Aya Tasaki is the manager for policy and advocacy at Womankind, an organization serving survivors of gender-based violence in New York City.
Sadako Sasaki was 2 years old on Aug. 6, 1945, when the United States dropped the first atomic bomb in history on Hiroshima, Japan. At age 11, she was diagnosed with leukemia, which developed from the intense effects of the radiation. While sick, she took to heart an old saying that went, “fold 1,000 paper cranes and your wish will come true.” It is said she folded more than that many, using any scraps of paper she could find, in hopes of recovering.
Sadako passed away in 1955, when she was only 12 years old. Now, Hollywood has decided to tell her story — framed by the experience of a white woman.
This week, Variety reported that actress Evan Rachel Wood would star in “One Thousand Paper Cranes,” a film based on Sadako’s story. She is set to play Eleanor Coerr, a Canadian-born American author who wrote a children’s book about Sadako. Once again, instead of allowing a person of color to be the centerpiece in their own story, Hollywood has decided to co-opt the story and use white characters to tell it.
I am a third-generation atomic bomb survivor, known as “hibakusha” in Japanese. My maternal grandparents and paternal grandmother have lived in Hiroshima their entire lives, and my parents were born and raised there. Hiroshima and its tragic history run in my veins and are etched into my bones. And with that comes a responsibility to safeguard how the story of “hibakusha” is retold and used.
When the bomb was dropped, both of my grandmothers were in areas of Hiroshima later marked as “completely destroyed.” My maternal grandmother, Fumiko Nakano, was sitting on a train at Hiroshima Station, within a mile of what would become the epicenter of the blast. After the explosion, my grandmother came to and found herself lying on the gravel. If her train been parked one platform closer to the station, she would have vaporized. If all of the train windows had not been kept open to relieve the passengers from the sweltering summer heat, her body may have been sliced beyond recognition by shards of glass.
My paternal grandmother, Etsuko Tasaki, was on the other side of the 1-mile circle that day, when she saw a white flash and ran for cover. If the bomb been dropped a month earlier, she would have been in her office at the Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall — now known as the Atomic Bomb Dome. She would have been annihilated in an instant.
Afterward, they both wandered through their hometown, which was razed in a matter of seconds, past humans who begged for water to extinguish the burning in their dangling skin and flesh. In the days following the blast, they witnessed countless gruesome, painful deaths as people’s flesh was eaten by maggots in the summer heat. Yet, they never preached hate or resentment.
Their stories, along with Sadako’s, are part of our collective history and cannot be removed from their historical context. They are intertwined with Japan’s history of systematic invasion, pillage, torture and massacre across Asia. The story of Hiroshima cannot be separated from the fact that it was a military town that churned out weapons and shipped off thousands of men to carry out violence that still lives in the bodies of many today.
Telling Sadako’s story without anchoring it in broader historical context is inappropriate and harmful. This is especially true as Japan continues to avoid its responsibility to engage in a true conversation about the country’s history.
Will the film adaptation of “One Thousand Paper Cranes” capture the nuance of this “hibakusha” story? Or will it simply weave together Sadako’s life and Coerr’s role in bringing her international attention into a fluffy tearjerker with no real depth?
Sadako’s story is deeply personal to Hiroshima survivors and their families, not only because it is all too familiar, but also because her determination to fold a thousand paper cranes became a symbol of resilience in the face of adversity. Though the director of the film, Richard Raymond, released a statement claiming he “recognized” concerns and had the support of Sadako’s family, the Hiroshima Peace Museum and the Hiroshima Film Commission, it is unclear whether this will translate into real input.
I don’t want to see the story misrepresented in a movie that implicitly alleviates the United States of its guilt by portraying a Canadian-American woman who shared Sadako’s story. Nor do I wish to see a retelling of Hiroshima that enables Japan to embrace the victim narrative that perpetuates the erasure of inconvenient truths about the country’s own history and guilt.
So my question for the film’s producers is simple: With Hollywood’s history of opportunism and white-washing, do they truly believe they can tell this story in all of its historical weight and complexity? And can it be achieved by centering the narrative — however slightly — on an outsider who never lived through the wreckage? If the answer is no, then it shouldn’t bother.