Origami Heaven

A paperfolding paradise

The website of writer and paperfolding designer David Mitchell


The Orizuru or Paper Crane / Sadako Sasaki

This page attempts to record what is known about the origin and history of the traditional origami design known as the Orizuru or Crane. Please contact me if you know any of this information is incorrect or if you have any other important information that should be added. Thank you.

In Japan

According to a report in the Asahi Shimbun on March 14th 2017, the oldest known representation of the Orizuru has been found on a kosuka, a decorative panel intended to be attached to the hilt or sheath of a sword, which can be reliably dated to between 1537 and 1603.



Origami in the Classics, by Satoshi Takagi, published by the the Yasuhiro Sano, publishing office, Nippon Origami Association, in 1993 includes an illustration from a design book for dyed goods published around 1700 which features Paper Cranes.



Paper Cranes are also among the designs illustrated in a woodcut from a Japanese book by Hayato Ohoka published in 1734 called 'Ranma Zushiki' which contains prints of decorations intended to enhance sliding room dividers.



There are a number of prints, by, or after the style of, the Japanese designer Nishikawa Sukenobu (1671-1750), which show ladies folding various designs, including paper cranes. I have not been able to find a definitive catalogue of Nishikawa Sukenobu's works to confirm authorship or date. If they are all his work they cannot be later than 1750, when he died.

The detail below is from 'The Doll Festival', from the book 'Ehon masu kagami, vol. I', which is in the possession of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and is said to date from 1748.


This print, 'Ehon Hana no Kagami', which is also said to date from 1748, shares many characteristics of composition with the print above.


This third print is found in a number of blogs on the net but none of them give a date or the name of the artist. It does, however, look very similar in style to the other two prints.


1765 - 1770

These four prints by Suzuki Harunobu (1725-1770) show kimonos decorated with paper cranes. (Information from Juan Gimeno) The full-colour technique used to make these prints was first used in 1765 and these prints must therefore date to between then and his death in 1770.



This print entitled 'Orizuru o tsukuru shojo' (Children folding a paper crane) by Koryusai Isoda (active 1764 -1788) is in the collection of the Library of Congress in Washington, USA. According to https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2008660852/ it can be dated to 1772/3.



According to the British Museum (https://www.bmimages.com/preview.asp?image=00034787001) 'This rare six-fold screen can be firmly attributed to Utagawa Toyoharu (1735-1814) and is one of the most important surviving Ukiyo-e paintings of its period. A group of high-ranking courtesans are seated on the red carpet in the centre, surrounded by their apprentices ... arranged in pairs with matching kimonos around the walls. The women are in the harimise, the latticed display room of a brothel in the Yoshiwara pleasure quarter, where they would sit waiting for clients. It appears to be the quiet middle period of the day, and the courtesans are amusing themselves in various ways - smoking, playing the shamisen, dressing a doll. One of the teenage apprentices has dozed off. Among the lacquered accessories depicted in the front, to the right of the smoking set, is a small box decorated with the emblem of a flying crane. According to Keisei Kei, a printed guide to courtesans published ... in 1788, this was a crest used by Komurasaki, a high-ranking courtesan in the house run by Tamaya Sansabura´. The name of the house appears, albeit playfully half-hidden, on the entrance curtain towards the centre back. The painting can be dated on the basis of its style and the fashions portrayed to the late 1770s or early 1780s.' It is just possible to see that the figure to the top left of the third panel in from the right is folding a paper crane.

Another, later, more colourful, version of this screen, is attributed to Katsukawa Sun'ei (1762-1819) and held at the Musee Guimet in Paris. The two central panels of this work and the detail showing the folding of the Paper Crane are shown below.

According to Michele C Cone in an article on Artnet entitled 'Prelude to Desire (www.artnet.com/Magazine/features/cone/cone1-28-05.asp): 'In a six panel screen entiled Courtesans Exposed to Public Viewing, Katsukawa Sun'ei marvelously illustrates those aspects of geisha life. One feels the quiet and expectant atmosphere that reigns inside the green tea house, the geishas' place of work. The wall of windows from which the clients will inspect the young women and make their choice is at the moment bare and black, in contrast to the crowded interior and its seated inhabitants rivaling in grace and beauty. The colors of the kimonos, each featuring a different printed pattern, pick up the black of the windows, the red of the floor and the ochre of the walls. By a subtle individualization of gestures and facial traits, the artist suggests something of the loneliness, isolation and fight against boredom that must have reigned during those moments of idle wait.'



The Senbazuru Orikata, a book of paperfolding designs for connected cranes, was published in Kyoto in 1797. Senbazuru means 1000 cranes. Orikata is an older word that means the same as origami. The number 1000 in the title is used symbolically, since in Japan, cranes are associated with good fortune and long life. Despite the title, if you folded all the designs in the book you would only have folded about 250 cranes in all. The designs are created by cutting slits in large squares to divide them into several, or many, small, but not completely separate, smaller squares and then folding each of these into a paper crane. The cranes remain connected by beak, legs, or wingtip when the design is complete.



This print by Torii Kiyonaga shows the interior of the Courtesans' House Choshiya in Shin-Yoshiwara and can be dated to the 1780s. (Information from 'Ukiyo-e the art of the Japanese Print' by Frederick Harris, published 2010.) At the bottom left of the picture a man tends a brazier. To the right of the brazier is part of a tray of Paper Cranes. I have no idea why a tray of Paper cranes would be found in a Courtesans' House.



