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The Sacred Cranes

An unexpected but happy piece of news which came to me a few months ago was that cranes were now nesting again somewhere in the east of England. When I was a boy and cycled into the countryside to look for new kinds of birds, the crane was one of those birds I could never hope to see. These magnificent birds formerly bred in East Anglia, probably into the 17th century, but they were too attractive to those who coveted them for their flesh and they became extinct in England. So it was with some surprise that I learned that a pair of cranes had begun to nest somewhere in East Anglia in 1981 and most years since then. During the following years several young had been raised. It appears that the original birds have been joined by others and it is hoped that the cranes will be re-established as a regular breeding species. The news was not disclosed for several years until the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds had had time to devise sufficient security to protect the cranes from those perverse members of society who would rather see a dead bird's egg in a glass case than a living bird flying free in the wild.

Our "English" crane is a somewhat ordinary member of the crane family, known as the Common Crane or European Crane (Grus grus). It is fairly widespread from Scandinavia, and eastern Germany across most of Siberia. Its plumage is mainly grey. But it is only one of some fourteen species of crane which live in every continent of the world. Most have grey or bluish plumage with various markings. (The commonest North American crane, the Sandhill Crane, is also grey). But there are three species of crane which are predominantly white. One is the American Whooping Crane which became almost extinct, until stringent protection enabled numbers to recover and gave hope for its preservation. The Siberian White Crane is confined to a few small areas in Northern Siberia and is also rare. But the most handsome crane of all is the Japanese Crane, (Grus japanensis) which occupies a small part of the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido. Like the Whooping Crane, it almost became extinct, but the provision of a reserve and active protection has enabled numbers to increase once more.

The Japanese Crane is white except for streaks of black and white down its neck. The primary feathers of the wings are also black and when the crane is at rest, they fold back to form a distinctive black bustle. On its head the crane carries a distinctive patch of red which becomes brighter during the breeding season. This is the time when the cranes perform their elaborate courtship dance. The crane dance is a feature of all cranes and has become part of the mythology of many races. After Theseus escaped from Crete with Ariadne after she had helped him to defeat the Minotaur and escape from the Labyrinth with her clew he and his companions sailed to the Isle of Delos where they danced the Crane Dance in celebration. Its sinuous movements were said to reproduce the contorted twistings of the Labyrinth.

The Japanese Cranes are monogamous. Pairing for life they are devoted mates. In times when cranes were common, it sometimes happened that a crane was sick or injured and unable to fly with the flock to new feeding grounds. On such occasions the afflicted bird's mate refused to leave it even though the onset of winter threatened their food supply. So fond of the cranes were the local people that they would put out food which enabled the two cranes to survive until the sick crane recovered or until natural food supplies improved.

Beautiful as the Crane is in its appearance and graceful as it is In its movements, its voice is strident and can be heard above any kind of noise or hubbub. Its voice has come to symbolise authority so that the Japanese have an expression: "tsuru no hitokoe", which means: "the single cry of the crane" - the voice of authority that silences all dispute.

It is, however, as a symbol of long life that the crane is best known in folklore. Even in nature, the crane is a long-lived bird and there have been records of cranes living for eighty years or more in zoos. In popular imagination this became extended and cranes were reputed to live for a thousand years, in other words for ever. Together with the tortoise, (which was believed to live for ten thousand years) the crane became a symbol of longevity. The crane and the tortoise are sometimes represented together against the background of a Horaizan, a mountain representing a utopian land of perennial youth and immortality. Representations of them are sent at times of celebration and especially to wedding couples as a wish for long life and happiness.

The Crane itself is a common symbol of greeting and good wishes in Japan and the folded paper crane has become a classic symbol in Japan. It has been folded for some three hundred years, usually in paper of pure white, to match the real cranes, but more recently people have folded cranes in every colour of the rainbow for happy occasions. The little bird requires some skill to fold and because of the belief that the application required to fold each one of a large number of cranes will be rewarded, a string of cranes, traditionally a thousand of them, is often offered at a shrine or a temple, accompanied with a prayer. A string of cranes may also be given to a person suffering from an illness as a prayer for their recovery and as an expression of the giver's sympathy.

The Crane, as a symbol of good fortune extends throughout Japanese life and a Japanese mother would seek the protection of the cranes for her child, just as a European mother, in the times of high infant mortality, would ask the child's guardian angel to watch over her sleeping child.

So a Japanese mother would pray:

"O flock of heavenly cranes
Cover my child with your wings"

One baby whose mother recited this prayer was called Sadako Sasaki. She and her family lived on the outskirts of a large, traditional Japanese city. The town was built of small wooden houses huddled together with only a few larger modern buildings of stone and concrete which had been built as the precursors of a new, modern age.

