The Graceful Crane: Symbolism and Significance in Japanese Culture

by Nana Young

Myths about the majestic crane can be found in countries all over the world. However, the crane in Japanese mythology is by far the most fascinating of them all. In this post, we’ll guide you through the myths, facts, symbolism, and folklore associated with one of Japan’s most revered creatures. 

Introduction to the Crane in Japan: Grace and Elegance Personified

Dancing Cranes. The ritual marriage dance of cranes. Migratory birds

Based on science, the crane is a type of bird. It’s large and has a distinct, long neck and legs. There are about 15 different species of crane, which possess a variety of colors, including white, gray, brown, and gold brown. They typically have black or red facial patches. When they fly, their long necks and legs are stretched out.

Cranes are naturally occurring on almost every continent. In Asia, several species of birds can be found in Japan, where they are revered for their beauty, grace, and symbolic significance. The crane in Japan is a national treasure, and the bird plays a prominent role in the country’s mythology, folklore, art, and literature. As a mystical and holy bird, it is at the heart of the Japanese origami tradition of paper folding.

Many believe that the crane can live for a thousand years. Hence, it’s a nation-wide symbol of good luck, happiness, hope, peace, and longevity. Different regions of Japan also have their own cultural practices and beliefs that revolve around this majestic bird.

Crane in Japanese Mythology: Tales of Wisdom and Longevity

Colorful Japanese origami paper tsuru in the air

The tsuru, which is a Japanese term for crane, takes on an important role in Japanese mythology. It’s one of the mythical holy creatures and is often portrayed similarly to how the tortoise and the dragon are in Japanese culture. As a messenger of the gods, the crane is believed to be a bird of happiness, and popular myths suggest that it possesses several magical powers. Some of these mythical abilities include longevity lasting up to 1,000 years and the ability to grant wishes.

There is an ancient, but highly significant, legend that a crane will grant one wish to anyone who folds a thousand paper cranes (origami). This practice is a symbol of hope that transcends Japanese mythology and extends into real life due to historic events, including the tragic story of Sadako Sasaki. We’ll reveal more on that later in this post.

Symbolism of the Crane in Japan: Peace, Prosperity, and Good Fortune

Red crowned crane Kushiro Hokkaido Japan

In Japan, the crane represents a lot of traits, values, and virtues. Its appearance, behavior, and the myths surrounding its existence all contribute to this symbolism. Let’s explore some of the symbolic meanings associated with the crane in Japan:

  • Good luck: Seeing a crane is considered good luck because of its role as a messenger of the gods. Folding a paper Japanese crane (origami) or using crane-inspired art at events like weddings and New Year celebrations is also said to bring good luck. 

  • Longevity: Cranes can live for multiple decades, which is long for a bird. Hence the myth that it lives for 1,000 years. That is why the crane is seen as a symbol of longevity.

  • Fidelity: Cranes stay with their mates for life. Hence, they represent fidelity in marriages and relationships.

  • Happiness: In Shinto religion, the crane has close ties to the god of happiness. 

  • Strength: The crane has a tall frame and strong flight pattern, which makes it a symbol of strength and power.

  • Auspiciousness: Cranes often symbolize the promise of a successful outcome, especially during New Year celebrations and marriage ceremonies.

  • Hope: The image of the crane is considered a sign of hope during challenging times.

  • Peace: Cranes and their origami portrayals represent peace in Japan and other countries of the world.

Crane in Japanese Art: A Symbol of Beauty and Inspiration

Japanese style element art form concept with cranes and mount fuji

For centuries, there have been countless depictions of cranes in Japanese art, ranging from ancient scrolls and paintings to contemporary designs. These art pieces reflect their enduring allure and embody their cultural symbolism. In textile art and designs, the crane makes appearances in uchikake kimono (traditional Japanese bridal gowns), obi, and other traditional wear. These fashion items are typically decorated with embroidered images of white cranes to symbolize fidelity, longevity, and good luck during traditional ceremonies.

The natural beauty of cranes is also celebrated with the art of pottery, where people make ceramic and porcelain wares with images of the stunning birds. You’ll find hand-drawn designs on cups, bulbous vases, casks, bowls, and barrels. During the Meiji period (1868–1912), high-quality metal work inspired by cranes was quite popular. These pieces ranged from bronze sculptures to mixed-metal kettles and vases.

The crane is also depicted in wall and floor screens, woodblock prints, paintings, and scrolls that decorate temples, shrines, palaces, and the homes of the Japanese elite. Sosaku kokeshi, which are modern versions of the ancient armless and pin-shaped dolls, are often designed with crane images and given to married couples as gifts. Photographers are not left out, as many of them take pictures of the famous red-crowned crane and sell them online or in art galleries.

Cranes in Japanese Folklore: Legends and Folk Beliefs

Postage stamp printed in Japan shows Japanese folk tale "Tsuru-nyobo" or "Crane becomes wife of Peasant"

The folk tales and beliefs surrounding cranes in Japan are some of the most meaningful in the country. They often tell tales of luck, protection, and the afterlife, which are valuable concepts in Asian culture.