A drawing of an Orizuru, togerher with a crease pattern, appeared in 'Kindergarten Shoho' (Preliminary Kindergarten) by Iijima Hanjuro, which was copyrighted on October 4th Meiji 17 (1884) and published by Fukuda Senzo in August of Meiji 18 (1885).



This print by Kogyo Terazaki (1866 –1919), normally called 'Young Girls Making Paper Cranes', can be dated to around 1906.



Diagrams for the design appear in 'Origami (Part 1)' by Isao Honda, which was published in 1931.


In Western Europe / America


In 1868 (or possibly 1869) a small number of enthusiasts for things Japanese formed a drinking club in Paris called the 'Societe de Jing-lar'. Each member was issued with a membership card, three of which have survived. These membership cards are illustrated with drawings of what appear to be orizuru. (Information from Juan Gimeno).

Although there was at this time a fashion for all things Japanese, and many ukiyo-e prints were in circulation in artistic circles, I do not know precisely where the image of an orizuru could have been obtained at such an early date, nor do I understand the significance of including such images on these membership cards.



In the September 1888 issue of the magazine 'Artistic Japan', edited by Siegfried Bing, a German-born French art dealer, which was published simultaneously in French (as 'Le Japon Artistique'), English and German (as 'Japanischer formenschatz'), is a page of drawings (https://archive.org/details/artisticjapanill01bing/page/46) which are explained as 'Ideas for kanemonos (clasps to tobacco-pouches) and for sword furniture, by Katsukaya Issai'. One of these shows an orizuru, or paper crane, positioned above a square of paper and a pair of Japanese scissors. (Information from Juan Gimeno.)



The header illustration for a chapter titled 'Les Arts Graphiques. Le Papier' in 'Le Japon Pratique' by Felix Regamey, which was published in Paris in 1891 by J Hetzel and Cie, shows a Paper Crane with a rabbit and a goldfish. In the index to the book the illustration is referred to as 'Cocotte en papier; lapin; poussin.'



Diagrams for a version of the Paper Crane appear as 'Grue Japonaises' in the 18th October 1902 issue of the French children's magazine 'Mon Journal' (along with the Flapping Bird).



The more familiar version of the Paper Crane appears as 'La Cigogne' (The Stork) in Booklet 5 of 'Images a Plier', a series of 6 booklets published by Librairie Larousse in Paris in 1932.



The Paper Crane also appears, again as The Stork', in 'Paper Toy Making' by Margaret Campbell, which was first published by Sir Isaac Pitman and Sons Ltd in London, probably in 1937, although both the Foreword and Preface are dated 1936, which argues that the book was complete at that date. Two versions of the design are given, a 'flying stork' with the legs trailing behind and the wings in an upright position, so that the body is not inflated, and a 'walking stork' with two legs, separated using a cut, feet and with the wings folded outwards.



The Crane also appears in two guises, as 'La cigüeña volando y en reposo (The stork flying and at rest), in 'El Mundo de Papel' by Dr Nemesio Montero, which was published by G Miranda in Edicions Infancia in Valladolid in 1939.



The Crane also appears, as 'The Stork or Chinese Sitting Bird' in 'Paper Magic' by Robert Harbin, which was published by Oldbourne in London in 1956. The text notes, 'This model can be formed sitting, standing or flying, as you please.'


Sadako Sasaki and the Paper Crane In Modern Times

1945 onwards

In November 1954 an eleven year old Japanese girl from Hiroshima, called Sadako Sasaki, who had been just two at the time the USA had dropped an atomic bomb on that city in 1945, but who had survived because her family lived sufficiently far from the centre of the explosion, began to show signs of radiation sickness and was admitted to hospital. On August 3rd 1955 a number of paper cranes folded by well-wishers in Nagoya were sent to the hospital. Sadako began to fold her own cranes, symbolising her desire to get well. Sadako threaded the paper cranes she folded together into strings and hung them from the ceiling of her room in the hospital. By the end of August Sadako had folded 1,000 paper cranes, but she continued to fold more. Her condition continued to deteriorate and she died on October 25th 1955 having by then folded over 1300 paper cranes. Within three years of her death sufficient money had been raised to build a memorial to her in Hiroshima Peace Park. (Information from the website of the Hiroshima City virtual museum.)

The story of Sadako has been told in the West in a number of books and films, not all of which are very true to the facts. The earliest book to mention her, although only briefly, was 'Strahlen Aus Der Asche' written by the Austrian journalist Robert Jungk who had visited Hiroshima in 1956 and heard Sadako's story from a family friend called Kawamoto. He gives the number of paper cranes that Sadako folded as only 644 (p161 of the English translation entitled Children of the Ashes). Another Austrian, Karl Bruckner, published the children's book 'Sadako Will Leben' in 1961. This book was translated into English as The Day of the Bomb. It is a fictionalised and romanticised account of Sadako's life and death and gives the number of cranes she folded as 990. Another children's book, also giving a fictionalised and romanticised account, 'Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes' was published in 1977 by the Canadian born author Eleanor Coerr. Following Jungk, the number of cranes Sadako folded before her death is given as 644.

A paper crane folded by Sadako Sasaki from a sweet wrapper

Folding and stringing together a thousand paper cranes has become a common way to express a general desire for peace, or a more specific hope that nuclear weapons should never again be used, and many such strings are sent every year to the Hiroshima Peace Park to be displayed on or near Sadako's monument. Strings of a thousand paper cranes are also sometimes made as a more personal expression of good wishes for those who are unwell or dying. It is not altogether clear whether these various practices are a continuation of a pre-existing Japanese tradition or something completely new that has arisen as a result of the popularisation of Sadako's story.