As we grow up, we cannot usually remember much of what happened to us when we were very young. Most people can remember things which happened when they were four or five years old and a few people can remember isolated events when they were only three. But when Sadako was only two years old, something happened which she never forgot. There was a brilliant flash of light: brighter than a million suns and she felt the heat prickle in her eyes like needles.

It was 8.15 am on 6 August 1945 and the city was Hiroshima.

The old wooden city disappeared in a fraction of a second. Some 50,000 people vanished in an instant without trace. Many more thousands died in the hours, days, weeks, months and even years which followed. Nobody has been able to count just how many died, but some estimates put the total between 130,000 and 140,000 people. It is said that the weight of Uranium 235 which actually detonated was just one kilogram.

Living at some distance from the centre of the explosion, Sadako and her immediate family survived. But her grandmother was killed and for some time life for them became only a shadow of life before the cataclysm.

Hiroshima became a flat featureless desert. The gaunt remains of just a few steel and concrete buildings remained as stark reminders that a living city had once stood here. One of those buildings was the Industrial Promotion Hall which was only two hundred yards from the epicentre. Crowning its jagged ruins was the framework of its dome, now stripped of its covering. The contorted remains of the building seemed an incarnation of Picasso's painting of Guernica in which he depicted with images from the bullfight, the anguish of the people of the small Basque town of Guernica after an earlier bombing raid which had taken place during the Spanish Civil War. Hitler had sent in his bombers for the ostensible purpose of helping his fellow dictator and Fascist, Franco. In reality it was to test the efficiency of his new Luftwaffe as an instrument of aerial bombardment.

Even after such an apocalyptic catastrophe as the holocaust on Hiroshima life has to go on. The Emperor over-rode the fanaticism of the militarists and the hesitations of the Cabinet and in the face of the new and incontrovertible fact which confronted the country, he sued for peace.

The Emperor's authoritative pronouncement that Japan should surrender was referred to as "The Voice of the Crane". Once more the cranes had spoken.

In Hiroshima the remnant of people began to rebuild their lives. A modern city arose on the ashes of the old, but at the side of the epicentre they left an open space, which they called the Peace Park. A monument was erected and flowers were planted and a Memorial Building was put up to house relics from the cataclysm, with photographs of the dead and dying people in the ruined city. They kept, too, the ruins of the Industrial Promotion Hall with its stark skeleton of a dome and renamed it the Atomic Dome. Each year on 6th August the people of Hiroshima gathered in the Peace Park to remember their dead, though for the young people who could not remember the explosion it was something of a holiday with sticks of candy floss to sweeten the frightening pictures they had seen as they walked through the Memorial Building. Sadako and her family went to the Peace Park to remember her grandmother, and as the day drew to a close after an exciting display of fireworks, they joined everyone else in floating little lanterns down the river, each one bearing the names of the members of the family and their loved-ones who had died. In this moving way they sought to remember the terrible day and at same time to soften the anguish which it brought to them.

Sadako went to school and grew up as a normal child. Hiroshima became a living city once more and apart from the memories, life returned to normal. Sadako was keen on games and joined in her school sports activities with enthusiasm, hoping to be chosen for one of the school relay teams. She trained hard. But after the important race, she was surprised to find that she was dizzy.

The feeling went away and Sadako continued to practise her running. She tried to put the dizzy spell behind her and for a time she succeeded. But one day the following winter Sadako's dizziness returned much worse. She fell to the ground and was unable to stand up. Her father was called and she was taken to hospital where she was carefully examined and a sample of her blood was taken. It did not escape Sadako's notice that the hospital to which she had been taken was the Red Cross hospital where there was a department which treated the atom bomb sickness. Then, as the doctors talked to her mother and father outside the room, she overheard the word "Leukaemia". Sadako heard it in desolate fear.

The doctor and nurses told her that she must stay in the hospital for treatment to enable her to get better and Mr & Mrs Sasaki hid their own fears as they tried to reassure her. But after they had gone away, Sadako cried in her pillow.

Apart from the fear of leukaemia, Sadako was upset to miss her school and the forthcoming sports days in which she had hoped to succeed. But the next day one of her school friends came to see her in hospital to cheer her up. Her friend had a gift for her. She produced some gold paper and after cutting out a square, she folded it into a golden crane. "Don't you remember," her friend said, "the crane is said to live for a thousand years and if a sick person folds a thousand cranes, the gods will grant her wish and make her healthy again?"