One of the most famous folklores in Japan is called Tsuru no Ongaeshi (The Crane's Return of a Favor). It tells the story of a man’s encounter with the creature. The sight of a crane falling from the sky startled a young man who was working on his farm in Hokkaido, Japan. A bird hunter had injured it by piercing its wings with an arrow. The young man nursed the crane back to health and it flew away.

When he returned home, he was shocked to find a beautiful woman waiting for him. She called herself his wife. At first, the man protested, citing his lack of wealth as the reason he could not keep a wife. However, she offered him a sack of rice, which she promised would provide them with an abundance of food. True to her words, the sack always stayed full of rice. One day, she made the man build her a weaving room, which he was never to peek into. He agreed and she went in. Seven days later, she came out with a beautiful piece of cloth, asking him to sell it at the market. He sold the cloth for a lot of money and returned as a wealthy man.

She went into the weaving room again, but this time, the curious young man peeked. He was shocked to find the crane he saved weaving the beautiful linen with its own feathers. Because he had seen her true form, the crane could no longer stay, and she flew away, leaving him with another beautiful cloth. She never returned.

There are many variants of this story, including Tsuru Nyōbō (The Crane Wife), in which the man marries a woman who is secretly a crane. She weaves him expensive clothing, but each one takes a toll on her health. He eventually finds out and convinces her to stop.

Origami Cranes: Folding Peace and Hope in Japanese Tradition

The Children's Peace Monument with a statue of a girl holding a folded paper crane, in Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, Japan.

In general, origami is the Japanese art of paper folding. However, the making of a paper crane or orizuru, is its most meaningful form. Origami cranes are folded as symbols of peace, healing, and remembrance. There is a cultural belief that one who folds a thousand cranes will experience good luck for all eternity and will also have their wishes granted by the gods. That is why origami cranes are offered to sick or injured people as a way to wish them good luck and a speedy recovery.

In 1945, something happened that would solidify the origami crane as a symbol of peace and hope. This was the year of the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II. A two-year-old girl named Sadako Sasaki, who lived in Hiroshima when it happened, was affected by the radiation. She was diagnosed with leukaemia ten years later and admitted to the hospital. She spent her time in the hospital folding origami cranes in the hopes that she would get well. Sadly, Sadako died after eight months in the hospital.

In honor of Sadako Sasaki and other innocent children affected by the war, the Children’s Peace Monument was built in Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park. It is a statue of Sadako holding a crane, and people fold cranes and place them at the site. Each year, students and visitors offer about 10 million paper cranes to the monument. The story of Sadako has made the orizuru a global symbol of peace, healing, and remembrance.

Crane Conservation Efforts in Japan: Protecting a National Treasure

Red-crowned crane in Hokkaido , Japan

Since the turn of the 20th century, there have been multiple conservation efforts by the Japanese government, non-profit groups, and local residents to preserve these majestic birds for future generations. All these became necessary when the most revered crane species, the red-crowned crane, neared global extinction. At the time, there were 4,000 of them left worldwide and only 36 in Japan. Over the decades, the creation of sanctuaries and other conservation efforts in Kushiro, where the remaining birds were found, has helped bolster the number of red-crowned cranes in Japan to over 1,900.

Crane Sanctuaries in Japan: Preserving Natural Habitats

Ranger spread feeding the flock of the Japanese Red-crowned Cranes  with seeds in winter at Tsurui Ito Tancho Sanctuary, Hokkaido.

If you want to see canes in their natural habitats, you should visit one of their sanctuaries and wildlife reserves in Japan. The following is a list of places where visitors can watch the Japanese cranes, take photos, and learn about conservation efforts.

  • Tsurui Ito Tancho Crane Sanctuary: It was created by Japan’s Wild Bird Society and the late Yoshitaka Ito and his wife. The sanctuary is located in the Akan District of Hokkaido.

  • Tsurumidai Feeding Point: This is a popular bird-feeding spot in Kushiro City, Hokkaido. 

  • Akan International Crane Center: It’s a zoology museum located in Kushiro that specializes in both the conservation and research of cranes.

  • Japanese Crane Reserve: This is a sightseeing natural park in Kushiro that doubles as a reserve for the red-crowned crane.

Crane Symbolism Around the World: Comparisons and Cultural Significance

Chinese style embroidered cloth with crane

Japan is not the only country with a nation-wide interest in cranes. The bird has symbolic significance in many other countries, particularly those within Asia. Crane symbolism in China is identical to that in Japan. It represents good fortune, longevity, and immortality. It also symbolizes grace and wisdom in Chinese literature. Native Americans also see cranes as symbols of longevity and good fortune.

In Greek mythology, cranes are considered messengers of the gods, especially Apollo, the sun god. They symbolize intelligence and the afterlife, and their dance is seen as a celebration of life. In African cultures, the crane is often associated with nobility, patience, focus, and wisdom.

Conclusion: Embracing the Legacy of the Crane in Japan

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By maintaining its role as a cherished cultural icon over many decades, the crane continues to inspire and captivate people from all over the world. The next time you see a crane, we hope that you appreciate its significance in Japanese culture as an enduring symbol of peace, prosperity, and beauty.

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