ISHINOMAKI, Miyagi Prefecture–A project to sell novel paper cranes lovingly created by a trio of women living as evacuees after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami disaster has found its wings: thanks to the assistance of a former first lady.
The unconventional cranes are distinguished by the increased number of pleats in their wings, making them appear as if they are about to take off.
They have already found favor at high-profile events, even gracing the tables at a banquet held last December by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for Southeast Asian leaders.
High-end hotels, like the Imperial Hotel in central Tokyo, have started selling them at their shops. The Imperial Hotel sells a pair of gold and silver cranes for 500 yen ($4.80), alongside traditional gifts such as Japanese sweets. It has sold 20 sets since sales began in July.
The cranes are folded by Noriko Sato, 50, and two fellow evacuees living in temporary housing in Ishinomaki. The women painstakingly fold the paper because it, with gold and silver flake, is delicate.
In July and August, 3,500 of the origami cranes were shipped around Japan. Each woman receives 100 yen for each origami.
Sato, the group leader, said the proceeds helped her buy a kimono for her daughter in time for the coming-of-age ceremony in January.
But monetary gain is not the sole purpose.
“When you’re living in temporary housing and there isn’t much to do, you tend to see things negatively,” said Sato, whose home was destroyed in the March 11, 2011, tsunami generated by the Great East Japan Earthquake. Her woes did not stop there, however. She was later diagnosed with breast cancer.
“When I fold origami, I can put life’s difficulties out of mind and stay positive,” she said.
Some 4,000 residents of the coastal city of Ishinomaki were swept away by the towering tsunami.
The crane-folding project is the brainchild of Sanae Ochiai, 61, a former principal of Irifune Elementary School in Yokohama.
A few weeks after the disaster, she decided to take early retirement. She loaded her van with a tent and other equipment and headed for Ishinomaki to assist with recovery efforts.
After temporary housing was built for survivors, Ochiai held a handicraft workshop at a communal site there. She hoped that it would give strength to those who had lost relatives and homes in the disaster.
However, news reports of suicides and other deaths of temporary housing occupants that went unnoticed by neighbors persisted.
Ochiai dug deep and in spring 2012 used her savings to renovate a clothing shop into a meeting place for women living in makeshift homes to chat and share their problems.
Not long after, the residents at the temporary housing facility where she was assisting received a large number of colorful unconventionally folded origami cranes. The sender was Kiyoko Fukuda, a 70-year-old resident of Tokyo’s Setagaya Ward.
Ochiai had no idea that the sender was the wife of former Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda.
Kiyoko had begun sending her origami birds to evacuees as presents to cheer them up after reading newspaper reports on their lives at temporary housing sites.
Kiyoko was known for waging “paper crane diplomacy” by presenting them to the wives of world leaders who visited Japan, as well as using them as ornaments at the Group of Eight Hokkaido Toyako Summit in 2008 hosted by her husband.
Kiyoko learned her technique of folding cranes through an acquaintance while her husband held office.
Ochiai brought together the women at the temporary housing site so Kiyoko could teach them how to fold the cranes.
Impressed by the finished product, Ochiai suggested that they should try to sell them. All three women jumped at the opportunity.
At first, the origami birds were a tough sell. When one of the women took them to a hotel in Ishinomaki to pitch as a gift for a celebration event hosted there, she was snubbed. “Nobody wants to spend money on cranes,” a hotel official told her.
However, their fortunes took an upturn after the Imperial Hotel–where an event was held to commemorate Yasuo’s mother who passed away late 2013–agreed to sell the ornaments.
Kiyoko worked hard to get orders from hotels around Japan.
The trio opened a shop this summer to sell the cranes, other handicrafts and seafood products. Their lease on the shop expires in November. But there are high hopes that sales of the origami will continue at the hotels.