November 9, 2016 (One Thousand Cranes)
I started folding origami cranes shortly after the 2016 presidential election. I needed something to keep my hands busy and something productive to focus my thoughts on. In the months that I worked on them they were a form of meditation for me, and also a form of prayer: as I folded each crane I realized that I was searching for an answer—some way to make sense of what was happening, and some way to move forward. So these cranes are, perhaps, a form of protest as well.
About 800 of the cranes here are folded from a single issue of the New York Times from November 9, 2016, the day after the election, and the remaining 200 from a special election section in the November 10 paper. I was thinking about the dual nature of the newspaper, as a symbol of what is most current, most now, and also as what is worthless, discarded, thrown away. I was thinking about recycling—not just the re-use of physical materials, but the way our historical narratives keep returning to us, time and time again. Even though these cranes were a way of finding moments of quiet, of stillness, it was also important to me that they be a reminder of the real suffering that is and always has been.
According to Japanese tradition, anyone who folds one thousand origami cranes will be granted a wish. I heard of the one-thousand cranes for the first time when I was in the third grade and read Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes, a novel about the real life of Sadako Sasaki, a Japanese girl who was two years old during the American atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Sadako developed leukemia from the bomb radiation and folded one thousand cranes with the wish that she might live. When I first read about Sadako I imagined that I might one day fold my own thousand origami cranes, but I didn't have the patience then. As I grew older I continued to think about folding cranes, but I didn't know what I had to wish for.
It's important to me that these cranes are a part of Japanese culture. My grandparents were both born in California, children of immigrant farmers from Japan. My grandmother was twelve years old when she and her family were removed from their homes and sent to the Heart Mountain internment camp in Wyoming, where they lived for almost three years during World War II. For the rest of their lives my Grandparents were average Americans. They didn't like to talk about internment, or what it was like growing up Japanese before—or after—the war.
The first noble truth of Buddhism is the truth of suffering—we cannot know really peace until we stop trying to push suffering away. When I first started sitting meditation I was trying to create a refuge from fear and doubt. But this practice isn't a way of escaping complexity, it's a way of embracing it.
When I fold these cranes I think first of my Grandmother, but I also think of my family and their history. I think of the displacement of immigration, and the displacement caused by war. I think about culture and tradition—how it ties people together—and I resent that what connects me most to my family is a sense of culture that has been lost, rather than shared. I resent that I no longer know what it means to be Japanese in the same way that my grandparents, and their parents did. I think about trauma, individual and collective—the displacement of people, the dropping of bombs, the building of walls—and I wonder what I can do to help move forward.
In the Rinzai school of Zen, students work their way into the teachings by answering a koan, a paradoxical kind of riddle. A koan doesn't have a single, simple solution—meditating on its inherent contradictions is a tool for helping the student to let go of logical ways of thinking and learn to accept what cannot be fully understood. While folding these cranes, I held each square of newspaper in my hand as if it were a koan. I asked myself, over and over: How can sitting in meditation create change in the world? How can folding paper be of any use?
In the novel, and in real life, Sadako never gets her wish. There is no real magic in origami. We talk about paper as a metaphor for fragility, weakness, thinness. Paper cannot stop a bomb, or tear down a wall, and it cannot not stop her Leukemia. Still, we continue to tell her story, and we continue to fold. For decades, Sadako has been an inspiration all over the world. Since the trauma of WWII, Sadako and her cranes have become a symbol for peace—for the transformational power of paper, and the healing potential of the smallest gestures.
- Brent Nakamoto