Radical Objects

Radical Objects: Origami and the Anti-Nuclear Movement

origami crane
Figure 1: Origami crane, photograph by Vera Mackie.

Take a perfectly square piece of paper. Fold it in half along a vertical axis. Open it out. Now fold it in half along a horizontal axis. Open it out again. Fold the paper diagonally from corner to corner to form a triangle. Fold this triangle in half to form an equilateral triangle. On each fold, run your fingernails along the fold-line to impress the line deeply on the paper. Take one corner, open out the triangle and fold it to form a square…

If one wanted to teach someone how to fold origami with words alone it would be well-nigh impossible. It is a skill which can only be learned by observing someone else do it and by going through the motions with one’s own hands. This learned skill has been transmitted from individual to individual and has gradually spread around the world.

Here is a pamphlet produced by the anti-nuclear organisation, ICAN (International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons). The flat orange background and white slogan ‘Ban Nuclear Weapons Now’ contrast with the blue, three-dimensional origami crane attached to the pamphlet. In the lower left of the front page the ICAN logo also appears – an adaptation of the peace symbol used by nuclear disarmament groups, modified with the addition of a broken nuclear missile.

Figure 2: ICAN pamphlet cover, photograph by Vera Mackie.
Figure 2: ICAN pamphlet cover, photograph by Vera Mackie.

The back of the pamphlet tells us that ‘[p]aper cranes are a Japanese symbol for peace’ and that the ‘crane attached to this brochure was folded by a student from Hiroshima’. There is a photograph of a mother and child, with the backdrop of the flattened landscape of Hiroshima after the nuclear blast. The slogan ‘Never again’ links Hiroshima with the phrase used after the Second World War to affirm that events like the Holocaust should never happen again. In other contexts, the phrase ‘No more Hiroshimas’ is used instead.

Figure 3: ICAN pamphlet detail
Figure 3: ICAN pamphlet detail

On the 70th anniversary of the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it is timely to explore how the origami crane came to be associated with peace and anti-nuclear activism, and how the use of this symbol has evolved. In this process, it is possible to trace the invention of a tradition.

The origami crane has come to be associated with the figure of Sasaki Sadako (1943–1955) and the city of Hiroshima. Sadako was two years old when the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima on 6 August 1945; she was about a mile from ground zero and was irradiated by the ‘black rain’. She was healthy – indeed robust – through her early childhood, and enthusiastic about sport. In early 1955, though, she was diagnosed with leukemia or, in the vernacular of the time in Hiroshima, ‘atom bomb disease’, and was hospitalised. (Her story is memorialised in several on-line exhibitions of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Virtual Museum.)

There was a folk belief that folding origami cranes would result in the granting of wishes or the curing of illnesses, particularly if the cranes were linked together in strings of one thousand. In Japanese culture, the numbers 1,000 and 10,000 have associations with longevity and good fortune.

A schoolgirl from Nagoya sent Sadako an origami crane in hospital, and Sadako then embarked on her own project of folding one thousand cranes. In 1955, just ten years after the end of the war, good quality paper was in short supply and so she went round the hospital, collecting cellophane wrappers from medicine or sweets. Her family and friends helped.

In different stories about Sadako, there are inconsistencies about the number of cranes she and her supporters were able to complete. Some stories suggest that she did not reach the target of 1,000, while others suggest she might have managed close to 2,000. In any case, Sadako passed away on 25 October 1955, just over ten years after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. At her funeral, mourners were presented with some of the paper cranes she had folded.

In the mid-1950s, there was heightened global attention to the issue of nuclear contamination. In March 1954, a Japanese fishing vessel, the Daigo Fukuryū Maru (Lucky Dragon No 5) had been irradiated by US nuclear testing at Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands. One of the crew, Kuboyama Aikichi (1914–1954), died of radiation poisoning on 23 September 1954. The incident provided impetus for the international anti-nuclear movement, and Kuboyama’s widow, Shizu, became one of its spokespersons. Millions of signatures were collected in Japan in anti-nuclear petitions.

Several delegates from Japan travelled to the World Congress of Mothers in Lausanne and the World Peace Congress in Helsinki in June 1955, where the nuclear issue was a major focus. The first world conference against Atomic and Hydrogen Bombs was held in Hiroshima in August 1955, and has been held there annually ever since. In Britain, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament was established in 1958. In the US, Women Strike for Peace started demonstrating in 1961, and their actions were intensified after the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.

