No Shoes, Please: A thousand cranes

Rei Kubokawa, fashion designer and founder of Comme des Garcons, is known for her avant-garde designs and taciturn demeanor. She has been described as intense, deep and serious; she refers to her annual runway collections as “an exercise in suffering.” When asked how she would like to be remembered, Kubokawa’s response was, “I want to be forgotten.”

She is so Japanese.

I’m not knocking her. I’m a serious person myself – a trait that sometimes comes in handy but oftentimes does not. However, being of Japanese ancestry, well, them’s the rules – namely, seriousness of purpose and the like. Therefore, almost anything can qualify as an “exercise in suffering,” and one doesn’t crave attention for being put through the paces. It should all appear effortless.

Right now, I’m struggling with the theme of “effortless effort.” For my daughter’s wedding next year, my family – my 84-year-old mother included – plans to fold 1,000 origami paper cranes to display at the reception. We’re up to the challenge, but it’s a tall order nonetheless, and I’m not exactly sure how we will pull off looking like we’re not exhausted by the project.

Because the wedding isn’t until next year, time is on our side. But it’s not just a numbers game as far as crane-folding goes. As my mother has reminded me several times over, each crane has to be perfect, that is, exact creases, sharp points and none of the white-colored underside of each paper showing anywhere.

Because my crane-folding skills are rusty, I bought 6-inch-by-6-inch origami paper so that I can practice before starting on the actual wedding display cranes – ones that are folded from out of 3-inch-by-3-inch sheets. I can feel my fingers cramping up just thinking about folding those smaller squares into tiny cranes.

Arduous as it is, the tradition itself is based in a beautiful idea. According to legend, cranes are one of three holy or mystical creatures (the other two being the dragon and the tortoise) that live for 1,000 years. Graceful and gorgeous, in nature they mate for life and are therefore treasured symbols of fidelity, prosperity, happiness and peace.

It is said that if a person folds 1,000 cranes by himself, his prayers will be carried to heaven, and he will be granted a wish. Sadako Sasaki, a 12-year-old World War II Hiroshima bomb victim seeking a miracle, folded 644 origami cranes before she died of the leukemia she had developed from radiation poisoning. In her honor, her family and classmates finished folding the rest, and since then, the 1,000-origami-cranes tradition also has come to symbolize hope and healing – a grand “get-well card” for ailing people.

Whichever the event – weddings or hospital stays – a “senbazuru,” or 1,000-crane display, is a labor of love with Japanese sensibilities: difficult, laborious and detailed. But in the end, what’s left is an unmistakable statement of dedication and high-minded intentions. Japanese don’t mess around when it comes to that kind of stuff.

We’re a thoughtful, anxious lot – not what you would call happy-go-lucky or devil-may-care. We take life seriously, often appearing humorless. But in reality, we enjoy life in our own way, and find pleasure and amusement in quirky, lovely, subtle and even somber things. For example, when Kubokawa was asked, “What makes you laugh?” her hilarious deadpan reply was, “People falling down.” I thought that was so funny. Seriously funny.

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