to the BOS home page
why join? membership, magazine, library, local meetings, conventions, mailing list, members area, copyright
tips, techniques, diagrams, folders, data, events, site search, videos, education
paper, books, CDs, Merchandise
theory/essays/mathematics, glossary, the Lister list
fun models, puzzles & jokes
origami images
get in touch, find volunteers & commercial folders

bos50 information

to the Lister List index

A Thousand Cranes

In her note dated 17th July, Kristine Tomlinson suggests that I may be able to give some more information about garlands of 1000 cranes. May I say how much I value everything that has been written on this subject, by Kristine, and by Gretchen Klotz? I can't add much to what has been said, but here are a few ideas.

I do not recall myself having said that garlands of cranes are hung in shrines and temples as altar gifts. This has never been my impression. They are part of popular culture and not of religious culture. Admittedly the line between the popular and the religious is very blurred, but still not very blurred when it comes to cranes. As has been said several times, paper cranes are given at times of celebration and happiness. They express hope and good wishes for the future. From this they are sent to people who are ill, not as an act of commiseration, but as a hope; that they will get better - a sort of "get-well" card. In this way Sadako's friend gave her a crane folded from golden paper and encouraged her to fold her own cranes. She began by folding cranes in the hope that they would bring good fortune and health to herself, but it is said that she later continued folding for the benefit of other children and older people who were afflicted by radiation disese.If this is right (and we cannot be sure now just what Sadako did think) then there is already a subtle change from folding in the hope of good fortune, to folding as a prayer. The completion of the thousand cranes by Sadako's school friends changed even further the meaning of the thousand cranes. It was now done partially in memory of her and partially as a continuing prayer for victims of nuclear radiation.

The garlands of cranes sent to Hiroshima were originally inspired by Sadako. However, because of the association with Hiroshima and all Hiroshima means, the prayer has extended from victims of radiation sickness to a prayer that what they suffered will never happen again, in other words a prayer for peace, and I am sure that today this is how many people understand the Thousand Cranes.

This does not mean that the original symbolic meaning of the Crane has been displaced, but it does mean that additional meanings havre been added. Even in the West a thousand cranes are sometimes folded for someone who is seriously ill, recent instances being for Alice Gray and Michael Shall. This is consistent with the traditional meaning of the cranes as bringer of good fortune, but is really depends on the attitude of the individual folders of the cranes. Round the world, many schools latch on to the Sadako story and send garlands of cranes to Hiroshima, partly in memory of her, but also as a hope for peace. I doubt if the idea of good fortune and happiness is very prominent here. In some ways it is a pity that the original simplicity of the symbolism of the crane has been obscured. But such is the way with symbolism: it is a living force among people, not a rigid inert convention.

During my visit to Japan, two years ago, I do not recall seeing a crane at a shrine or temple. In fact I didn't see any decorative use of paper at Buddhist temples. All I can recall at the temples is calligraphers, who spent their time writing texts in exquisite characters on sheets of white paper for those who wished to buy them.

Display of paper appeared to be confined to Shinto shrines, which were always decorated with white zig-zagged "O-shide". The zig-zagged shapes are also attached to rods or staffs of various kinds to form what are best described as kinds of amulets known as "Hara-gushi", "Tamagushi" and "Gohei". There are said to be twenty ways of folding (or rather cutting and folding) the Gohei. Oshide are also diplayed in private houses at the family shrine. There are many other uses. For instance Sumo wrestlers wear them on ceremonial occasions suspended fro their belts.

The Gohei is an indication of the presence of the deity in the shrine. At the same time it is a symbolic offering to the deity. They are made by the Shinto priests who are well-versed in the meaning of the shapes.White is the ideal colour for O-shide, but coloured ones are sometimes used.

However, O-shide and their related forms are certainly not cranes, and as I have said, cranes do not appear to be diplayed in Shinto shrines.

I may have given the impression that paper shapes are never used in Buddhist temples. Certainly paper is not much used in a decorative way very much, but there are a few paper shapes used in Buddhism in Japan. It is thought that they were originally derived from Shintoism. Nevertheless, although paper is revered in Buddhism, it is employed chiefly as the medium on which to inscribe sacred Buddhist texts.

As to paper grave goods, these belong more to Chinese than to Japanese culture. In ancient times actual possessions, often of great material value, were buried with a person who had died. Sometimes this extended to his living wives and servants. It was an expensive process and soon substitute effigies and clay models of real items of value were substituted. Paper household goods and paper imitations of real paper money came later. This again, as I understand it, is an aspect of popular culture, not of official relgious culture.

