded in Culture: The Symbolism of Cranes in Japanese Art

Few of us who have held paper have not, at some point, folded a bird, or the shape of a bird, a pair of wings, and made them fly, literally, or with swirling arms to create the magic of flight. Cranes are central to origami, and the tradition of folding a 1,000, or senzaburu, dates back to a Confucian belief that they could live to be 1,000 years old. To fold so many is to evoke the long-standing association between these remarkable birds, longevity, happiness and good fortune.

Cranes are also closely associated with peace in Japan. In 1955, a schoolgirl named Sadako Sasaki, who had miraculously survived the atomic bomb that devastated Hiroshima a decade earlier, fell ill with leukemia. When a school friend visited her hospital bed carrying a gift of origami paper, she also told Sadako senzaburu and its association with good fortune. Determined to recover, Sadako began bending cranes and is believed to have reached 644 before succumbing to relentless radiation cancer.

His story quickly spread, and schoolchildren from all over Japan and overseas donated money to build a monument to his memory at Hiroshima Peace Park. A small bell hangs from it, donated by Japan’s first Nobel laureate, Hideki Yukawa. People still hang paper cranes under the bell, both to celebrate Sadako’s life and the enduring association between cranes and peace.

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