Noble and graceful, the crane is an auspicious and symbolic bird in many countries.
Paper is said to have come to Japan from china around 600AD, but as the process was expensive origami was used for mostly religious and ceremonial purposes, or gifts among nobles.
Eventually it became cheaper and popular, with folding techniques been passed down the generations to become a cultural heritage. Kami paper, is the cheapest paper made specifically for origami, and the most widely available. It is thin and easy to fold. It is usually printed only on one side, with a solid color or pattern.
With a natural lifespan of 30-40 years, the crane of myth is said to live one thousand years , representing immortality, purity, vigilance, longevity and good fortune.
In Japanese the word for Thousand is “sen”, the Senbanzura or thousand cranes is a large folding project said to grant the folder a wish at the end for embodying the cranes loyalty
and recreating its beauty. Often people will come together to complete this task to raise money or as a gift to a shrine.
After the second world war a young Japanese girl, Sadako Sasaki who was diagnosed with leukemia after the bombing of Hiroshima, began folding her 1000 with the wish of recovery. Ultimately she would not survive and changed her wish and focus to world peace. Upon her death she had completed some 644 cranes and her classmates banded together to finish the remaining 356 in her honor. A statue of her still stands in Hiroshima park where others leave their flocks of folded cranes with her wish of peace in their hearts.
My experience folding a giant pile of paper:
As I embark on this journey myself, barely more than 300 cranes in, I already have a personal view of the meaning and value of this task. I can see how it became a heritage craft of Japan, a culture known for perseverance and hard work.
I'd like to suggest that “wish” may be somewhat of a misnomer.In practice it feels like something between a prayer, meditation and dedicated training; having a calm and extended focus on a small repetitive task.
I folded the first few cranes individually and, I will not lie, it took forever. It made me look back into my experience to see if I knew a better way. For a short time I worked in a tiny workshop making bags, while it wasn’t the first time I had worked this way, it was the job that focused on manufacturing the most. To create something in volume it is easier to do it in a production line style, each step is completed across all units before continuing to the next. This brings in your focus further to perfect one step and fold at a time. Instead of only 5 complete cranes in one afternoon sitting I can fold one step across one color (65 sheets per color) and find it surprisingly relaxing. The relaxed focus reminded me of meditation, allowing you to let go of whatever is going on and just fold a tiny piece of paper. Experience quietness, still the mind, let go of anxiety and so on.
As with any project, the longer it goes on, the harder it is to continue, this can be an exercise and lesson in perseverance and commitment. Each little step can be a dopamine hit and satisfying feeling of completion, if you need that to continue, fold smaller groups.
I’ll be honest. At the time of writing I have only been able to make 1/3 of the cranes. I’m continuing and will eventually finish. Once I do, I will revisit this article and complete the story. When I can I fold 10 at a time. Each crane has gotten easier but there are still so many unfolded sheets, it’s a little overwhelming.
At first I was tempted to fake it for the article but realized this experience echo’s that of making a manga, a book or even this magazine. A long term project that takes way longer than you expected and becomes far more complicated. But, like the cranes , a little bit everyday , as long as you don’t quit, builds up an will eventually be finished.
I feel that the wish granted at the end of 1000 cranes is the skills, follow through and discipline you cultivate through this experience. You’ve done it once, you can do it again.