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A Thousand Paper Cranes




Today, my friend Sarah is going to do a silent demonstration of folding a paper crane, in honor of all those lost at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, while I share the story of the little girl who immortalized this symbol of peace — Sadako Sasaki, a child hibakusha, or “bomb-affected person.” She was a child who survived the initial impact of the bombing of Hiroshima, and her story is emblematic of the way that atomic weapons are an existential threat to civilians everywhere, as long as they exist.


On August 6, 1945, when the U.S. Air Force Enola Gay dropped the “Little Boy” atomic bomb on Hiroshima at the order of President Truman, Sadako, just 2 years old at the time, was at her family home about 1 mile from the epicenter of the explosion. A blinding white light flashed through the city, and moments later, a huge boom was heard and a blast was felt when Little Boy exploded over Sadako’s hometown. The explosion instantly killed tens of thousands of people, and the blast threw the toddler through a window; her mother ran out to find her, suspecting she may be dead, but instead found her two-year-old daughter alive with no apparent injuries. Sadako and her mother were caught in the radioactive black rain as they fled to safety, but her grandmother was lost in the rampaging, citywide fires in an attempt to save family heirlooms. By the end of 1945, estimates from the United States military were that around 70,000 people died at Hiroshima, though later independent estimates argued that the actual number was 140,000 dead. In either case, the majority of the deaths occurred on the day of the bombing itself, with nearly all of them taking place by the end of 1945. Sadako’s hometown was utterly decimated, the population of survivor hibakusha absolutely devastated.


Sadako grew up like her peers in Hiroshima—traumatized, but resilient—and loved to run, even becoming an important member of her class relay team. However, in November 1954, at age 11, Sadako developed swelling on her neck and behind her ears. In January 1955, purpura had formed on her legs. Subsequently, she was diagnosed with acute malignant lymph gland leukemia—often referred to as "atomic bomb disease". She was hospitalized in late February 1955, and given no more than a year to live. By the time Sadako was diagnosed in the mid-1950s, it was clear that the widespread leukemia (particularly in children) was caused by radiation exposure by the uranium in the bomb. So, though the “Little Boy” had already taken her grandmother, her home, her family’s livelihood and community from her, the reach of the bomb stretched into her future, determined to take her life as well.


Sadako was hospitalized at the Hiroshima Red Cross Hospital, where a local high school club brought her and her roommate Kiyo paper cranes to console them. There, she was told the legend of the cranes: some Japanese folklore says that a crane can live for a thousand years, and a person who folds an origami crane for each year of a crane’s life will have their wish granted. The story of the origami cranes inspired Sadako with a new passion and purpose: by folding one thousand origami cranes, she would wish to be well again. She used medicine wrappings and whatever else she could scrounge; she would ask her friend Chizuko to bring paper from school, and she’d go to other patients' rooms to ask for the paper from their get-well presents because paper was hard to come by in post-war Hiroshima.


Sadly, Sadako’s paper-crane wish didn’t come true, and the leukemia took her before she could even turn 13. But by the end of her young life, on October 25, 1955, she had achieved and exceeded her goal, inspiring her friends, family, and classmates. Perhaps in this experience, origami became meditation. Folding the paper perhaps became a prayer not only for her own health but for world peace, a recognition that peace is in our hands. After her death, Sadako's friends and schoolmates published a collection of letters in order to raise funds to build a memorial to her and all of the children who had died from the effects of the atomic bomb. In 1958, a statue of Sadako Sasaki, standing triumphant over an abstracted shell of a hollowed-out atomic bomb, holding aloft a golden origami crane, was unveiled in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park. At the foot of the statue is a plaque that simply and profoundly reads: "This is our cry. This is our prayer. Peace in the world."


Today we echo that cry, that prayer: for all children, all humans, and all living things: peace in the world. Abolish nuclear weapons now.







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