In a report in a leftwing women’s magazine on the travels of the Japanese delegation to the conferences in Lausanne and Helsinki and their return through the Soviet Union in 1955, one woman is shown presenting an origami crane to a Latvian child. At this stage, before Sadako’s death and the propagation of the story of the thousand cranes, it seems to have been a simple token of Japanese culture, not yet explicitly associated with the nuclear issue.

After Sadako’s death, her supporters formed the Orizuru no Kai (Origami Crane Society) and worked for the building of a memorial to children lost in the bombing and its aftermath. On 5 May 1958 (Children’s Day), a statue of Sadako was erected in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park. A film about Sadako was made in 1958 in Japan by Kimura Sotoji (1903–1988).

From this time on, the story of Sadako started to receive international attention. Sadako and the campaign for her memorial statue are mentioned in Robert Jungk’s 1961 book Children of the Ashes: The People of Hiroshima after the Bomb (originally published in German in 1959). The story received further attention outside Japan with the publication of the Austrian writer Karl Bruckner’s (1906–1982) children’s book in 1961, Sadako will leben (Sadako wants to live), subsequently translated into 22 languages. The English translation appeared in 1962 as The Day of the Bomb. Bruckner’s fictional narrative includes vignettes of the US soldiers who dropped the bomb, Japanese military personnel, workers in Hiroshima’s munitions factories, and the residents of Hiroshima who suffered in the bombing. In 1977, Canadian-born Eleanor Coerr (1922–2010) wrote a novel for young readers based on Sadako’s story, Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes. Coerr’s short novel is much more closely focused on Sadako, her family and her community.

Bruckner’s and Coerr’s novels disseminate the story of Sadako’s failing to complete the 1,000 cranes. The story of a girl who died before completing the 1,000 cranes was perhaps more effective in narrative terms. To complete the 1,000 cranes and still perish would bring the folk belief into question.

An innocent schoolgirl makes an ideal martyr figure. Sadako, born in 1943, and two years old in 1945, was too young to be implicated in the conflict of the Second World War. In this she has much in common with the figures of Anne Frank (1929–1945) or Kim Phuc (the girl who was photographed running away from a napalm attack in Vietnam).

Empathy and sympathy are important, but it sometimes takes more work to connect these stories with the geopolitics in which the lives of these girls were embedded.

As the story of Sadako and the thousand paper cranes spread internationally, a ritual developed whereby groups string together chains of 1,000 origami cranes. When such groups visit the Peace Memorial Park at Hiroshima, they present these strings of linked origami cranes to the museum and they are festooned over Sadako’s statue.

In 1962 and 1963, a pacifist group from Hiroshima, the Hiroshima-Auschwitz Committee, embarked on a pilgrimage to the Polish town of Oświęcim, the site of the Auschwitz-Bierkanau concentration camps. They took origami cranes from Hiroshima with them and left these cranes as gifts everywhere they went. By this time, the origami cranes had moved from a token of Japanese culture to a symbol of Hiroshima and nuclear devastation.

A practice which referenced the specific story of Sasaki Sadako was thus gradually adapted to other situations. The association of Sadako and the origami cranes is an adaptation of a longstanding folk practice. When individuals from different nationalities, communities, cultural backgrounds and linguistic backgrounds meet, origami can provide a small, portable gift. As the practice of folding origami can be taught through observation and mimicry, it also provides an opportunity for intercultural communication without linguistic competence. It can be improvised anywhere with just a sheet of paper. Generations of Japanese travellers have presented origami to their hosts in other countries, or have taught their hosts how to fold their own. Schoolchildren around the world have been taught this practice, particularly in Japanese language classrooms or Asian Studies classes.

The practice of folding origami cranes, presenting them to others or displaying them at significant sites provides a tangible connection between groups and individuals who might otherwise have difficulty communicating across language barriers. While it only takes a few minutes to fold one crane, it requires a certain amount of concentration and practice to achieve the precise folds required. In order to produce a string of 1,000 cranes, a significant time commitment is needed on the part of an individual or a group.

When we hold the origami crane in our hands, we can imagine the person who folded it. In the case of the ICAN pamphlet, the three-dimensional origami crane ‘folded by a student from Hiroshima’ seems to provide a tangible link with the city of Hiroshima and its tragic history. It is almost as if by touching the folded paper we can link hands with someone thousands of miles away.

This three-dimensional icon has travelled a long way from Hiroshima in 1955. The ICAN pamphlet mentioned above specifically refers to the abolition of nuclear weaponry, but the origami crane can also be seen more broadly in pacifist campaigns. Sadako’s surviving relatives have recently donated some of Sadako’s remaining cranes to the World Trade Center Visitor Center in New York, a peace museum in Austria, and the USS Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbour. Origami trinkets are now sold in the gift shop of the National 9/11 Memorial and Museum in New York City, albeit with little contextual explanation.

