The intricate history and symbolism of the origami crane



Photo: Ron lach

When we think of origami, the image of a paper crane probably comes to mind. But have you ever wondered why this graceful bird has become synonymous with the profession? The importance of the origami crane in Japan has an ancient history, and the paper bird was later popularized after a girl named Sadako Sasaki used it to send a powerful and lasting message. Today, people continue to make and gift origami cranes as symbols of hope and love. Read on to learn about the history and significance of the paper crane.

A brief history of origami in Japan

Paper crane

“Orizuru o tsukuru shōjo” by Isoda KoryÅ«sai, 1772 or 1773 (Photo: Library of Congress)

The first papermaking process has been documented in China during the Eastern Han period (25-220 CE). The paper was then introduced to Japan during the 6th century; and while many other cultures engaged in paper folding, it was the Japanese who made it an art form. Origami was originally known as orikata (folded shapes). However, the craft became known as origami in 1880. The term comes from the Japanese words. oru (fold) and kami (paper). When origami was first practiced, paper was expensive, so the craft was reserved for the elite. Japanese monks made paper figurines for Shinto ceremonial rituals and for decorating formal ceremonies. It wasn’t until the Edo period in Japan (1603-1868) – when paper was more affordable – that origami was considered a hobby. Common people started to practice origami and to gift their paper creations to their friends and family. And today, origami continues to be a popular hobby in Japan and around the world.

The importance of the crane

Paper crane

Origami instructions from the book: “Hiden Senbazuru Orikata” (Secret to Folding a Thousand Cranes) by Akisato Ritō, 1797 (Photo: Wikimedia Commons, Public domain)

In Japan, China and Korea, the crane is considered a mythical creature that lives 1,000 years. However, the Japanese are particularly fond of the crane, and often call it the “bird of happiness. “The crane is believed to represent good fortune and longevity, and its wings are believed to provide protection. There is even a traditional prayer that is sometimes recited by caring mothers:

“O herd of celestial cranes
cover my child with your wings.

Japanese tradition orizuru (or I– “folded,” tsuru “Crane”), or paper crane, began in feudal Japan (1185-1603 CE), when people offered themselves the paper figurines as symbols of honor and loyalty. However, it was not until the 16th century that the art of the origami crane was officially recorded. Hiden Senbazuru Orikata (“Secret to Folding One-mill Cranes”), published in Japan in 1797, is the first known book on origami. It contains the first known instructions on how to make origami cranes, as well as countless examples of different types.

In Japanese folklore, it is alleged that a person can make a wish come true if they fold 1,000 origami cranes (this practice is called senbazuru in Japanese). The paper bird later became a symbol of hope and healing during difficult times, and the folding of 1,000 paper cranes was popularized with the story of a young girl named Sadako Sasaki.

The story of Sadako Sasaki and 1,000 paper cranes

When Sadako Sasaki was two years old, she was exposed to radiation from the atomic bomb that devastated Hiroshima in 1945. By the age of 12, the radiation exposure had turned into leukemia, and she only had one year to live. The girl started making 1,000 paper cranes in the hope of fulfilling her wish to recover from her illness. However, over time and the growth of his collection of origami cranes, his focus changed. Sasaki decided to wish for world peace instead of his own life. As her condition worsened, she never stopped making paper cranes and her classmates even joined her in helping her. After her death, she was buried with a wreath of 1,000 paper cranes and she became a symbol of peace and love. Sasaki is now remembered forever at Hiroshima Peace Park, where a statue of her holding a giant crane, called the Children’s Peace Monument-stands.

Each year, thousands of people flock to the Children’s Peace Monument, where they drape wreaths of 1,000 cranes. And the origami crane continues to embody Sasaki’s selfless wish to heal the world, more than 70 years later.

Paper crane

Children’s Peace Monument in Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park (CC0 1.0), via Wikimedia Commons

Want to make your own origami crane? Here’s how:

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