When Sadako enters the Red Cross Hospital with a diagnosis of leukemia—a result of exposure to lingering radiation from the atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima at the end of World War Two—she is devastated and frightened. Little brings her comfort during her long days of tests, shots, and transfusions, and even visits from her family only make her sadder and more afraid. One day, Sadako’s best friend from school, Chizuko comes to visit her, and she brings with her several pieces of origami paper and a pair of scissors. Chizuko reminds Sadako of the legend of magical cranes which live for a thousand years, and tells Sadako that if she folds one thousand cranes, surely she will be restored to health and live a long, happy life. Chizuko folds a golden crane for Sadako and teaches her how to make her own, and soon Sadako—with the help of her family, nurses, and doctors—is well on her way to her goal of folding a thousand cranes.
The cranes are the central symbol of the novel and represent the book’s themes and motifs of hope, perseverance, and the acceptance of death. Though these things might seem in conflict with one another, the cranes serve as a symbol of how freedom can take many different forms. In the wake of the horrific attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, many Japanese citizens died immediately, but many others also suffered residual effects of the radiation from the bombs—Sadako is a casualty of these residual effects, and winds up in the hospital with leukemia. The cranes, as she builds them, seem at first to offer the promise that Sadako will live—that if she can just make enough of them, she will be spared from death. As Sadako grows weaker, though, and the cranes become harder and harder to build, the act of folding even just one is a feat of great strength. The many cranes that surround Sadako’s hospital beds symbolize all she has conquered during her illness, but also come to symbolize the freedom and peace that death offers from suffering. In addition, they more broadly symbolize a hope for a world that is free of such suffering. As Sadako dies, she looks up at her hundreds and hundreds of cranes and remarks on how free they seem—how empty of pain and how beautiful.
Paper Cranes Quotes in Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes
That afternoon Chizuko was Sadako’s first visitor. She smiled mysteriously as she held something behind her back. “Shut your eyes,” she said. While Sadako squinted her eyes shut, Chizuko put some pieces of paper and scissors on the bed. “Now you can look,” she said.
“What is it?” Sadako asked.
Chizuko was pleased with herself. “I’ve figured out a way for you to get well,” she said proudly. “Watch!” She cut a piece of gold paper into a large square. In a short time she had folded it over and over into a beautiful crane.
Sadako was puzzled. “How can that paper bird make me well?”
“Don’t you remember that old story about the crane?” Chizuko asked. “It’s supposed to live for a thousand years. If a sick person folds one thousand paper cranes, the gods will grant her wish and make her healthy again.” She handed the crane to Sadako. “Here’s your first one.”
Sadako’s eyes filled with tears. Sadako took the golden crane and made a wish. The funniest little feeling came over her when she touched the bird. It must be a good omen.
Everyone saved paper for Sadako’s good luck cranes. Chizuko brought colored paper from class. Father saved every scrap from the barbershop. Even Nurse Yasunaga gave Sadako the wrappings from packages of medicine. And Masahiro hung every one of the birds, as he had promised.
Sadako was feeling especially tired one day when Nurse Yasunaga wheeled her out onto the porch for some sunshine. There Sadako saw Kenji for the first time. He was nine and small for his age.
“Hello!” she said. “I’m Sadako.”
Kenji answered in a low, soft voice. Soon the two were talking like old friends Kenji had been in the hospital for a long time, but he had few visitors. His parents were dead and he had been living with an aunt in a nearby town.
“She’s so old that she only comes to see me only once a week,” Kenji said. “I read most of the time.”
Sadako turned away at the sad look on Kenji’s face.
“It doesn’t really matter,” he went on, “because I’ll die soon. I have leukemia from the bomb.”
“You can’t have leukemia,” Sadako said. “You weren’t even born then.”
“That isn’t important,” Kenji said. “The poison was in my mother’s body and I got it from her.”
Sadako wanted to comfort him, but she didn’t know what to say. Then she remembered the cranes. “You can make paper cranes like I do,” she said, “so that a miracle can happen.”
“I know about the cranes, but it’s too late. Even the gods can’t help me now.”
Masahiro dug into his pocket and pulled out a crumpled piece of silver paper. “Here,” he said, giving it to [Sadako.] “Eiji said this is for another crane.” Sadako sniffed the paper. “It smells like candy,” she said. “I hope the gods like chocolate.”
[Sadako, Masahiro, and their mother] burst out laughing. It was the first time Sadako had laughed in days. It was a good sign. Perhaps the golden crane’s magic was beginning to work. She smoothed out the paper and folded a bird.
Five hundred and forty one…
But she was too tired to make more. Sadako stretched out on the bed and closed her eyes. As Mrs. Sasaki tiptoed out of the room, she whispered a poem she used to say when Sadako was little:
“O flock of heavenly cranes
Cover my child with your wings.”
Near the end of July it was warm and sunny. Sadako seemed to be getting better. “I’m over halfway to one thousand cranes,” she told Masahiro, “so something good is going to happen.” And it did. Her appetite came back and much of the pain went away. Dr. Numata was pleased with her progress and told Sadako she could go home for a visit. That night Sadako was so excited she couldn’t sleep. To keep the magic working she made more cranes.
Six hundred and twenty one.
Six hundred and twenty two…
Dr. Numata gave Sadako blood transfusions or shots almost every day. “I know it hurts,” he said, “but we must keep on trying.” Sadako nodded. She never complained about the shots and almost constant pain. A bigger pain was growing deep inside her. It was the fear of dying. She had to fight it as well as the disease. The golden crane helped. It reminded Sadako that there was always hope.
Already lights were dancing behind her eyes. Sadako slid a thin, trembling hand over to touch the golden crane. Life was slipping away from her, but the crane made Sadako feel stronger inside.
She looked at her flock hanging from the ceiling. As she watched, a light autumn breeze made the birds rustle and sway. They seemed to be alive and flying out through the open window.
How beautiful and free they were! Sadako sighed and closed her eyes.
She never woke up.