The Saddest Museum in the World

I know I mentioned as recently as yesterday that I wouldn’t be writing anything here, but something has happened since to make me rethink that idea. I think of myself as a fairly tough guy; I keep a lot of things to myself without showing much emotion at all. Yet sometimes even people like me come across a story so sad, poignant and connected that we just can’t help but have a good cry about it. This moment came for me today at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. It came as I read the story of Sadako Sasaki and her origami cranes.

Sadako didn’t die when the A-bomb exploded over her home town. She wasn’t one of the children who walked around blinded and dazed looking for help as skin melted right off their bodies like wax. She didn’t even die until over 10 years after that fateful day in 1945, yet she did die because of the A-bomb.

Sadako was two-and-a-half years old when the bomb was dropped about 2 kilometers from her house. Growing up she seemed to have escaped the terrible fate of those who lived around her; she was strong and athletic, and was the star runner on her school’s relay team. While practicing for a race at age 11 she fell to the ground feeling dizzy; doctors diagnosed her with leukemia, or “the atom bomb disease.”

This is not a unique story, though. This happened to tens of thousands. What got to me was another part of the story. You see when she fell ill a friend told her of an old Japanese legend to the effect that if she folded one thousand origami cranes the Gods would grant her a wish, so she folded little origami cranes while in hospital. The accounts vary — some say she folded well over 1000, some say she fell short — but that’s not very important.

What got to me was, the museum had an exhibit of origami cranes next to the Sadako display. Some were tiny little things; other were larger. Such intricate work… I could just imagine her little fingers making each one, I could almost feel her looking at each one after it was finished and thinking, “that’s good!”. As she continued her work I just knew that she told herself to be cheerful, to gambatte (“do your best”) as she folded every piece of paper she could get her hands on into these little cranes which she then strung together on lines that hung from her hospital bed. I could see her smile and hear her laugh when her classmates visited her bringing her more cranes because they too told themselves to gambatte for Sadako.

And then nothing. She died in October of 1955.

Sadako herself has not been forgotten by history. She was the inspiration for the Hiroshima Children’s Monument, which features a statue of her likeness; a statue of her also stands in Seattle. Books, poems and songs have been written about her, and hers is a household name in at least in Japan; indeed it’s hard for me to think that someone could visit the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum and not be moved by her story.

Sad as the story is, what really shocked me was remembering that the previous day, while visiting Nara, a schoolgirl asked me to have my picture taken with her. To put things into context, this is apparently the school visiting season in the major cultural sites of Japan, and the Todai-ji temple in Nara was literally teeming with visiting school groups. Strange as it may seem for people like me to imagine, it’s not entirely inconceivable to think that a lot of these kids have never seen a gaijin (foreigner) in person before, and many of them were keen to have me either write them a little message or pose for a picture with them. Well, one of the girls, a Kazumi Yamazaki, gave me a little origami crane as a show of friendship. I had carefully folded it and put it into my passport.

When I saw the exhibit and the little cranes I touched my passport — and it struck me that this whole story could, but for pure chance, be about her. She was about the right age, I’m guessing. I’m pretty sure Kazumi had nothing to do with wars or atomic bombs, but then neither did Sadako. Through no fault of her own she happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, at the innocent age of two. It’s not much of a connection I’ll admit, it’s just two teen-aged girls who like to fold cranes and, well, do whatever else girls that age like to do, but that epiphany gave me a great sadness.

In the end there’s no real moral to this story. The Museum, and the City of Hiroshima, tirelessly campaign for the elimination of atomic and nuclear weapons, but they are a part of the world we live in. It’s a Pandora’s box — once it’s open, you can’t just stuff the calamities back in there. No matter how many would genuinely like to see existing weapons scrapped there’s always an A.Q. Khan out there willing to put new nukes in the hands of rogue states and terrorists, and there’s always a religion-blinded madman like Ahmadinejad, a bin Laden, or some other holy fool that doesn’t hesitate to threaten with them and might not bat an eyelash at killing hundreds of thousands using them. That, sadly, is human nature — or more precisely perhaps not human nature, but the nature of some humans who, by some freak occurrence, have been given the chance to do it.

Still, I’ll never forget what I felt today, and when things get me down I’ll always remember the story of the little girl who cheerfully folded little origami cranes to save her life, and that in some metaphorical way it could be someone I know, however little.


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