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Diplomacy Master Obama Touches Japan’s Heart With Origami Message To Hiroshima Victim

Barack Obama became the first sitting US President to visit Hiroshima, in a wreath-laying ceremony and speech, Friday. American media focused on his speech and its broader diplomatic context. Right wing media accused him of apologizing for the atomic bombing, though he unequivocally did not apologize. Japanese media keyed in on a seemingly small gesture with enormous meaning for the Japanese people. One of the five largest newspapers in Japan, The Asahi Shimbun, reported that Obama “surprised and touched” people at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum with “origami paper cranes he apparently made himself.”

The origami cranes were a response to a young girl who died as a result of the atomic blast that pulverized the city of Hiroshima on August 6th, 1945. Sadako Sasaki was two years old when she survived being blown through the window of her family’s home only about a mile from Ground Zero. Ten years later, her body was riddled with tumors. In February, 1955, she was diagnosed with leukemia and told she had at most a year to live.

While sick in a nursing home, Sadako was inspired by a Japanese legend that if you fold 1,000 origami cranes, your wish will come true. Her wish was simply to live, and she folded over 1,300 cranes according to her family. Sadako succumbed to her illness in October, 1955. Her cranes are exhibited at Hiroshima’s museum, and at other places around the world, including Pearl Harbor and the 9/11 Memorial, as a symbol of peace. A statue of Sadako holding up a paper crane was erected at the Hiroshima museum in 1958, and has become an enduring symbol of the bombing and the Memorial Museum’s hope for peace.

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Asahi Shimbun reports that Obama “showed great interest” in Sadako’s origami cranes while Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida gave him a tour of the museum. President Obama then folded four cranes, gave two to students who greeted him at the museum, and left two on the museum’s guestbook with the message, 

“We have known the agony of war. Let us now find the courage, together, to spread peace and pursue a world without nuclear weapons.”

Asahi Shimbun reported that Obama

“…said he folded them with help from others as his envoy showed off the origami cranes, made of traditional Japanese paper graced with flower motifs, including apricots or cherries, placed on a tray.”

This was a beautiful gesture for the Japanese people, especially the hibakusha, or atomic bombing survivors. After nearly 8 years in office, Obama is a master of the delicate art of diplomacy, from the grand vision of opening relations to nations the US had long shunned to the minutiae of a gesture to the people of an ally a world away.

The gesture to the Japanese people went hand-in-hand with the pair of speeches that Obama and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made after laying wreaths. In his speech, Obama asked the world to empathize with the normal people going about their lives in Hiroshima as the bomb fell. Abe expressed “eternal condolence” to the American “youngsters” whose “dreams” had been snuffed out in the war.

This waltz of mutual empathy fits squarely within the ancient Japanese tradition of Renga, or the back-and-forth exchange of poetic verse. Under Obama and Abe, the US and Japan have been lifting the diplomatic burden of World War II, something of an elephant in the room despite the two nations’ alliance. Abe’s speech to the US Congress in 2015 at the 70th anniversary of the end of the war, calling for an “Alliance of Hope” and Obama’s visit to Hiroshima put the capstone on a major effort to increase diplomatic ties between the US and Japan.

Obama and Abe are deep into their Renga chain. Now Obama has added America’s verse to an unanswered Renga begun by a dying young Japanese girl. Obama begins a deeper cultural dialogue between the Japanese and American people. And he did so in ancient cultural language deeply meaningful to the Japanese.

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President Obama has less than 8 months left in office. There are many things I will remember about our remarkable president. But his deep empathy, humility in power, capacity to see the world through another’s eyes, and skill in expressing grand vision through human gesture, are among his talents I will miss most. I suspect much of the world will remember Obama’s diplomatic mastery fondly.

President Obama’s Origami Response to Sadako Sasaki:

Featured image via Laitche, creative commons (not Obama’s cranes). 

Marc Belisle is the Reverb Press World Affairs Editor. He is a writer, activist and teacher. He has a Master's degree in International Conflict Analysis from the Brussels School of International Studies. READ MORE BY MARC.