I'm sorry if I have strayed far from the main highway of Origami. My excuse is that all these matters involve paper and sometimes folded paper.

One or two further gleanings about Cranes.

1. I have been looking at Sue Parker's Cranes Page, and she reminds me that in Japan, the folding of a thousand cranes is supposed to confer a wish, in the sense of a specific wish and not just a general wish for good fortune. So, Sadako wished to be made better. This is a somewhat different facet from the other aspects of crane symbolism.

2. Sue's subsidiary page on Cranes for Peace forcefully shows how the Peace Movement has taken over the symbol of the Crane and made it its own.

3. In his "Complete Origami", page 155, under the heading "Sembazuru" (thousand cranes), Eric Kenneway writes: "Two of the oldest-known Japanese origami books have both dealt exclusively with one and the same subject: how to fold the crane.

One of these must be "Senbzuru Orikata", a printed book which was published in 1797. But what was the other one? I suspect that Eric was confusing two reports of the same book, but I could be wrong, and if anyone knows of a second book, please let me know. It cannot be "Kayaragusa", also known as "Kan no mado", because that book, contains only one crane, which is quite different from the classic crane.

Incidentally, in Roman letters the Japanese word for crane is variously spelt "sembzuru" or "senbazuru", probably because the Japanese sound represented by the "m" or the "n" sounds indeterminate to western ears. I have always used "senbazuru", but presumably neither spelling can be said to be "correct".

4. Gretchen Klotz (17th July) points out that cranes mate for life, so that they have become, (in additionto everything else), a symbol of fidelity. They are, therefore, doubly appropriate for a wedding. In the olden days, before The Japanese Cranes became rare, it is said that if one of a pair of cranes was ill or weak and unable to undertake migration, its mate would not leave its side, but would remain, even to the extent of sharing death by starvation as food supplies dwindled. The local people had great affection for the cranes and used to leave out food supplies for them until the sick cane was fit enough to fly away.

5. Our European Crane is a somewhat poor cousin of the Japanese Crane and the American Whooping crane, having grey plumage. Many centuries ago it used to breed in Eastern England, but eventually, perhaps because of change of habitat, it ceased to breed here, though occasional birds would reach us. Now, however, we have the happy news that one or two pairs have started to breed again in East Angla. Just where, is kept a close secret.

6 A truly beautiful book abut the Japanese Crane is "The JapaneseCrane, Bird of Happiness" by .Brittton and T.Hayashida", published by Kodensha international in 1981. (ISBN 4-7700-0970-4). The coloured photographs are marvellous , and along with a description of the cranes and an account of their lives, there is a fair amount of material on crane symbolism. If it is still in print, I urge everyone to buy a copy.

7 I am glad that Joseph Wu has put me right about paper cranes being dispayed at temples (presumably Buddhist temples and not Shinto shrines). It would be very interesting to know how this has come about. Is it a long tradition or only a recent one. Is it an extension of the |Peace Cranes idea. (The idea of Peace is very prominent in Buddhism). Are the cranes put there by the monks or are they left by ordinary people? (Perhaps this is why they are just inside the gates.) If they are just left there by visitors to the temple, it would explain why the cranes become so weather-beaten. And what is in the thoughts of the people who leave them there. Is it a prayer for peace, or just for general good fortune? Of course, it may be an established custom of the Buddhist monks, but It still seems to me a popular and not a traditional religious usage, just like the pieces of paper containing fortunes, which people buy at a Shinto shrine and then, if the forecast is unfavourable, tie to a tree in the hope that the misfortune will wither as the piece of pape disintegrates. I should like to know more.

8. Crane symbolism is by no means restricted to Japan. An important instance in European mythology is the Crane Dance which Ariadne danced after she had helped Theseus to escape from the Minotaur in the Cretan Labyrinth. The cranes do dance in their courtship displays and their dance includes a characteristic sort of limping walk that is copied in some European folk dances. The symbolism of the "limp" has been elaborated in folklore in various ways. See "The White Goddess" by Robert Graves (Of "I, Claudius" fame) for and account of this and other cane symbolism in Europe.

I've travelled a long way from paperfolding. I apologise, but linkages between widely scattered areas of knowledge are one of the pleasures of life.

David Lister


All contents are © BOS and/or individual contributors. The BOS is a registered charity (293039). Site copyright & disclaimer. Site design courtesy of 12testing. No part of this website may be reproduced in any form (including e-books) without specific permission.