The Importance of the Crane in China and Japan
Also known as the Manchurian or Japanese crane, the species most often used in traditional Japanese tattoo art is an endangered bird found mostly in the shrinking wetlands and marshes of East Asia.
It’s a migratory bird that lives well over two decades in the wild, and up to 60 or 70 years in captivity. Its impressive wingspan of 220-250 cm (even in relation to its near-human height or 101-150 cm), loyalty to a single mate, complex dance routines, and bright red cap or “crown” makes it a very striking bird.
Due to how large it is, its rarity, its long lifespan, and migratory nature, several Chinese myths attribute the crane to immortality. Some myths name the crane as the mount of choice for Taoist immortal figures as they transcend their mortal coil, and it remains a symbol of nobility.
These same impressive qualities and loyalty to a single mate also translated well into Japanese myths, the most popular of which is the Tsuru no ongaeshi, or “Crane’s Returned Favor”, wherein a hunter saves a dying crane that had been shot out of the sky, only to be repaid the next night in the form of a strange yet beautiful young wife, with an ever-replenishing sack of rice. When the man realizes his new wife is, in fact, the magical crane taking on the shape of a human, she considers her debt paid and disappears.
Other myths surrounding the crane include the myth of longevity – alongside dragons and turtles, cranes are purported to live 1,000 years in Japanese folklore and bring good luck.
These myths and legends are only part of the reason the crane grew to prominence as an artistic motif in China and Japan, particularly during the Edo period. Perhaps the biggest reason that the Japanese crane became a popular woodprint, and later tattoo motif is the “bird-and-flower” genre of East Asian art during the 19th century, which originated in China and migrated to Japan.
Crane Tattoos and Ukiyo-e
A quick search of ukiyo-e databases reveals that cranes were a popular motif for woodblock print artists even well into the 20th century. This is largely where the design of the crane probably bled into irezumi art as well, as many workers and merchants commissioning tattoos illegally during the Edo period probably chose motifs from popular or talented artists based either on their works, or the meaning of the motif itself (in this case, loyalty and longevity).
To this day, tattoo artists utilize the red-crowned crane as a quintessentially Japanese tattoo motif, with its simple black-and-white color scheme, save for the eponymous red crown, which contrasted perfectly against green pines (a common partner to the crane in many a painting) and complemented the traditional red rising sun.
Paper Cranes, Senbazuru, and World Peace
The Japanese crane is perhaps most famous for its paper counterpart, including the myth of the thousand paper cranes. Origami was another Chinese import, at a time when paper was sold at a premium and the art itself was still in its infancy. The art wasn’t properly recorded in Japan until the Edo period, though it’s likely the Japanese encountered Chinese paper-folding before then.
While origami enthusiasts recognize Japanese origami as square-shaped and bicolored, this was a German invention. Prior to integrating German paperfolding concepts, many traditional Japanese origami were made with cuts (kirigami) and paper of varying dimensions.
One of the oldest and most well-known forms of origami is the orizuru, the folded crane, and along with it came the legend that if you made a paper crane for each year of a legendary crane’s lifespan, you would be granted a great wish. Where exactly this myth originated is unknown, although the practice itself can be traced to the Hiden Senbazuru Orikata (Secret to Folding a Thousand Paper Cranes), published in 1797. Paper cranes today are overwhelming associated with Sadako Sasaki, and her legacy for world peace.
Sadako Sasaki was born January 7, 1943 and was two years old an atomic bomb landed in Hiroshima, Japan. She lived about a mile away from ground zero, and was thrown out the window by the blast, surviving without any apparent injuries. It was only in 1954, when she was 11 years old, that she began to develop swellings and discoloration in her skin. She was diagnosed with leukemia a year later and died in 1955.
Before she died, her father told her a story of the senbazuru (thousand-paper-crane) wish, and according to her family, Sadako folded well over a thousand cranes before she died. She was one of several hundred thousand hibakusha (nuclear bomb survivors), and her Children’s Peace Monument at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park remains one of the most-visited post-war memorials in Japan.
To this day, it’s a tradition for visiting schoolchildren to leave behind thousands and thousands of paper cranes, and the wish for world peace and nuclear disarmament behind the paper crane tradition has evolved into offering senbazuru in lieu of prayer flags to temples and memorials in Japan. Schoolchildren fold 25 strands of 40 paper cranes, tied together with string and beads, and hang on temple and memorial walls to be exposed to the elements, fulfilling over time as the wind and water blow the flames apart. Senbazuru are also gifted for good luck, or to wish someone well while they’re sick.
While the paper crane has little to do with tattoo art, it is sometimes used as a motif for its significance as a symbol for the wish for world peace.