HIROSHIMA, Japan—Modern day Hiroshima is a bustling city nestled between rivers. Its many streets and shoulder-to-shoulder buildings contain a full spectrum of residents from businessmen to schoolchildren.
Public transportation terminals and electronic billboards broadcast audible messages that carry over the street noise, advertising K-pop commercials and the latest trends. Dozens of small restaurants are built into the base of the towering structures with pictures of their colorful menus posted on the outside, where the smell of food drifts through the sliding doors.
Despite the close crowds that occupy the downtown area, people walk by each other politely minding their own business as is the cultural norm.
The architecture exhibits a juxtaposition: old stone and wooden temples open daily for offerings stand near to the sleek, clean-lined modern framework of the city buildings.
But one building stands apart from the rest. A skeletal structure with charred walls and empty windows is one of few physical remnants of the time the city was forced to begin again. It originally functioned as a convention center, but it’s now known as the A-bomb dome.
Sixty-eight years ago, the city was leveled when the US military deployed an atomic bomb on what would become one of the final days of World War II. Eighty thousand people died on impact, and tens of thousands died later from exposure to the radiation it unleashed. They called it Little Boy, though it’s impact was great.
Hiroshima city is perched in an otherwise scenic countryside with rivers flowing into the ocean and small houses built into the surrounding mountains. The now-lush landscape was leveled and blackened by 7,000-degree flames that flashed across the city in a second and set people, houses and villages on fire more than a half mile away from the hypocenter.
The A-bomb dome is now the only remaining physical artifact of the bomb, gated off from the flourishing city along with its rubble. Its presence is a visual scar—a reminder that today’s city stands on the ashes of an old Hiroshima.
The bomb was born, in part, thousands of miles away on the other side of the globe at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico’s Jemez Mountains. There, scientists from the top-secret Manhattan Project figured out how to use an atomic reaction (a process discovered through previous research by scientists in California and Tennessee) to manufacture a fully operational bomb.
The first successful large-scale test of the atomic bomb was on July 16, 1945, in the desert outside Alamogordo. The military deployed the weapon within two months, and civilians from Hiroshima Prefecture and the state of New Mexico would become tangled in the crossfire.
It was decades later when, at the top of a schoolhouse just outside of an open glass window, 8-year-old Maki Saiji's small form clung to the metal bar that was anchored to the roof. She was a second's decision away from letting go.
Saiji was a “grandpa’s girl” from the start, and with her grandfather’s recent death, the school childrens’ remarks about her upbringing as a “temple rat”—slang for a child raised in a Buddhist temple—were too much for her to handle.
“I thought, ‘Why was I born? I don’t have any value,’” she says. “I thought, ‘If I let go, I’ll finally be able to relax.’”
But just as she was about to let go, Saiji remembered a popular story from Japanese history about Sadako Sasaki, a Hiroshima girl who died from radiation-induced leukemia after the bomb leveled the city.
Sadako was 2 years old when Little Boy hit Hiroshima in 1945. Though she didn’t suffer any immediate injuries, she was hospitalized a decade later for leukemia caused by exposure to deadly radioactive material. This illness was so common among Japanese too close to where the bomb exploded that it was nicknamed “radiation sickness.”
In the 10 years between the bombing and falling ill, Sadako excelled in school and was the fastest runner on the track team. She was visited by many of her classmates during her time in the hospital, but she longed to get back to her daily life as an average middle school-aged girl. Sadako then got an idea from a dear friend who reminded her of the Japanese legend of the crane.
The crane is said to live 1,000 years, and has long been considered a symbol of longevity and vitality. Attached to this legend is the idea that by folding 1,000 paper cranes, the folder will receive a wish, usually related to long life.
Desperate for her wish to be granted, Sadako set out to make 1,000 cranes. She folded them from anything she could find, including tiny medicine wrappers and edges of paper from the hospital. Some of her cranes were so small, she used a needle to make her final folds.
Despite making over 1,000 cranes, Sadako died in the hospital later that same year. Her story did not end there.
After her death, Sadako’s classmates, teachers and family members worked to tell her story and erect a memorial in her honor in Hiroshima Memorial Peace Park. Many of Sadako’s family members made it their life mission to keep talking about her.
The message eventually reached far beyond her native city through the experiences of people like Saiji.
“I thought of how Sadako wanted to live,” Saiji says during an interview in Hiroshima, running her hand over her shaved head—a traditional hair style for a Buddhist nun. “I thought, ‘I’m going to school like she wanted. If I gave up now, Sadako would be sad. Instead, I can tell people about her feelings for her. So I decided to live. She’s like a savior of my life.”
