The story of 1,000 cranes

The story of Sadako Sasaki, the young Hiroshima girl who folded paper cranes in hopes of surviving leukemia, has been embellished and dramatized through the years, said her older brother, who spoke on Maui last week to help straighten the record, offer personal recollections and proffer meaning to the young life snuffed out by the atomic bombing.

The popular telling of the story of Sadako is that the 12-year-old began her quest to fold 1,000 cranes in hopes of garnering good luck in her battle against the disease that, back in post-World War II, was considered terminal. She died on Oct. 25, 1955, at the Red Cross Hospital in Hiroshima having folded 644 cranes.

Her classmates completed Sadako’s 1,000 cranes by folding the remaining 356, and she was cremated surrounded by those cranes. This version of the story is told in Eleanor Coerr’s “Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes,” an illustrated children’s book, which she describes as “historical fiction,” published in 1977. Austrian journalist Robert Jungk, who visited Hiroshima in 1956, also took liberties with the number of cranes Sadako folded and her death in his book “Light in the Ruins.”

Masahiro Sasaki, 74, said in an interview prior to his talk at Wailuku Hongwanji on Wednesday, that his sister actually folded more than 1,600 cranes and, in the end, the folding of the cranes became more than a hope and a wish to overcome the disease.

He said that his sister folded the thousandth crane at the end of August 1955, after a month of working at it. Realizing that the folding of 1,000 cranes did not cure her, “she hoped to make another thousand in hopes she might recover.”

“That wish made her fold 600 more,” Sasaki said in Japanese through interpreter the Rev. Shinkai Murakami.

Not all of the cranes were cremated with her, said Sasaki, a beautician who currently lives in Fukuoka. Some were shared with her classmates, 120 sit in the Hiroshima Memorial Peace Museum, one crane is displayed at Pearl Harbor’s visitor center.

Sasaki brought with him a tiny crane, about the size of a penny, made from candy paper by Sadako. She lay bedridden at the time and used a needle to fold the crane while lying on her back, he explained.

Sasaki, who is mentioned in Coerr’s book, harbors no anger for the inaccuracies, though he added that writers never bothered to interview the family. He realizes that the changes were made to create “a more meaningful story.”

Still, he believes that his duty is to share the truth. That’s how Sadako would want it, too.

When she embarked on her mission to fold the 1,000 cranes, Sadako was hoping for a cure, he said. In Coerr’s book, Sadako’s friend reminds her of the Japanese legend of the crane that is supposed to live 1,000 years.

“If a sick person folds a thousand cranes, the gods will grant her wish and make her healthy again,” the friend tells Sadako.

Though no one told her she had leukemia, Sadako suspected she had the disease when she entered the Red Cross hospital in February 1955, he said. Her fears were confirmed when she sneaked a look at her chart on April 26, 1955; it said she had “sub acute lymphocytic leukemia.”

The American Cancer Society says exposure to radiation is a risk factor for the disease that Sadako herself referred to as “the atom bomb disease.” It can show up six to eight years after initial exposure, according to the cancer society website.

While there were few treatments for the disease in 1955, today chemotherapy is used, with 80 to 90 percent remission rates in adults, the cancer society said.

Sasaki believes his sister knew on that day in April that she did not have long to live.

The folding of the cranes would evolve into a way for her to endure the pain of the disease, the injections and the transfusions. It would help her conquer the guilt she felt for draining the family’s meager finances and give her the strength to put up a brave and positive face to salve the worries of her parents and family.

“She didn’t talk about her deep suffering,” he said, adding that she refused pain-relieving morphine as she neared the end of her life. “Through folding the cranes, she made . . . everything go into the cranes and relieve her suffering.”

Sadako called home only once during her eight-month hospital stay. She told her father over the phone that she had received 150 yen to help with her treatment, adding “but there is no need to hurry.”

“I think Sadako knew the purpose of her existence at the age of 12,” Mr. Sasaki told the audience of about 80 people, through interpreter Toshiyuki Umitani. “That’s why she could endure the physical pain, overcome her mental agony and live through despite our family’s financial condition.

“I feel it is man’s ultimate mission to use this life for the sake of others. Sadako proved this. She accepted her physical pain . . . hid her true emotions . . . and overcame physical pain.”

“She lived her life as a beacon of light with a heart of omoriyari,” he said, defining the Japanese word as a caring heart shared with others.

“To share that heart of omoriyari was the mission given to Sadako,” he continued. “I think that heart of kindness and thoughtfulness needs to be shared with all the people in the world. This heart of omoriyari is the basis of our identity as human beings.”

The day the bomb fell

On Aug. 6, 1945, Sasaki and Sadako, who was 2, went outside after neighbors called them out to see two shiny airplanes flying overhead. They were living in Kusunoki, west Hiroshima, about 1 mile from the hypocenter of the world’s first atomic bomb attack.

Their grandmother called them back in for breakfast. Just as they sat down at the table, the bomb exploded.