Figure 4: Origami on sale in the National 9/11 Memorial and Museum gift shop. Photograph by Vera Mackie.
Figure 4: Origami on sale in the National 9/11 Memorial and Museum gift shop. Photograph by Vera Mackie.

The origami crane also appears in campaigns on other aspects of the nuclear fuel cycle, such as demonstrations and commemorations of the compound earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown disaster in Fukushima in Northeastern Japan on 11 March 2011, as I have discussed in more detail elsewhere. A vigil in Melbourne, Australia on the occasion of the Fukushima disaster saw the steps of a major city building festooned with giant origami cranes.

In 2013, a group in the Blue Mountains outside Sydney embarked on a fundraising project for children in Fukushima. Schoolchildren in Australia were invited to make origami cranes and make small donations to the project. The chains of cranes were presented to children visiting from Fukushima. The monetary donations would have practical consequences for the Fukushima community. The strings of origami cranes made in order to welcome the visitors, however, forged a tangible, embodied connection between the children of the two countries. Similar projects have been carried out in other countries.

The use of the same symbol – the origami crane – in the context of the commemoration of the Hiroshima bombing and the commemoration of the Fukushima earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster serves to link the two kinds of catastrophe. For much of Japan’s post-1945 history, however, the issues of nuclear power generation and nuclear weaponry have been kept separate. This is not an accident, but the fruit of a concerted campaign in the 1950s.

In 1953, President Dwight D. Eisenhower presented a speech to the United Nations General Assembly on ‘Atoms for Peace’. At that time, politician Nakasone Yasuhiro (who would later become Prime Minister of Japan, and become known for his close working relationship with US President Ronald Reagan) was already exploring the possibility of the introduction of nuclear power to Japan. Public opinion had turned against nuclear energy, however, with the Lucky Dragon Incident of 1954. The US and Japanese governments then embarked on a campaign to promote nuclear energy in Japan. As part of that campaign, an exhibition was held at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum in May 1956 on the theme of ‘Atoms for Peace’. It focused on the ‘peaceful’ use of atomic power for the generation of electricity, rather than its use in weaponry.

The exhibition was held nearly eleven years after the Hiroshima bombing, nearly two years after the death of Kuboyama Aikichi and eight months after the death of Sasaki Sadako.

The success of this campaign for normalising nuclear energy can be seen in the completion of Japan’s first nuclear power station just ten years later, in 1966. By 2011 there were fifty-odd nuclear power plants in Japan, responsible for generating 30 per cent of the country’s energy. They tended to be located in impoverished areas where local governments could be persuaded by various incentives to host the plant.

Tōhoku (North Eastern Japan) was one of those areas. When the earthquake and tsunami of 11 March 2011 hit the Tōhoku region nuclear power plants were damaged, resulting in meltdowns, explosions, the leakage of contaminated water and an unmanageable accumulation of nuclear waste. While the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were clearly acts of military violence, many also see the decision to locate nuclear power plants in areas vulnerable to seismic activity as a form of structural violence against vulnerable communities.

In the Japanese language, the same word ‘hibakusha’ is used to describe those who were irradiated in Hiroshima and Nagasaki (like Sasaki Sadako in 1945), those who were irradiated in nuclear testing (like Kuboyama Aikichi in 1954) and those who were irradiated in nuclear accidents (like the people close to the Fukushima Daiichi power plant in March 2011). In an article in The New Yorker on 28 March 2011, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature Ōe Kenzaburō explicitly linked these four experiences of ‘hibaku’ (irradiation). Indeed, many argue for the global use of the terms ‘hibaku’ and ‘hibakusha’, to include those affected by nuclear weaponry, nuclear testing and nuclear accidents worldwide.

The association of the origami crane with pacifism and anti-nuclear campaigns is a tradition which has been invented over the last six decades. The origami crane has moved from a local folk practice, to a mode of intercultural communication, to its current association with pacifism and anti-nuclear activism. The metaphorical flights of the origami crane to new locations and contexts provide a tangible link between issues which might otherwise seem unconnected. In the embodied practice of folding the cranes, stringing them together and gifting them, feelings of empathy and solidarity can be forged. On feeling this emotional connection, some will be prompted to explore the histories in which we are implicated. Perhaps, then, an origami crane can be a radical object.

Take a perfectly square piece of paper. Fold it in half

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