The story of Sadako Sasaki is undoubtably alive. She's connected generations and cultures around the world—her tale a simple way to teach the sufferings of the atomic bomb and the peace education that is necessary in its aftermath.
Today, Sadako’s cranes can be seen in peace museums and memorials around the world, from the National September 11 Memorial & Museum in New York City to the Pearl Harbor memorial in Oahu, Hawaii. Her brother, Masahiro Sasaki, continues to pursue his goal of placing one of Sadako’s cranes in each country of the world as a step toward his mission of world peace. Masahiro wants to spread his sister’s true story in an effort to ensure that what happened to her won’t happen to other innocent victims of war.
Because she was a child when she died, Sadako is a particular inspiration to children who hear her story and feel they can also make a change for a peaceful world.
In Albuquerque, a bronze-cast statue stands at its new home—the Anderson Abruzzo Albuquerque International Balloon Museum.
The large, open globe was designed by a group of third, fourth and fifth graders at Arroyo Del Oso Elementary School after the kids heard Sadako’s story in 1989. They were inspired by the waves of change begun by such a young girl, and set out to create their own change.
Camy Condon, the 1995 adult advisor for the Children’s Peace Statue project, says the statue was the first in the country to be created, designed and funded entirely by children. It was thereafter named the “Children’s Peace Monument.”
“You will be so surprised at how precious the history is,” Condon tells SFR. “It was thought up by children, planned by kids, fundraised by kids, designed by children, sent around the USA by kids who made their own newspaper called ‘The Crane.’”
But the sculpture wasn’t supposed to be in Albuquerque. Its intended home was Los Alamos.
In 1994, when the project was first proposed to the Los Alamos City Council, officials rejected it because they “feared the park would become a rallying point for peace activists and be seen as an indictment of Los Alamos’ role in creating nuclear weapons,” according to news reports at the time.
The project, however, continued. The “Children’s Peace Monument” was completed a year later—in time for the 50th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima.
Condon says officials in Los Alamos declined to place the statue on public property again in 2001 when she and others made a second request.
Los Alamos County Public Information Officer Julie Habiger tells SFR this week that there has been no record of a request to move the statue to Los Alamos since the county records system went digital over a decade ago.
“If someone were to come to the council today,” she says, “they would be referred to the Art in Public Places Council. There are a lot more things than just the political aspect we have to take a look at.”
Bonnie Malcolm was a freshman at Rio Rancho High School at the time of the conception of the statue. She worked as an older mentor to the young students who created it. Malcolm says that Los Alamos leaders at the time didn't view the statue as what it was meant to be.
“When people are ready to accept it as a gift instead of a threat, it will find its way,” Malcolm says.
Today, Malcolm is an art teacher in the small rural town of Estancia, New Mexico. She says her involvement with the statue has impacted her life.
“I still carry hope in my heart for world peace,” Malcolm says. “I believe that peace needs to begin within oneself so it can then reflect in the world around us. I am a mother now and an elementary art teacher. I love working with kids, and teach tolerance in my art lessons. I believe art can change the world in a positive way.”
Since officials in Los Alamos refused to allow it to be erected on public space there, the Children’s Peace Monument has been to the Explora Science Center & Children’s Museum in Albuquerque, Ghost Ranch in Santa Fe (next to long-gone sculptures of giant giraffes, bulls and birds that stood there before the property went up for sale), and the Santa Fe Children’s Museum.
While the monument’s location has changed, the traditions that go with it have not.
Each year on the anniversary of the bomb, people around the world send paper cranes on strings to wherever the monument is housed. The cranes are draped over the statue—a peace tradition that is reflected in Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park on the same day.
Dallas Steele, former Earthworks coordinator for the Santa Fe Children’s Museum, tells SFR that after the statue was rejected by the city of Los Alamos because of its politically sensitive nature, she and her colleagues shifted their attention to private landowners in Los Alamos including a church. When that didn’t pan out, they settled on moving the artwork to the balloon museum—where staff members such as Curator of Collections Marilee Nason had been trying to acquire it.
A previous exhibit that featured a collection of Japanese war balloons was very popular, so Nason said she worked with the Santa Fe Children’s Museum to get the children’s monument moved to Albuquerque.
“We agreed it would have better exposure in Albuquerque,” Nason says. “That, and we’re an international museum, so we thought it would be nice to have it here.”
The statue will stay at its present location for at least two years, unless it’s accepted by Los Alamos before that time.
Moving it to the hilltop city is “the original desire and remains the dream of anyone who has had anything to do with it,” she says.
Nason is hopeful that the dream isn’t over.
“We’ve worked with several kids who are now adults that worked on the statue,” Nason said. “I think they might try to re-present it to the [Los Alamos County] Council.”
