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Director of U. of I.'s Japan House to take paper cranes to Japan on peace tour

Melissa Mitchell, Arts Editor


Alexander Wu showing Vivian larson how to make a paper crane
Click photo to enlarge
Photo by Kwame Ross
Alexander Wu, right, gives pointers on technique to Vivian Larson during an origami crane-making session at Japan House. The cranes will be delivered to the Children's Monument in Peace Memorial Park, Hiroshima.

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — When Japan House director Kimiko Gunji embarks on a tour of Japan next month, she’ll be doing more than just chaperoning a group of tourists. She’ll be directing a personally planned peace mission.

And in their bags, Gunji and others members of Tomonokai (Friends of Japan House) participating in the Sakura (cherry blossom) Peace Tour will be packing a few extra items among the usual clothing, cameras and film. The group, which will be in Japan March 24-April 5, will be traveling with 1,000 multicolored, hand-made origami cranes, which they plan to deliver to a memorial park in Hiroshima as part of a project called “Paper Cranes for Peace.”

“In Japanese culture, the crane is a symbol of longevity and happiness,” Gunji said, explaining that for many years people from around the world have deposited thousands of intricately folded cranes at the Children’s Monument in Hiroshima’s Peace Park. The gesture, she said, is “a visual representation of the desire for world peace.”

Visitors to the memorial were originally inspired to make cranes, she said, by the story of Sadako Sasaki, a young Japanese girl who developed leukemia in 1955 after being exposed to radiation through the bombing of Hiroshima in 1945. Sasaki believed that the gods might grant her wish for restored health if she folded a thousand paper cranes.

Gunji traces her idea to bring the Champaign-Urbana community together to make origami cranes and deliver them to Japan to a couple of sources.

“I’m always thinking of some way to be aware of the importance of bringing together the people of the world … to spread seeds of peace,” Gunji said. One source of inspiration, she said, was an old woman she encountered during a visit to Japan about 15 years ago.

The woman, whose daughter had died after the Hiroshima bombing, spent her days on the sidewalk crafting doll bookmarks and giving them away to passersby. She did this as her own personal way of honoring her daughter’s memory, in the hope that others would think of her and remember what had happened, Gunji said.

“She was just sitting there, happily making these paper dolls, one at a time,” she said. “It was very inspirational.”

Gunji said she seriously began entertaining thoughts about how to involve Americans from her adopted community in the international crane-making ritual after observing how U. of I. students were affected by the memorial in Hiroshima. She first began taking students to the site during intercultural study tours to Japan when she served on the staff of the university’s Campus Honors Program.

“Students were affected by it,” she said. “They would get very serious and talk softly. I thought, ‘These are students who are eventually going to be leaders.’ When dealing with top-notch students … and when you consider that one person can change a whole history, I wanted to find a way to get them into the system, to recognize that they can change history.”

To prepare for the upcoming peace tour, Gunji has hosted a couple of crane-making sessions at Japan House. Participants included area teachers, who took the project back to their schools and involved students as well.

Among them was Sherri Polaniecki, who teaches art to sixth-graders at Mahomet Seymour Junior High and takes her students to Japan House each quarter to study tea ceremony.

“I got involved in the peace project initially because I thought it would be an excellent extension for my students to be involved in a project that fostered peaceful relations with Japan since we are already learning about Japanese culture and we always talk about harmony and respect as parts of the ceremony,” Polaniecki said. “Further dialogue that accompanied the project brought up a lot of reactions from students regarding the atomic bomb, and the young girl, Sadako, who died from leukemia as a result of the radiation.

“I think by doing the peace project as a class, it sends students the message that whether or not we agree or disagree with America’s choice to bomb Hiroshima at the end of World War II, there are always consequences from violent actions such as these, and it is important to remember and learn from such repercussions. I think it also lets students feel like they have a place to contribute their wishes for hope and peace, which is so important, especially as students are surrounded with images of the Iraq war.”

A final crane-making session will take place during Japan House’s open house celebration of Girl’s Day, from 1-4 p.m. on March 3, at Japan House. As part of the Girl’s Day celebration, traditional Hina dolls also will be on display.