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Sadako Sasaki’s brother discusses her short life

Updated: 
August 23, 2015 - 1:30am

WAILUKU, Maui— The story of Sadako Sasaki, the young Hiroshima girl who folded paper cranes in hopes of surviving leukemia, has been embellished and dramatized through the years, said her older brother, who spoke on Maui recently to help straighten the record, offer personal recollections and proffer meaning to the young life snuffed out by the atomic bombing.

The popular telling of the story of Sadako is that the 12-year-old began her quest to fold 1,000 cranes in hopes of garnering good luck in her battle against the disease that, back in post-World War II, was considered terminal. She died on Oct. 25, 1955, at the Red Cross Hospital in Hiroshima having folded 644 cranes, reported the Maui News.

Her classmates completed Sadako’s 1,000 cranes by folding the remaining 356, and she was cremated surrounded by those cranes. This version of the story is told in Eleanor Coerr’s “Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes,” an illustrated children’s book, which she describes as “historical fiction,” published in 1977. Austrian journalist Robert Jungk, who visited Hiroshima in 1956, also took liberties with the number of cranes Sadako folded and her death in his book “Light in the Ruins.”

Masahiro Sasaki, 74, said in an interview prior to his talk at Wailuku Hongwanji that his sister actually folded more than 1,600 cranes and, in the end, the folding of the cranes became more than a hope and a wish to overcome the disease.

He said that his sister folded the thousandth crane at the end of August 1955, after a month of working at it. Realizing that the folding of 1,000 cranes did not cure her, “she hoped to make another thousand in hopes she might recover.”

“That wish made her fold 600 more,” Sasaki said in Japanese through interpreter the Rev. Shinkai Murakami.

Not all of the cranes were cremated with her, said Sasaki, a beautician who currently lives in Fukuoka. Some were shared with her classmates, 120 sit in the Hiroshima Memorial Peace Museum, one crane is displayed at Pearl Harbor’s visitor center.

Sasaki brought with him a tiny crane, about the size of a penny, made from candy paper by Sadako. She lay bedridden at the time and used a needle to fold the crane while lying on her back, he explained.

Sasaki, who is mentioned in Coerr’s book, harbors no anger for the inaccuracies, though he added that writers never bothered to interview the family. He realizes that the changes were made to create “a more meaningful story.”

Still, he believes that his duty is to share the truth. That’s how Sadako would want it, too.

When she embarked on her mission to fold the 1,000 cranes, Sadako was hoping for a cure, he said. In Coerr’s book, Sadako’s friend reminds her of the Japanese legend of the crane that is supposed to live 1,000 years.

“If a sick person folds a thousand cranes, the gods will grant her wish and make her healthy again,” the friend tells Sadako.

Though no one told her she had leukemia, Sadako suspected she had the disease when she entered the Red Cross hospital in February 1955, he said. Her fears were confirmed when she sneaked a look at her chart on April 26, 1955; it said she had “sub acute lymphocytic leukemia.”

The American Cancer Society says exposure to radiation is a risk factor for the disease that Sadako herself referred to as “the atom bomb disease.” It can show up six to eight years after initial exposure, according to the cancer society website.

While there were few treatments for the disease in 1955, today chemotherapy is used, with 80 to 90 percent remission rates in adults, the cancer society said.

Sasaki believes his sister knew on that day in April that she did not have long to live.

The folding of the cranes would evolve into a way for her to endure the pain of the disease, the injections and the transfusions. It would help her conquer the guilt she felt for draining the family’s meager finances and give her the strength to put up a brave and positive face to salve the worries of her parents and family.

“She didn’t talk about her deep suffering,” he said, adding that she refused pain-relieving morphine as she neared the end of her life. “Through folding the cranes, she made … everything go into the cranes and relieve her suffering.”

Sadako called home only once during her eight-month hospital stay. She told her father over the phone that she had received 150 yen to help with her treatment, adding “but there is no need to hurry.”

On May 5, 1958, less than three years after Sadako’s death, the Children’s Peace Monument was dedicated in Heiwa Koen, or Peace Park, in Hiroshima. The inscription on the monument with paper cranes hanging from around the world reads: “This is our cry, this is our prayer; peace in the world.”

At the top of the memorial is Sadako holding a shoulder-wide paper crane.

“The face is exactly the same face as Sadako,” said her brother, adding that whenever family members visit the memorial they feel that are visiting Sadako’s gravesite. “The face is the real face of Sadako.”

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