Opinion: Changes bring Sadako’s paper crane to Pearl Harbor

by Yasuhiro Inoue, Professor in the Faculty of International Studies at Hiroshima City University

Messenger of peace and reconciliation

“I never imagined that my sister’s paper crane would be on display at Pearl Harbor,” said Masahiro Sasaki, Sadako Sasaki’s elder brother. “Her eyes must be popping in astonishment."

On September 21, I attended the ceremony at the USS Arizona Memorial, located in Pearl Harbor, where Sadako’s tiny paper crane was unveiled. As a guest researcher at the University of Hawaii at Manoa since April, studying the political dimensions of the attack on Pearl Harbor and the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, I had never imagined such a thing would be possible.

The USS Arizona Memorial sits on the surface of the water, above the hull of the sunken battleship, which went down in the Japanese attack with the lives of 1,177 American soldiers. While visitors wait for a boat operated by navy personnel, they are shown a short documentary film.

I first visited this memorial more than 20 years ago and the film screened back then pulled no punches, depicting wartime Japan and the Japanese as sly and cunning. I still recall my feelings at the time, finding the film not just uncomfortable, but unbearable to watch.

Naturally enough, the USS Arizona Memorial mourns the soldiers who perished in the Pearl Harbor attack. Still, this site offers a weightier, more profound story that is embodied in the word “infamy,” used by President Franklin Roosevelt in his address the next day--known as “The Day of Infamy Speech”--seeking a formal declaration of war against Japan.

The USS Arizona Memorial has become a sacred place where people remember the vow for total victory, fueled by the words “Remember Pearl Harbor,” never forgetting the infamy wrought by Japan that day.

The site is also a place which has asserted the greatness of the United States, which vanquished Japan in the war through its military strength, including the A-bomb attacks. This is clear from the formal name of the memorial, known as “The World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument, the USS Arizona Memorial.”

When I was in the sixth grade, my classmates and I visited Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park on a school trip and offered the paper cranes we had folded to the Children’s Peace Monument, wishing for a peaceful world, free of war. But the paper crane folded by Sadako, now at Pearl Harbor, has more layers of meaning.

The atomic bombs were atrocious weapons that slaughtered without discrimination, Sadako’s life among them, and the horror of A-bomb radiation has left the survivors in persistent fear of the unpredictable aftereffects of exposure. Sadako’s paper crane highlights the complete denial of these wartime acts committed by the United States.

Thus, the meanings of “Pearl Harbor” and “Sadako’s paper crane” are at odds with one another and could never have existed side by side in the past. In 1995, 50 years after the war ended, an exhibition featuring the Enola Gay, the plane which dropped the bomb on Hiroshima, was planned at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. This event was canceled, however, when some U.S. veterans vehemently protested the content of the exhibition, which would have included the belongings left behind by victims of the atomic bombings. They went so far as to threaten to slash the federal budget for the museum, resulting in the resignation of its director. The USS Arizona Memorial is also managed with federal funds.

How, then, did it become possible for the paper crane to be displayed at a sacred site which commemorates the war and lauds fallen Americans?

Several factors are at play. The political clout of the veterans of World War II, nearly 70 years since the end of the war, has declined significantly. At the same time, Clifton Truman Daniel, the grandson of President Harry S. Truman, who ordered that the atomic bombs be dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, is acquainted with a curator at the memorial in Pearl Harbor, and he asked this curator to display the paper crane. And efforts made by Kazuko Minamoto, who lives in New York and has served as a mediator for the Sasaki family, have also been influential.

Meanwhile, what proved decisive in realizing the exhibit of the paper crane are the changes in the attitudes of officials and curators of the national park service, and the recent overhaul of the USS Arizona Memorial itself. Three years ago, the site underwent a significant transformation. As the slogan “Remember Pearl Harbor” had meant “inheriting infamy,” the policy of the memorial has shifted from “Remember Pearl Harbor” to “From Pearl Harbor to Peace.”

In the past, the memorial displayed photos and explanations only from the viewpoint of the United States. But following the renovation, there are now fact-based displays on Japanese history and the social backdrop from the last days of the Tokugawa shogunate to the attack on Pearl Harbor. There is also information concerning the post-war reconciliation of the two nations, as well as the fact that soldiers are not the only victims of war.

Pearl Harbor now shows more tolerance, acknowledging the tragedies of war and wishing for a peaceful future. That is why Sadako’s paper crane has finally landed there, a messenger of peace and reconciliation.


Yasuhiro Inoue
Originally from the city of Yamaguchi, in Yamaguchi Prefecture, Mr. Inoue worked as a reporter for the Mainichi Shimbun, then completed his doctorate at Michigan State University. In 2001, he began working at Hiroshima City University, becoming a professor in 2007. His fields of interest are politics and the media, American journalism, and the Internet and society. He has been a guest researcher at the University of Hawaii at Manoa since April 2013. Mr. Inoue’s books include Media Literacy.

(Originally published on September 28, 2013)