Wineka column: Yoshiko Otey found her own blessing in a gift of 1,000 paper cranes

  • Posted: Sunday, May 12, 2013 12:56 a.m.
Yoshiko Otey, left, and her husband, Fleming, have created over 100 origami cranes. The cranes are part of a Japanese tradition. The Oteys will discuss that tradition and its personal meaning to them during Let’s Get Connected Day on May 18.
Yoshiko Otey, left, and her husband, Fleming, have created over 100 origami cranes. The cranes are part of a Japanese tradition. The Oteys will discuss that tradition and its personal meaning to them during Let’s Get Connected Day on May 18.

SALISBURY — As her three children grew up, Japanese-born Yoshiko Otey often shared some of her country’s culture with them.

Let’s Get Connected Day

Let’s Get Connected Day

When: 11 a.m.-1 p.m. Saturday, May 18

Where: Frank T. Tadlock South Rowan Regional Library.

Theme: One planet. One human family. One community.

Sponsor: Community Covenant Connection.

Purpose: To celebrate Rowan County’s diverse community through music, dance, prayer and food. The highlight is the Circle of Prayer and the dedication of the seventh Peace Pole for Rowan County.

In addition: Yoshiko and Fleming Otey will be telling the Japanese story of 1,000 paper cranes.

Participants: South Rowan High School Band, Sandy Ridge AME Zion liturgical dancers and the Mount Zion United Church of Christ bell choir.

In Tokyo, where Yoshiko was raised, there was a belief that if you folded 1,000 paper cranes and presented them to a sick person, it would help them become well again.

The tradition famously became part of the story of Sadako Sasaki, a little girl who died from Atomic Bomb Disease 10 years after bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II.

Sadako lived in Hiroshima.

Remembering a story her mother had told her, an increasingly sick, weak and hospitalized 11-year-old Sadako made it her goal to fold 1,000 paper cranes so she could be healthy again.

As her gums bled and large purple marks covered her body, Sadako finished her task. While her own condition did not improve, her roommate and friend, Kiyo, was pronounced cured and was able to go home from the hospital.

Sadako resolved to fold another 1,000 paper cranes, even as her hair was falling out and she weakened. Because she had little stamina, the intricate folding of the cranes became harder. She reached a point when she could no longer go on and was permanently confined to her bed.

Meanwhile, the 1,500 cranes she already had folded filled her hospital room.

Sadako died Oct. 25, 1955. Many of the paper cranes she had made covered her casket, and her parents told mourners they hoped the cranes would carry Sadako to heaven, where she could watch over Hiroshima and the world.

After Sadako’s death, her classmates started a national campaign to build the Children’s Peace Statue in her memory and for all the children who were victims of the bombing in Hiroshima.

On top of the finished statue stands a girl — Sadako Sasaki — holding a crane in her outstretched arms. Today the statue is the centerpiece to Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, and the little girl’s statue is routinely decorated with thousands of paper cranes either brought by visitors or sent by people from around the world.

Engraved on Sadako’s memorial are the words: “This is our cry; This is our prayer; To create peace in the world.”

Now for Yoshiko Otey’s story.

Yoshiko and Fleming Otey, married now for 53 years, raised three children, all grown and moved away. Their oldest daughter, Francoise, followed her mother’s pattern and introduced as many things about Japanese culture she could remember to her own two sons.

Though busy as an engineer for a big company, Francoise decided one day to start folding paper cranes, remembering the story of the 1,000 cranes.

“She was doing this for a hobby and did not have any significant plan for what to do with them at the time,” Fleming Otey says.

Meanwhile, doctors diagnosed Yoshiko with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. She had surgery to remove most of a lymph node, and she told the children about her illness.

One day, Yoshiko returned home to find a small box on the porch. There was no note, just a clear plastic box with 1,000 paper cranes inside. They had to be from Francoise.

“This was a blessing to me,” Yoshiko says. “If she had written something, it would have spoiled it.”

The box of 1,000 cranes meant so much.

“You see,” Fleming Otey says, “There’s no other joy than the wordless message sent with the labor of folding 1,000 cranes. She valued those cranes more than anything in the world.”

Yoshiko has never opened the box.

A few months later, Fleming Otey says, Yoshiko’s oncologist told her the lymphoma was so small and slowly growing — that she probably would die from something else long before the cancer.

If you visited the Oteys Salisbury home this week, you’d find the front room full of paper cranes Yoshiko has been folding in preparation for this coming Saturday’s “Let’s Get Connected Day” at the Frank T. Tadlock South Rowan Regional Library.

So far Yoshiko has folded more than 125 cranes from 6-inch squares of paper. At Let’s Get Connected Day, she and Fleming will be telling the Japanese story of the 1,000 cranes.

Other members of the Covenant Community Connection committee will be learning how to fold the cranes, too, in hopes of teaching others at Let’s Get Connected Day.

“May we never give up on the idea of creating a culture of peace,” says Betty Jo Hardy, who has been involved with the annual gathering from its beginning.

Yoshiko Fleming says her mother taught her how to fold the cranes, just as she taught her own children. “It takes about 15 minutes, maybe 10, if it’s fast,” she says.

The way she counts it, Yoshiko says her technique takes 18 steps. It helps to have long nails or a toothpick for one part of the process, she adds.

For Saturday’s purposes, the cranes are a message, a keepsake for peace on earth. But as she steals a glance at the clear box full of 1,000 cranes at her house, Yoshiko thinks of another kind of blessing.

“It’s very meaningful to me,” she says.

Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or

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