The Story of Sadako Sasaki

October 13, 2021 8 min read

The Story of Sadako Sasaki

“There’s an old story that if you fold a thousand paper cranes, your wish will come true.”

  • Shigeo Sasaki to his daughter Sadako Sasaki, who was diagnosed with subacute lymphocytic leukemia at the age of 12.

 

Sadako Sasaki was born on January 7, 1943, to her parents Fujiko and Shigeo Sasaki. She was raised along with her older brother, Masahiro and her two younger siblings, Mitsue and Eiji. She lived comfortably with her parents, siblings, and grandmother in their house above her father’s barbershop in Hiroshima, Japan. The first character in Sadako’s name “sada” means happiness; “ko” meaning child. She would live up to her name as the “happy child.”

Sadako was born during World War II, which escalated when Japanese naval forces bombed Pearl Harbor, Hawaii on December 7th, 1941, prompting the United States’ (US) declaration of war on Imperial Japan the following day.

Japan had led the US and its Allies on a chase all along the Pacific islands, from the Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands to the island of Okinawa just south of Japan. The US decided that something needed to be done to end the war. Their enemy, no matter how many battles and countless lives lost both military and civilian, would not yield. They needed something to compel them into submission and total surrender.

The US had secretly been working on a new weapon that would turn the tide of war completely. They created the “atomic bomb” – its power and destruction equal to about 20,000 tons of TNT. The bomb was designed to explode above the surface causing maximum damage. If the Imperial Japanese would not surrender, this would be the weapon that might change their mind.

Sadako and her family were accustomed to the air raid drills that became an almost every day ordeal. The Japanese government built bomb shelters in attempts to keep its civilians protected and each time an enemy aircraft was spotted the air raid sirens would sound, and Sadako and her family would hustle into their designated bomb shelter and wait for the all-clear signal. The threat was dismissed and once again the people could breathe a sigh of relief, but not for very much longer.

At 2:45 AM on August 6, 1945, Colonel Paul Tibbets and his aircrew took off from the tiny island of Tinian in the Mariana Islands and made their way to their primary target: the City of Hiroshima. Col. Tibbets piloted his B-29 bomber, the Enola Gay, which carried the uranium atomic bomb “Little Boy.”

Earlier that morning, Sadako and her family were again roused by the sounds of the air raid sirens and quickly shuffled into the bomb shelters. The plane passed overhead, and the all-clear signal was blown. What they did not know was that the US Army had sent out a watch plane to check the weather and flying conditions over Hiroshima – clear and sunny, perfect conditions for dropping off their payload. The enemy plane flew over the city and vanished like it had so many times before, and soon Sadako and her family went about their day.

Not long after, Col. Tibbets and his aircrew arrived over Hiroshima. At 9:15 AM, “Little Boy” was released from the B-29, falling six miles in 43 seconds before detonating at an altitude of 2,000 ft. The United States had dropped its first atomic bomb on the City of Hiroshima. It vaporized people half a mile away from ground zero and leveled houses and buildings. At least 80,000 Japanese citizens died immediately from the fireball explosion and many more would succumb to their wounds and radiation poisoning.

Sadako was blown into the yard when the explosion happened. When Fujiko, Sadako’s mother, had come to, she heard Sadako crying and ran to grab her. Sadako seemed unharmed but visibly shaken. Her grandmother and brother Masahiro were found shortly under some rubble. Masahiro had suffered a cut to the head from the impact. The city of Hiroshima became unrecognizable – it was on fire, covered in debris and burning hot, reaching temperatures of 7,000° F. The Sasaki Family managed to escape to a nearby town with help from their neighbor who had a boat. They watched helplessly from the river as their neighbors struggled to run from the calamity.

For the next few years, the Sasaki Family would too struggle to survive. They had little to eat, as Shigeo tried once again to make a small living off of cutting hair with the tools that Fujiko managed to salvage as they ran from their home in Hiroshima. Sadako and Masahiro would find protein by eating bugs and insects.

 Eventually, things started to look up, and they were able to buy a small home with enough space to run the barbershop in front. One day, a neighbor came to Shigeo asking him to cosign a loan to run a business, and Shigeo agreed. Soon after, they found that the neighbor had taken the money and ran, leaving Shigeo the obligation to pay off the loan to loan sharks, who bothered the family constantly for money they did not have enough of. This took a toll on the Sasaki family and especially on Shigeo, who could only provide so little for his family.