Steele says the statue is not just for the children who made it, but also for the sake of future generations.
“Children learn from their culture and their schooling; if that’s what they learn in their homes, when they grow up, they’re going to repeat these things. They don’t have the choice,” she says. “Violence is the only way they know how to solve their problems.”
Steele says moving the statue is an important step in improving the country’s acceptance that peace is a viable option.
“Humanity has not been kind,” Steele says. “I’m not sure I have much hope. The culture of violence, it’s destroying our planet. I’m not very optimistic, but I do every little piece that I can. It’s the children’s wish for peace.”
Back in Japan, in a time zone 15 hours later, People are also pushing for a more peaceful world.
Now 29, Kyoto, Japan resident Saiji has become a Buddhist nun—adopting the name Myoshin—in order to dedicate her life to the story that saved her.
Myoshin travels around the globe spreading Sadako’s story to promote world peace. Since 1999, she has performed the picture story of kamishibai that she made in sixth grade in honor of Sadako over 300 times in five different countries.
“The act of praying for peace goes beyond borders,” Myoshin says.
She uses cranes like the ones Sadako made as a teaching tool along with her kamishibai to pass the stories of those affected by the bomb on to the next generation.
She’s also working to prevent suicide in her home nation.
“In this story, I get to live; 30,000 people in Japan give up their lives each year,” she says, referring to the number of people who die from suicide in her country. “Now, we have so many things. We have rich things, but inside of our hearts, we are poor.”
Rumi Hanagaki, a first generation survivor of the A-bomb also lives for storytelling—she travels, sharing her story with groups young and old.
A 5-year-old girl at the time of detonation, Hanagaki lost consciousness when the bomb hit. She had no memory of the blast or its immediate aftermath until nearly 60 years later, when it suddenly came back to her. She then began telling her story to elementary schools and other peace organizations near where she lives now in Kyoto, about 225 miles from Hiroshima.
“The memory came back to me,” she says, during a recent visit to Hiroshima. “I didn’t want to remember, but I thought maybe this is a story to be shared, so I started giving my story in Kyoto.”
Like Myoshin, Hanagaki has been invited to tell speak around Japan and in the US as well. Everywhere she goes, she distributes paper cranes as a part of her message for peace. The crane, aside from being ancient legend, is also a positive symbol across the country.
“Nobody is angry when looking at a crane,” Hanagaki says.
So she delicately folds each crane and gives it away. Despite difficulties brought on by language differences, or people’s resistance to her message, the physical symbol of the crane goes a long way for the purpose of communication.
“I hate the atomic bomb, but there have also been fun things,” Hanagaki says. “There’s happiness, too.”
Though her story was adapted into a kamishibai story by members of a local college, Hanagaki said that it’s more important to her that she spread the message of peace through the crane.
“Sometimes, words hurt people,” Hanagaki says. “It hurts to talk about it. Sometimes, if people don’t want to talk about their grief, you don’t have to say anything; you just have to give them a crane.”
Like many others her age, Mako Sakamoto first learned to make a paper crane when she was very young. She is a member of the next generation of peace activists and writers in Hiroshima.
At 16 years old, she is a fifth-year peace writer for the Hiroshima Peace Media Center at the Chugoku Shimbun, the city’s newspaper.
Though she is not a descendant of a survivor, Sakamoto said that Sadako’s story and her wish for peace has also impacted her life.
“I was moved by the story of one of her classmates, who regretted not being able to fulfill a promise to visit Sadako at the hospital,” Sakamoto says.
Sakamoto writes about first-generation survivors, hibakusha. She says their stories have confirmed her belief in peace.
“I believe we need to solve conflicts with dialogue,” Sakamoto says.
While Sakamoto has youth on her side, Hanagaki said she understands that as a first generation survivor, she does not have many years left to tell her story.
“There are only 1,200 survivors left in Kyoto,” Hanagaki says. “We’re getting older, but we do not have many stories left.”
But she still believes in the crane as a lasting physical symbol of peace.
On a cool day in early March this year, Hanagaki sits on the edge of Sadako Sasaki's memorial and folds peace cranes from squares of origami papers she keeps in her purse. She waits for her turn to speak.
Many people who pass by are Japanese. They understand immediately when Hanagaki hands them a crane that it’s meant as a token of peace like the thousands hanging in the eight glass boxes surrounding Sadako’s bronze statue.
One woman though, a native French speaker, has trouble understanding the meaning of the colorful birds encircling the memorial. When she seeks the help of Hanagaki, they have no common language to communicate in.
But as Hanagaki hands her a folded crane and motions to the others surrounding the memorial, she understands.
“Peace,” Hanagaki says. And the woman nods in understanding, bowing in a customary Japanese thank you.