WHEN the US dropped a nuclear bomb on Hiroshima on Aug 6, 1945, Sadako Sasaki was two years old. Despite only being 2km away from the blast at the time, she survived the atomic inferno.
Japan surrendered on Aug 15, 1945 and after the end of World War II, Sadako seemed like any of her peers, happily going to school and loving sports in particular.
But after one important relay race in 1955 she helped her team to win, Sadako felt extremely tired and dizzy.
Doctors found out that she had leukaemia and gave her no more than a year to live.
She went to hospital, where her best friend Chizuko brought her sheets of colourful printed paper used for folding, in the Japanese art of origami. Practitioners can transform the paper into decorative shapes and figures such as swans, hearts and rabbits.
Her friend told Sadako about the belief that the gods grant the wishes of anyone who manages to fold 1,000 paper cranes – which are a symbol of long life in Japan.
Hoping she might get better, Sadako embraced origami. She created more than 1,000 cranes, but died just months later, at the age of 12.
At the time, Japan’s medics only slowly came to know the extent of the effects of the atomic bomb as they were denied access to data on the radiation by the occupying authorities until 1952.
The fate of a little girl who fell victim to the bomb 10 years after the end of the war acted “like a catalyst” for awareness of the inhuman nature of this weapon among Japan’s public, according to Japanologist Florian Coulmas.
As donations flowed in from all over the country, a monument was erected in Sadako’s memory in 1958.
The bronze statue in Hiroshima’s Peace Park depicts a young girl holding a large paper crane above her head – symbolising her hope for a peaceful future.
A similar story
The children’s peace monument is now a place of pilgrimage where people lay down long chains of paper cranes every year – as will Eva Fritz, of Germany.
Fritz came to Japan at the age of six because of her father’s job, went to school there and learned the language and also lost her best friend to leukaemia.
“She was in the third grade. When she got sick, we folded 1,000 cranes at school and took them to the hospital for her,” Fritz told dpa. That was when she first heard about the fate of little Sadako and the legend of the paper cranes.
When Fritz returned to Germany at the age of 12, a friend from primary school gave her 1,000 paper cranes to take with her. “Since then, the cranes have accompanied me my whole life,” Fritz says.
Whether visiting the sick – her grandfather and a friend both died of cancer - on birthdays, weddings or births, Fritz made 1,000 paper cranes for each occasion. So far, she has created more than 16,000 cranes.
But the story of Sadako Sasaki stayed with her. Now, having returned to Japan, she has an ambitious project, hiking 1,000km from Tokyo to Hiroshima with a backpack and tent.
And, naturally, she is carrying 1,000 colourful paper cranes, as well as an appeal for donations for the German Children’s Cancer Aid.
“I wanted to make the journey anyway. And so I thought that I could actually combine it with a good cause,” says Fritz.
She created an Instagram account to document her journey, with donations going directly to the aid organisation.
Fritz is financing her trip from her own funds but has so far managed to collect nearly US$8,000 (RM37,000) in donations.
Each donor who gives their name will have it written on a crane.
“Everyone will then have their crane hanging in Hiroshima at the end,” at the memorial for Sadako Sasaki, Fritz says. – dpa