The story of Sadako Sasaki starts with sadness. Born on January 7, 1943 she was a baby in war-torn Japan, and the world she saw was born into was one of chaos.
On August 6, 1945, the B-29 bomber named Enola Gay dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Sadako’s home was located about 1.2 miles (2 kilometres) from ground zero where the bomb exploded. Sadako and her parents miraculously survived the explosion and were able to escape.
Unfortunately, her grandmother ran back to get something from their house as they fled and she was never seen again. The family home was burnt down in the fires that followed the explosion. Approximately 140,000 people in the city of Hiroshima died in the atomic blast, or shortly afterwards due to radiation poisoning.
Despite the challenges she faced early on, Sadako’s life initially seemed to be going quite well and she had a fairly normal childhood—even becoming a member of her school’s relay team. Unfortunately, that good fortune did not last.
In November of 1954, almost ten years after the atomic bomb fell near her home, Sadako started to experience swelling on her neck and behind her ears. By January of 1955 she had developed purpura , a skin condition recognizable by red or purple discoloured spotting, and had been diagnosed with leukemia.
Leukemia cases had spiked in children a few years after the atomic bomb explosion, and it was clear by the 1950s that the cause of the increase was radiation exposure. While Sadako had survived the explosion itself, her exposure to a large amount of radiation continued to impact her short life.
Faced with free time while in the hospital receiving care, Sadako took up origami. There is a Japanese legend that says if you fold 1,000 paper cranes, the gods will grant you a wish.
Stories vary as to who taught her about this legend, but whether it was her best friend or her roommate in the hospital, Sadako took to folding paper cranes with all the paper at her disposal. She made paper cranes from packing paper, medicine wrappings, or any other paper she could get a hold of.
Some stories say that Sadako never finished her thousand paper cranes. She finished 644 on her own before she was too weak to continue, and her family and friends finished the remainder for her.
However, her older brother, Masahiro Sasaki, who speaks about her life at events, says that Sadako finished over 1,400 paper cranes on her own. Her family has donated some of her cranes to sites such as the 9-11 Memorial in New York and Pearl Harbor.
The story of Sadako’s life has been the subject of many books. Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes was written as a fictional retelling of Sadako’s life. Her story is also retold in The Day of the Bomb and she is mentioned in a number of other books about the war and the bombing of Hiroshima.
In many ways, Sadako Sasaki became a symbol for all of the innocent live lost during World War Two and the impact of nuclear weapons. Her time on this world was brief, but her legacy of hope lives on every time someone folds a paper crane. In 1958, a statue of Sadako holding a golden crane was unveiled in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park.