In case she had forgotten how to do it, Sadako's friend showed her how to fold a bird, and after she had left Sadako began to fold the paper she had been given into brightly coloured cranes. The nurses gave her the wrappers from her medicines. When her brother came to see her that evening he said he would hang them from the ceiling for her. He was, however, taken aback when she said she intended to fold a thousand cranes!

As the days went on, Sadako continued to fold her cranes. As her fingers were occupied, her mind was freed to think (rather in the way that recitation of some routine prayer such s the Rosary concentrates and yet liberates one's thoughts for deeper meditation). At first each crane was a wish for her own recovery, but soon she began to think of others like herself and her prayer became one for other children and grown-ups who were also sick with radiation sickness or any other illness. Then her thoughts widened as she thought about the reasons for her illness and about the conflicts between peoples which still threatened to repeat her own tragedy. As she folded each crane she would say to it: "I will write peace on your wings and you will fly all over the World".

Sadako was not the only patient in the hospital. There was also a little boy called Kenji who was only nine years old and who was born three years after the bomb fell. Sadako met him when the kindly nurses pushed them out into the sunshine together. Sadako thought that Kenji's illness must have been caused in a different way from her own, but he was wise beyond his years and knew otherwise. Both his parents had already died. "I, too, have radiation disease", he told Sadako. "It poisoned my mother's blood and she passed it on to me". He said he had read the blood-count on his bed chart and it continued to fall. He knew it would not be long before he joined his parents.

When the day came that Kenji did not join her in the sunshine, Sadako broke down. She was crying for Kenji, but she was also crying for herself. Her nurse tried to comfort her and reminded her about the cranes. She helped her to begin folding again: "After you have finished a thousand cranes you will live to be very old". Sadako hoped against hope that it might be true.

Sadako tried to keep in touch with the world she had known. Her mother, father and two brothers continued to visit her and her younger brother still hung the cranes Sadako had folded round her bed. Sadako's school friends still visited her and she began to write to her friends, letters which were filled with concern, not for herself, but for other people.

As Sadako's mother left her each evening she would silently murmur the words she had used when Sadako was a baby:

"Come flock of heavenly cranes
and cover my child with your wings"

Sadako was weakening and she found it increasingly difficult for her fingers to fold the paper cranes. There came a night when her mother came to visit her as usual and Sadako struggled to fold one more crane. She felt reassured by the golden crane which her school friend had made for her and which still sat on the table by her bedside. But her fingers felt clumsy and the crane lay unfinished. Sadako drifted off into a sleep. She woke briefly to see her family surrounding her bedside and above her she was reassured by the cranes Eiji had hung from the ceiling. Then she fell asleep for the last time. She had folded six hundred and forty-four cranes.

Sadako's school friends had anxiously watched her progress and some of them had been able to visit her in hospital. Others had written her letters and she had written to them in return. They were all moved by her bravery and they wanted to do something to remember her by. The first thing they felt they could do was to finish the thousand cranes Sadako had begun. This they quickly accomplished and according to one report, the thousand cranes were buried with Sadako. But another version of the story says that the children sold the cranes to help to raise money to provide a home for other victims of radiation sickness. They also collected Sadako's letters together to make a little book which they called Kokeshi, after Sadako's favourite doll. Perhaps this, too, would raise some money.

However it happened, the story of Sadako touched the imagination of children all over Japan and they helped to collect money. Grown-ups joined in so that soon there was enough money to open a home for children and old people who became ill with radiation sickness.

There was enough money, too, to pay for a monument to Sadako and all the other children who had been killed as a result of atomic explosions on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The monument that was put up was a statue of Sadako standing on a high plinth. Aloft in her arms she holds a flying crane outlined in golden wire.

Sadako's statue stands in the Peace Park at Hiroshima and it was unveiled in 1958 nearly three years after she died. As you look beyond the statue towards the bleak ruins of the Industrial Promotion Hall you contrast the delicate lines of the golden crane with the ugly, gaunt framework of the Atomic Dome.

For the unveiling of the memorial, children folded strings of a thousand cranes and sent them to decorate Sadako's statue where they hung in cascades. The words which they inscribed on the plinth for all to read to read were:

"This is our Cry,
This is our Prayer,
That there shall be Peace in the World".

The idea was taken up by children throughout Japan and then throughout the world and still, today, children of every nationality fold their thousand cranes and send them to Hlroshima to be hung round Sadako's monument.

Children find that as they fold they think about Sadako and her cranes and all they stood for. Each crane is a prayer from the child who folds it: a prayer for those who suffer, a prayer of peace, a prayer of love.

I will write peace on your wings
and you will fly all over the world.

Come flock of heavenly cranes and
cover our children and our children's
children with your enfolding wings.

© August,1995.

David Lister Grimsby, England.

   
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