75 years later: nuclear war and paper cranes

by Bekah Sears

This week, to commemorate 75 years since the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan between August 6 and 9, 1945, we want to share an adapted version of a 2019 blog post –  The Political is Personal, embodied in paper cranes. The atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki put an end to the Second World War but killed hundreds of thousands and devastated populations for decades to come. Many more people died of cancer and other diseases as a result of radiation poisoning. Sadako Sasaki was one of those people. A child of 12 when she died, Sadako, despite facing horrendous challenges, sought peace and a better world for all, even in simple actions.

Today, 75 years later, nuclear war remains an imminent threat to humanity, both at the macro and community levels, especially as global uncertainty, conflict and polarization are on the rise. However, there is also a rising movement to abolish nuclear weapons. In 2017 the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), of which Project Ploughshares and Mines Action Canada are members, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their advocacy for launching a UN treaty calling for the banning of nuclear weapons. Current nuclear weapon holders, and their key allies – Canada included – have yet to sign the Treaty. As we remember the real-life impacts of nuclear war – the real-life impacts of political decisions – let us also continue Sadako’s work, in the call for peace and human dignity for all.

Bekah Sears (MCC Photo/Alison Ralph)

As the Policy Analyst for MCC Ottawa, most of my blog posts focus on political and contextual analysis, looking at how Canadian policy impacts the work of MCC’s partners around the world. I love engaging in politics: the debates, the issues, the possibilities.

But in order to stay grounded, I need to regularly reflect on the roots of my political passion – so much of which involves peace and human dignity, specifically the human impacts of political decisions, the stories of people and communities, the inherent dignity of all.

A couple of years ago, at a workshop on nuclear disarmament jointly led by Project Ploughshares and the Canadian Council of Churches I was once again able to stop and reflect on some of my political passion roots, specifically countering the destructive forces of war and violence.

“Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes,” by Eleanor Coerr (London: Puffin Books, 1987).

We were invited to reflect on the moment or moments that first brought us into the work of peace and justice. I was immediately back in my grade three classroom, the year we studied the book, Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes. It follows the life of Sadako Sasaki, who was just two years old when the atomic bomb ripped through her home of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945 – 75 years ago today. Ten years later Sadako was diagnosed with leukemia as a result of radiation poisoning and, tragically, she died within the year.

However, her struggle with leukemia was not defined by hopelessness, nor inaction. Sadako spent the last months of her life on a project to make 1000 paper cranes – holding onto a charm that by making 1000 cranes, she would be granted her wish to be well again. The movement she inspired was so much more. Sadako’s actions, whether intentional or not, were not just a plea for one girl to get well, but a cry to fully recognize the human impacts of nuclear war, and a prayer for peace.

Paper cranes surrounding a peace candle at the MCC Ottawa Office (MCC Photo/Bekah Sears)

At age eight I didn’t realize how much this story had impacted my life, but my family did. My parents told me that it was a clear moment that marked the start of my passion for peace, partly evidenced by the very presence of paper cranes. In every family move since then, or every time we reorganized my room, we discovered more shoe boxes full of paper cranes. And I still make them often– when I feel anxious or discouraged, and when I pray for peace.

Jim Christie (Project Ploughshares), places one of Bekah’s cranes at Sadako’s memorial in Hiroshima, Japan (Photo/Jan Christie)

But it’s about much more than just the paper cranes – it’s about what they represent. I felt, and still feel a strong personal connection to Sadako and her story. It shaped me as I grew up, bringing the human and personal impacts of political decisions to the surface, to the front and centre of my heart and mind.

I think it’s easy to get lost in political issues and debates, especially in uncertain times. The political process is often necessary to bring about systemic change. But there’s something so energizing, comforting and life-giving in taking the time to reflect on our own motivations – the stories that brought us to this work and continue to motivate and inspire today.

Sadako Sasaki died on October 25, 1955. Her classmates folded 356 cranes so that 1,000 were buried with Sadako. In a way she got her wish. She will live on in the hearts of people for a long time.

In 1958 [a monument to Sadako] was unveiled in the Hiroshima Peace Park… Sadako, standing on top of a granite mountain of paradise… holding a golden crane in outstretched hands…

[People] still place thousands of paper cranes beneath Sadako’s statue on August 6 — Peace Day… Their wish is engraved on the base of the statue:

This is our cry, this is our prayer; peace in the world.

Adapted from “Epilogue,” Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes, Eleanor Coerr, London, Puffin Books, 1987.

Sadako’s peace memorial, Peace Park, Hiroshima, Japan. (Photo/ Jim Christe)

Bekah Sears is the Policy Analyst for MCC Ottawa

To learn more about nuclear disarmament and to get involved, visit Project Ploughshares.

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