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Japan: Hiroshima victim's origami a warning from the past

Julian Ryall in Tokyo
September 20, 2023

The family of Sadako Sasaki, who died of radiation poisoning in 1955, wants her paper cranes recognized by UNESCO as a historically significant symbol of the horrors of nuclear weapons.

Paper cranes in a glass case
Sadako Sasaki's paper cranes on display at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial MuseumImage: Kyodo/picture alliance

The nephew of the girl who has become synonymous with the suffering caused by the atomic bomb attack on Hiroshima in 1945 is spearheading a campaign to have the origami cranes she folded added to the UNESCO Memory of the World register. 

Sumiyuki Sasaki in late August applied to the Japanese National Commission for around 100 delicate paper cranes that Sadako Sasaki folded while being treated for leukemia to be nominated for UNESCO recognition as items of global significance and universal value. 

"A sick person or their family often folded paper cranes to pray for their recovery," 56-year-old Sumiyuki Sasaki told DW. "Sadako contracted leukemia due to exposure to radiation from the first nuclear weapon to be used against humans."

"The story that Sadako folded paper cranes at the hospital became known worldwide as the 'Sadako story' and paper cranes and Sadako became a symbol of the call for peace and the abolition of nuclear weapons," he said. 

Hiroshima 'successors' keep telling atomic bomb stories

Sasaki survived Hiroshima atom bomb attack

Sadako Sasaki was two years old when the B29 bomber Enola Gay dropped the "Little Boy" bomb on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945.

Detonating with a power equivalent to 16 kilotons of TNT, the blast killed an estimated 66,000 people instantly and severely injured another 69,000 inhabitants of the city. Later figures put the final death toll at around 140,000 people. 

In her home about 1.6 kilometers (1 mile) from ground zero, Sadako was apparently unscathed in the attack, despite being blown through a window in the initial blast. She had, however, been exposed to large amounts of radiation and began displaying signs of exposure in November 1954, including swelling inside her neck. 

She was subsequently diagnosed with acute malignant lymph gland leukemia, an illness that survivors called "atomic bomb disease."

Admitted to the Hiroshima Red Cross Hospital, she began folding origami cranes. According to Japanese legend, if someone folded 1,000 paper cranes, they would be granted a wish. She believed if she folded enough cranes, she would recover.

A paper crane in a spotlight on black background
Sadako Sasaki believed folding cranes would help her recover Image: Charlie Riedel/AP/picture alliance / ASSOCIATED PRESS

"Sadako kept folding paper cranes, including astonishingly tiny ones, using sewing needles, even when her hands could no longer move sufficiently until the last moment of her life at the hospital," said her cousin, Sasaki.

"She folded paper cranes with courage and hope, not only for herself, but also her family despite the difficulties she faced, and that I believe must have resonated with many people in Japan and abroad," he added.

Despite reaching her goal for folding origami cranes, and in fact exceeding it by around 300, Sadako died at the age of 12 in October 1955. 

Hiroshima's message of peace

Today, Japanese children are taught Sadako Sasaki's story in school and typically learn how to fold the perfect origami crane from their families.

At the heart of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, just meters from where the bomb detonated, the Children's Peace Monument depicts a girl standing with her arms outstretched and with a paper crane above her.

Sasaki is the model for the statue. Thousands of Japanese children take part in school trips to the peace park every year and many leave long strings of cranes around the base of the statue. 

A metal statue of a girl holding up her arms
The 'Statue of the Children of the Atomic Bomb' in Hiroshima Image: Takuya Yoshino/AP/picture alliance

For two years, Sasaki's family has been working with a number of civic organizations for the 100 folded cranes and a number of other personal items, including her handwritten notes on a blood test result and a pair of slippers, to be added to the UNESCO Memory of the World register.

The campaign is also being supported by the Hiroshima Prefectural Government through its Peace Promotion Project Team. 

"The story of Sadako and her paper cranes has touched the hearts of many people and disseminated prayers for peace throughout the globe," said Shinji Yasuda, supervisor of the department.

"The application to UNESCO Memory of the World will undoubtedly enhance Hiroshima's message for peace," he told DW. "We think this will have a profound importance on our efforts to achieve peace and a world without nuclear weapons," Yasuda said.

Sumiyuki Sasaki said he hopes the Japan office of UNESCO will accept the application after a screening process that is scheduled to take place in November and then pass it on to the head office of the organization for consideration.

"We have been working hard to spread the story of Sadako and paper cranes, but our impact is still limited because we are a small and private organization," he said. 

"If the story was registered in the UNESCO Memory of the World, we would have more opportunities to let more people know what happened. That could lead to greater opportunities to appeal for peace and more people would think about the consequences of nuclear weapons," he said. "And that could cause more people to focus on the nuclear threats currently being made by Russia after its invasion of Ukraine," he added.

A final decision on the artefacts is expected to be announced after a meeting of the executive committee of UNESCO in the spring of 2025, which would also be the 80th anniversary of the atomic bomb attack on Hiroshima.

Hiroshima's origami cranes find new purpose

Edited by: Wesley Rahn 

Julian Ryall
Julian Ryall Journalist based in Tokyo, focusing on political, economic and social issues in Japan and Korea