The house was destroyed, and flames swirled about.

“The people who were outside and had gazed up at the sky only moments before were left in disfigured form so horrifying and unimaginable that they had ever been human,” a narrator said on a CD that Sasaki played. The CD offered Sasaki’s recollections and his thoughts.

“People, iron, stone, glass, all a melted mass,” the narrator said. “Surrounded by a stench so awful and a sight so terrifying, we fled to the river nearby and boarded a small boat.”

A sticky black rain, containing radiation from the bomb, fell and covered Sadako’s crying face. She was uninjured by the bomb blast, but he believes it was the black rain that would take her life a decade later.

Their grandmother was killed on the day of the bombing, her body found in a water cistern available in case of fire bombing attacks that had earlier destroyed Japan’s major cities. She was one of the more than 140,000 killed by the atomic bombing that day in August 70 years ago.

Sasaki, who was a couple years older than his sister, would not be affected by the bomb blast or the black rain.

The ticking time bomb

Sadako grew up healthy and turned out to be a very fast runner. The 4-foot-5-inch, 60-pound 6th-grader at Nobori-cho Elementary School ran the 50-meter dash in 7.5 seconds. She was faster than her brother and never lost a race, according to a special exhibit by Hiroshima City.

“When Sadako passed me up during relay practices, she did it with a snicker. I mean, that hurt. I can still hear that snicker,” said classmate Nobuhiko Jigo.

A teacher for Sadako’s “Bamboo Class” sought to build unity among his students, still recovering from the war. A third were survivors of the atomic bombing, many had lost parents in the war and some had been repatriated from China, which Japan occupied in the early 1930s.

They had finished last in the previous Spring Sports Day relay race. The teacher had his students practicing every day prior to the next race. Sadako ran the anchor leg for the Bamboo Class that won the race in fall 1954, according to the exhibit.

Jigo applauded their instructor for teaching them all the value of perseverance and unity. It’s that unity that would come to play a role in the perpetuation of the story of Sadako and her cranes.

A few months after the relay race, the signs of leukemia began appearing, first as fatigue then as lumps on her neck and behind her ears. Purple spots began forming on her legs. These purple spots were a signature of radiation exposure, often discovered weeks after the bombing in otherwise healthy survivors. It was a death sentence.

Sasaki recites the exact day Sadako entered the hospital – Feb. 21, 1955. Their father was told that Sadako had leukemia and had three months to a year to live.

There would be good days and bad days. In fact, on Aug. 6, 1955, Sadako tried to attend the Hiroshima memorial service but had to return to the hospital due to bleeding gums, according to the exhibit.

At about that time, paper cranes arrived at the hospital from Nagoya to cheer up the patients. It was then that Sadako began folding her cranes, the exhibit said.

The white blood cells in her body continued to increase, crowding out other blood cell elements.

Sadako secretly kept track of her white blood cell count, trying to figure out how much life she had left. Her family discovered the log under her mattress after her death, Sasaki said.

Her brother said that the pain was intense, like prickling needles throughout her body. It became difficult for her to walk, then eventually she was bedridden.

On Oct. 25, 1955, the hospital made an urgent call to the family for them to come to Sadako’s side. When they arrived in her room, her eyes were vacant, Sasaki recalled. Her mother held her hand; her dad rubbed his cheek against his daughter’s face.

“Forgive me, papa is right here,” Sasaki recalled his father saying.

“Thank you for coming papa,” she smiled.

They asked her what she wanted to eat; she could have anything. Sadako chose a simple meal of chazuke, rice and tea.

“Delicious, thank you,” she said after being fed by her parents.

Those would be her last words. She died peacefully. The paper cranes in her room fluttered in the wind.

Sadako’s story spreads

The Sasakis were poor. Unable to purchase a butsudan, or altar, her ihai, or memorial tablet, was placed on a small box. Others took pity on the family and spread their plight throughout the community and in newspapers, Sasaki said.

In addition to helping the family, this got Sadako’s name and story out into the public. Sasaki also pointed to Sadako’s Bamboo classmates and their unity and resolve in making her a worldwide icon.

Sadako’s classmates formed a club and began contemplating ideas to honor their classmate. A year later, it was decided that a memorial to Sadako and all other children who perished in the atomic bombing would be built, the exhibit said.

Sasaki said that 5 million yen in donations was collected. That would be $600,000 in today’s exchange rate, said Murakami.

On May 5, 1958, less than three years after Sadako’s death, the Children’s Peace Monument was dedicated in Heiwa Koen, or Peace Park, in Hiroshima. The inscription on the monument with paper cranes hanging from around the world reads: “This is our cry, this is our prayer; peace in the world.”

At the top of the memorial is Sadako holding a shoulder-wide paper crane.

“The face is exactly the same face as Sadako,” said her brother, adding that whenever family members visit the memorial they feel that are visiting Sadako’s gravesite. “The face is the real face of Sadako.”

* Lee Imada can be reached at