Folding paper cranes in Hiroshima

Folding paper cranes in Hiroshima

Next to the carcass of an old building sits a small bespeckled Japanese man. He’s wearing cycling shorts with a sign in front of him that reads: “Free origami lesson”.

Coming from South Africa, we’re pretty sceptical about the word “free”. Despite our better judgement, we park our bikes and take our seats on tiny folding chairs next to an iconic ruin. We regularly feel like clumsy giants in a dainty world while travelling in Japan.

Yamaguchi Seiji greets us white a smile and holds out an array of patterned papers for us to choose from. I choose a polka-dotted square for me and my bestie Robyn decides on a purple square with cats on it. It’s almost impossible to imagine an atomic bomb dropping right here, 75 years ago. Killing 80 000 people in an instant. The heat. The feat. The destruction.

Yamaguchi-San starts showing us how to fold orizuru (paper cranes) with immense patience. He folds the paper again and again. It’s like magic happening right in front of our eyes. He’s cheerful and sweet. Behind him looms the Genbaku Dome (or Atomic Dome). The skeleton of the only building left standing after the first-ever atomic bomb strike. The city maintains in its ruined state to act as a reminder of the destruction humanity is capable of.

Yamaguchi-San’s nimble fingers fold and fold until we each have a paper crane in hand. Next, he shows us where to tug so that they flap their wings like real birds. We are excited by his level of enthusiasm and vice versa. Then, he reaches for a container and we think: “This is it”. The moment he is going to ask for money or a donation or try to sell us something we won’t be able to refuse.

Instead, he takes out a red paper flamingo, a yellow paper ostrich, and a miniature crane the size of a teardrop. He can make them all he explains. As we sit in awe, he tells us of his childhood, a-bomb survivors, and life post the atomic bomb. Senbazuru is a chain of 1000 paper cranes he explains. When people would get sick from the radiation, loved-ones would make chains of paper cranes to wish them a speedy recovery. Sometimes it would work, sometimes it wouldn’t.

He says he cycles every day and he looks the part. In Hiroshima, A-bomb survivors are passing on their stories to the younger generation to ensure they’re not forgotten. A few minutes away a flame has been burning non-stop since 1964. It will burn until every nuclear weapon is destroyed.

We place our paper cranes in our wallets, our most prized gifts. Hiroshima has a way of stirring up emotions like no other place on earth. The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park evokes sadness, disbelief, shock and outrage. Yet, people like Yamaguchi-San give up their time to make a connection with a stranger. To bring joy to a stranger’s day. We won’t remember the city for being destroyed. We will remember it for being rebuilt and for showing the world the future must be nuclear-weapon-free.


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