Despite the otherwise poor living conditions, Sadako and Masahiro had grown up well. Sadako excelled in athletics in school, and she became her class’s top runner in the sports events. While many people had suffered diseases and illnesses from the radiation that was brought upon them by the bomb, Sadako and her family seem to have been left unscathed.

During the winter break, Sadako started to become ill. She complained of a sore throat and her neck had swollen to the point where she needed her to see a doctor. After a series of exams in February and March 1955, the results brought devastating news. They found that Sadako’s white blood cell counts were in the 30,000s, a symptom similar to those who had become ill from the bomb. These people were referred to as the hibakusha meaning “bomb-affected person.” The hibakushawould be diagnosed as having diseases correlated to the affects of radiation poisoning from the bomb and they coined it “the atomic bomb disease.” It was later discovered that Sadako was diagnosed with what is known of today as subacute lymphocytic leukemia.

Doctors had told Shigeo and Fujiko that Sadako had only a few months to a year to live. Sadako underwent many treatments in hopes to bring down her disease and make her otherwise painful circumstances more comfortable. She had blood transfusions and took many pain medications to ease her pain, but the cost was steep.

Sadako knew how expensive her treatment was and how difficult it was for her family to continue with the treatments, so she hid her pain and refused pain medications to offset the financial burden on her family. Even during her stay at the hospital, she was concerned for her family back home.

One day, nurses at the hospital gave her origami cranes folded by the Red Cross Youth Club at Aichi Shukutoku High School. Origami was the art of folding paper into various objects, animals, nature, etc. With great interest, Sadako had asked her father Shigeo the meaning behind the origami cranes, which Shigeo explained. Cranes, according to Japanese legend, were mystic creatures that were said to live for 1,000 years. If someone folds 1,000 origami cranes, one for each year that a crane lives, then their wish will come true.

Inspired by the legend, Sadako began her goal of folding a thousand paper cranes with her one wish in mind: to recover from her illness and go back to her family. She asked for the help of the nurses and other patients in the hospital to provide her with any kind of paper to fold and she was close to realizing her goal. As she was folding, Sadako grew more and more fatigued, and her illness slowed her progress. Sadako achieved her goal and all 1,000 paper cranes were hung in strands from the ceiling with help from Masahiro, but soon she came to the sad realization. She had folded all these origami cranes, but she did not get any better. Sadako’s wish did not come true.

This did not stop her from folding more origami cranes. Sadako continued folding in attempts to make a new, secret wish come true: that her father’s loans would be paid off. But as time passed, the act of folding became increasingly difficult and by early October her condition had taken a turn for the worse. She had one last blood transfusion on October 24th, but on the morning of October 25th, doctors realized that there was no hope and she had only a few hours to live.

In her final hours, Sadako had asked for tea on rice, a comfort food in Japan. She was surrounded by the company of her family and friends, and the thousand paper cranes that hung from the ceiling of her hospital room. With her last breath, Sadako thanked her family and passed away.

Sadako is remembered for her immense endurance of pain during her stay at the hospital. Her perseverance helped her complete her first set of a thousand cranes, and her compassion and selflessness for her family despite her own situation is honorable.  Masahiro says that his younger sister taught the true meaning behind omoi-yori-no-kokoro or the consideration for others despite one’s own situation.  Masahiro recalls “when Sadako was in the hospital, not once did she say ‘It hurts,’ ‘I’m in pain,’ or ‘Help me.’”

Sadako, as well as the many other children devastated by the Hiroshima bombings, serves as a reminder of the horrors of war and the importance of keeping lessons of history in our minds, and how countries should be fighting harder, not for power, but for world peace. A statue is erected by the efforts of Sadako’s classmates who wrote letters to principals all over the country asking for donations. The statue called Genbaku no Ko no Zō (The Statue for the Children of the Atomic Bomb) was unveiled at the Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima on May 5, 1958. On it had the engravings: “The is our Cry, This is our Prayer, To Create Peace in the World.” The origami cranes now became a symbol of peace, and her cranes which were so intricately and meticulously folded were donated to museums around the world.

Masahiro says that Sadako had no resentment towards the bomb or the country that dropped the bomb, and that what mattered was the ordeal that both civilians and military went through due to war. It’s something that should not be forgotten by the countries who participated.

With this story, there’s a hope for the world. To look past and recognize differences in other people, to accept others for who they are and what they believe in, and to look for a way to bring peace among nations so that no one suffers the same ill fate. People do not know the consequences of their actions until it is too late. Without wars, families would not be torn apart, there would be no injured, sick or dying, and compassion would resonate past borders, across oceans, and throughout the world.

This is Sadako Sasaki’s story.

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