The Dōbutsuen: Tsuru

 The Dōbutsuen: Tsuru

So far in the study of the dōbutsuen I’ve covered a variety of mammals; so it’s high time for a creature of the feathered variety. When you talk about birds in Japanese culture, there is one in particular which comes to mind; the tsuru, or crane.

Tsuru [鶴]

Cranes have been an important feature in Japanese art, clothing, literature and especially folklore, for centuries. Their graceful nature has long captured the Japanese imagination and have taken on many different meanings.

The tsuru is traditionally a symbol of longevity and good fortune. In Japanese folklore they are said to live for a thousand years. As the crane mates for life, it is also a symbol of fidelity and everlasting affection; much like the turtle dove in the west. The tsuru is then understandably a popular motif for weddings, and is thought to embody a lot of the characteristics of a good marriage.

In Japanese writing, it is not uncommon for a kanji or ‘Chinese character’ to have more than one meaning and pronunciation. The differing meanings of words sometimes tell us something of the connection between the objects or living things described, especially in the case of names. It’s common to have many different ways of pronunciation for a person’s name written down and there is great significance placed on the meaning of given names in Japanese. In the case of ‘tsuru’ (which as we already know means ‘crane’), the word can also mean ‘authority’.

There are many tales about the tsuru, but the most famous of all is in fact a true story. If you have ever come across the Japanese art of origami [折り紙] before, the chances are that you will have folded a crane. It is easily the most popular origami model and Japanese children learn how to fold these at an early age.

There is a particular custom in Japan of folding one thousand of these paper models as a wish or prayer for peace and healing.

At the end of the Second World war, atomic bombs were dropped on the Japanese cities of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, effectively ending the war but at the cost of many lives.

Sadako Sasaki was a two year old girl who lived about a mile from where the bomb struck, at Misasa Bridge in the city of Hiroshima. Though initially showing no signs of illness, Sadako developed a chicken pox on the back of her neck which then turned into a rash of purple spots. In February 1955 she was diagnosed with leukaemia, as a result of radiation exposure from the bomb.

It became clear that Sadako would not survive the cancer which was ravaging her body. She was given a year to live. However, she refused to give up. Visiting her in hospital in the August of 1955, Sadako’s best friend Chizuko Hamamoto told her of the ancient Japanese story which told that if you could fold a thousand origami cranes, a crane would grant your dearest wish. Inspired by this, Sadako began to fold as many models as she could, believing that her wish for healing would be granted if she reached her goal.

Sadako folded her cranes with every piece of paper she could find. She used medicine wrappings and the paper Chizuko brought her from school. She even asked other patients for the gift wrapping their get well presents were wrapped in.

Sadly, Sadako’s cancer continued to spread. In October, she deteriorated rapidly. Her last request was a meal of tea on rice, of which she described “it’s good”. These were her last words, and she passed away surrounded by her family on the morning of the 25th. She was 12 years old.

In her lifetime Sadako was said to have folded 644 tsuru. Her family and friends folded the rest and buried them all with her. In 1958, they erected a statue of Sadako with a golden crane in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park. This is a memorial to all of the children who died as a result of the atomic bomb.

At the base of the statue are written the words,

This is our cry [これはぼくらの叫びです]
This is our prayer [これは私たちの祈りです]
Peace in the world. [世界に平和をきずくための]

Sadako’s story is told to Japanese school children on the anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing, 6th August. Every year on this day local children fold a thousand cranes in her memory and place them by the statue. The statue is always surrounded by gifts of paper cranes from all over the world. The 6th of August is marked nationally in Japan as a day of peace.

Photo credit: Koichi Kamoshida


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