At eleven years old, Sadako Sasaki is the eldest girl in her family and the most outspoken of all her siblings. She struggles to balance her sunny and outgoing disposition with the historical burden her family carries from the losses it suffered in the nuclear bombing of 1945. Though Sadako does not mourn her parents’ losses in the exact same way they do, she feels just as overwhelmed when she attempts to reckon with the violence and horror that have forever impacted their family and their country. As Sadako’s illness slowly ravages her, she begins to understand the full weight of the history and the traditions that have made her family what it is—just as it is all about to slip away from her forever. In positioning Sadako’s valuable lessons about family, history, and tradition at the end of her short life, Coerr argues that understanding and honoring one’s personal, familial, and cultural history is a necessary part of fulfilling one’s destiny.
At the start of the novel, as the Sasaki family prepares to attend the Peace Day memorial and festival on the ninth anniversary of the bombing of their city, Sadako is more concerned with running in the street, eating cotton candy, and spending time with her friends than she is with honoring the pain and suffering that have forever transformed the history and trajectory of her family, her city, and thus her own life. Though Sadako insists that she prays each day for her departed family members and her ancestors, she is still learning much about where she comes from. As Sadako grows ill, however, and begins to understand that her disease is a direct result of the nuclear bomb, her relationship to herself, her family, and her city’s violent history begins to shift.
While in the hospital, Sadako’s friend Chizuko brings her origami paper and scissors, and tells her the legend of the thousand-year-old crane who is said to grant the wish of anyone who folds one thousand paper cranes in its image. As Sadako devotes herself entirely to the task of folding one thousand cranes, she engages directly with a piece of Japanese cultural history which opens her eyes to the importance of learning about and honoring her culture’s traditions, myths, and history. Sadako informs others of the legend, and her friends, family, nurses, and doctors all begin saving paper and helping Sadako to string her cranes from the ceiling of her hospital room. Thus, Sadako brings the people around her together, simultaneously reviving an older tradition. In this way, she demonstrates that she has become a full-fledged member of her community in the months just before her untimely death—after which she, too, will become a part of her city and her country’s legends, history, and traditions.
In the last days of her life, Sadako’s family presents her with a traditional kimono. Sadako knows that her death is near, and asks why her family would present her with such a lavish but ultimately useless gift—as she knows she will never have an occasion to wear it. Nevertheless, she allows her family to dress her in the traditional robe, thereby signaling that she has finally come to understand that it is the traditions and history shared between friends, families, and countrymen which make life so rich. As Sadako approaches her death, she does so as a conscious and even enthusiastic participant not only in her family’s traditions, but in her people’s history.
History, Family, and Tradition ThemeTracker
History, Family, and Tradition Quotes in Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes
Rushing like a whirlwind into the kitchen, Sadako cried, “Oh, Mother! I can hardly wait to go to the carnival. Can we please hurry with breakfast?”
Her mother was busily slicing pickled radishes to serve with the rice and soup. She looked sternly at Sadako. “You are eleven years old and should know better,” she scolded. You must not call it a carnival. Every year on August sixth we remember those who died when the atom bomb was dropped on our city. It is a memorial day.”
Sadako bowed her head. She fidgeted and wriggled her bare toes while Mr. Sasaki spoke. He prayed that the spirits of their ancestors were happy and peaceful. He gave thanks for his barbershop [and] for his fine children. He prayed that his family would be protected from the atom bomb disease called leukemia. Many still died from the disease, even though the atom bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima nine years before. It had filled the air with radiation—a kind of poison—that stayed inside people for a long time.
At the entrance to the Peace Park people filed through the memorial building in silence. On the walls were photographs of the dead and dying in a ruined city. The atom bomb—the Thunderbolt—had turned Hiroshima into a desert. Sadako didn’t want to look at the frightening pictures. She held tight to Chizuko’s hand and walked quickly through the building.
“I remember the Thunderbolt,” Sadako whispered to her friend. “There was the flash of a million suns. Then the heat prickled my eyes like needles.”
“How can you possibly remember anything?” Chizuko exclaimed. “You were only a baby then.”
“Well, I do!” Sadako said stubbornly.
When the ceremonies were over, Sadako led the others straight to the old lady who sold cotton candy. It tasted even better than last year. The day passed too quickly, as it always did. The best part, Sadako thought, was looking at all the things to buy and smelling the good food. The worst part was seeing people with ugly whitish scars. The atom bomb had burned them so badly that they no longer looked human. If any of the bomb victims came near Sadako, she turned away quickly.
By now the rest of Sadako’s family was at the hospital. Her parents were in the doctor’s office. Sadako could hear the murmur of their voices. Once her mother cried, “Leukemia! But that’s impossible!” At the sound of that frightening word Sadako put her hands over her ears. She didn’t want to hear anymore. Of course she didn’t have leukemia. Why, the atom bomb hadn’t even scratched her.
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.”
Mrs. Sasaki was worried Sadako didn’t eat enough. One evening she brought a surprise wrapped in a bundle. It contained all of Sadako’s favorite foods—an egg roll, chicken and rice, pickled plums, and bean cakes. Sadako propped herself up and tried to eat. But it was no use. Her swollen gums hurt so much that she couldn’t chew. Finally, Sadako pushed the good things away. Her mother’s eyes were bright as if she were going to cry.
“I’m such a turtle!” Sadako burst out. She was angry with herself for making her mother sad. She also knew that the Sasaki family had no extra money for expensive food. Tear stung Sadako’s eyes and she quickly brushed them away.
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…
By the end of a week [at home] Sadako was pale and tired again. She could only sit quietly and watch the others.
“Sadako certainly has good manners now,” Mr. Sasaki said. “Oba chan’s spirit must be pleased to see how ladylike her granddaughter has become.”
“How can you say that!” Mrs. Sasaki cried. “I would rather have our lively Sadako back.” She dabbed at her eyes and hurried into the kitchen.
I'm making everyone sad, Sadako thought. She wished she could suddenly turn into her old self. How happy her mother would be then!
As if he knew what was in Sadako's mind, her father said gruffly, "There now, don't worry. After a good night's rest you'll feel fine."
The leaves on the maple tree were turning rust and gold when the family came for one last visit. Eiji handed Sadako a big box wrapped in gold paper and tied with a red ribbon. Slowly Sadako opened it. Inside was something her mother had always wanted for her—a silk kimono with cherry blossoms on it. Sadako felt hot tears blur her eyes.
"Why did you do it?" she asked, touching the soft cloth. "I'll never be able to wear it and silk costs so much money."
"Sadako chan," her father said gently, "your mother stayed up late last night to finish sewing it. Try it on for her."
With a great effort Sadako lifted herself out of bed. Mrs. Sasaki helped her put on the kimono and tie the sash. Sadako was glad her swollen legs didn't show.