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10th Annual Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest

One Thousand Cranes

The gentle breeze carrying the scent of freshly made mochi from the next-door shop greeted me as I strolled down the familiar pathway lined with vibrant bamboo stalks and hanging wisteria vines toward my grandmother, Akemi Tsurumi. Her wrinkled, yet steady hands lovingly caressed the colorful paper that surrounded her in a circle, like a goddess among her faithful believers. I started to slow down my footsteps in hopes of catching her working her magic that seemed to flow from her callused fingertips.

One inhale. One exhale. A breath filled with the flowery scent of wisteria and the powerful essence of bamboo. And then eyes that were blank yet all-knowing opened. Hands reached out to grab the sakura-colored paper, her nimble fingers folding and creasing as silence penetrated the air as if expressing its awe to her craft. 10 seconds - no, even less than that- and a complete transformation from the plain paper to an elegant crane stood between her hands. A magical demonstration of her workmanship of 40 years.

Yet, when her flying fingers stopped and the wind began to blow once again, a twitch started in her wrists. A twitch and then a tremble and then a never-ending shake that encompassed her whole arm. Hurriedly, I resumed my walk and headed over to a concealed wooden cabinet that held the familiar rows of bottles and used-up containers. Grabbing the ceramic bowl in the design of a crane, I made my way over with the tatami mat numbing the sounds of my panicked footsteps.

“Grandma! Are you feeling ok, or do you need me to get Grandpa’s crane?” I asked, sliding over to her side and gently grabbing her arms to rub the salve onto her wrists. Taking a generous amount, I slowly massaged the cold cream into her skin, concerned that I could barely differentiate the coldness between the cream and her own skin.

“I’m alright, my little bird. I was just feeling a little nostalgic and got too caught up in the memories,” she replied back, indifferent to her current state that trembled every time the wisteria vines swayed. Her eyes that hadn’t been able to see for a decade accurately located the paper crane that she had made a few minutes ago, holding it up to me like a proud child would to their mother. “How is it, Baobei? Is it just like his?”

“It’s amazing, grandma. He would be proud of what you’ve done,” I reassured her, taking her hands that held the precious crane and circling them with mine. As I wrapped up her arms in cloth, I noticed the hour hand on my watch slowly ticking toward the 12.

It’s time for her nap, now, I silently thought.

I began to roll out the sleeping mat, stacking thick bundles of blankets on top of one another as she always felt the chill no matter how high the temperature rose in Little Tokyo. The sounds of my rustling and pants of fatigue filled the room slight for the sounds of fiddling as my grandma traced over and over the folds in her paper crane.

“Alright Grandma, it’s time for your nap and then we’ll head over to Uncle Tako’s place for soba after you wake up,” I whispered into her ear as I led her to the sleeping arrangements I had prepared. From an outsider’s view, one might have thought that the decorations that adorned the blankets and pillows were overboard, some might have even said bordering on an unhealthy obsession. Countless illustrations of cranes drawn and painted in different styles filled the white expanse of the smooth silk, even the garments that hung from the wardrobe were decorated with childish cartoons of cranes.

“Thank you, my little bird, and I’m sorry that you have to fill in the shop today instead of me,” my grandma tiredly mumbled as she got under the covers and laid her head on the crane-shaped pillow. I smoothed out the wrinkles that had collected on her forehead and kissed her on the cheek, repeatedly assuring her of my own voluntary decision to work in the shop.

Before she drifted off to sleep, I took out an old, worn-out paper crane that had been stored in an ordinary box on my grandma’s dresser, like a treasure buried away for safety. Careful to mind the minute rips and tears on its wings, I placed the crane near her pillow so it would be the first thing she saw when she woke up.

Just like how grandpa used to do.

* * * * *

My grandma’s quaint shop was located on the quieter side of Little Tokyo, near the antique shops and the local specialty cafes that only had the most loyal customers walking through those doors. And my grandma's place, One Thousand Cranes, was no exception.

I walked into the familiar shop, with its faded wallpaper designed with millions of colorful cranes and displays that housed these said colorful cranes in 3d. While wiping down the glass and checking the inventory, I heard a nostalgic ring of a bell and a rush of warm air flow in.

Tidying myself up to look somewhat presentable, I headed over to greet our first customer of the day.

“Hi, I’m Akira’s granddaughter, Asuka Tsurumi and I’ll be filling in for her today. What can I do for you today?” I politely asked, sizing up the person who had just walked in. A kind, elderly face stared back at me, with salt and pepper hair done up in a tight bun and a unique wooden cane that had stickers of the maneki-neko pasted on it.

I smiled inwardly at the similarities between the lady and my grandma.

“Asuka? Oh, I hardly recognized you from the baby photos that Akira showed me, you’ve grown into such a lovely woman!” the lady exclaimed, joy visible on her face as smile wrinkles lined her eyes. It was clear that these wrinkles were evidence of a happy and fulfilling life, perhaps relating to her obsession with the maneki-neko. After exchanging pleasantries and the woman introducing herself as Koneko, she proceeded to place an order for 500 cranes for her sister’s upcoming wedding. And a special order for 10 cats.

As Koneko exited the shop with the sound of the bell following her departure, I began to routinely lay out the colored paper in a familiar circle that surrounded me. As I stretched out my fingertips, I heard the old radio in the back of the shop play out the wistful tune of Tsuru no Sugomori.

One inhale. One exhale. A breath filled with the musty scent of thick paper and the wafting aroma of jasmine tea from the cafe 2 blocks down. My smooth fingers, mimicking the calloused ones of my grandmother’s, drew out a golden colored paper from the circle and began to fold and crease to the resolute rhythm that encompassed the room in its sentiment.

As I hummed to its tune, my mind began to wander.

The name of this shop, One Thousand Cranes, was in honor of my grandpa, the original owner that started it all and the one who brought his magical cranes to Little Tokyo. He used to tell me how the Tsurumi family was watched over by these elegant, majestic creatures and how on the day of my birth, a white crane was spotted near my crib. That’s how my nickname came to be, little white crane. Or as my grandma says it, my little white bird.

Every day, he wore his ironed-out white shirt coupled with a pair of slacks as he tended to his orizuru. As I sat on the countertop, I began to count each and every crane on the walls and ceiling as my grandpa dutifully filled out his customer’s orders. The pile of colorful paper cranes would continue to grow as pile upon pile reached high enough that it would seem to fly up to meet the cranes in the sky. And at the end of the day, all that remained were hands wrapped in stiff bandages with dozens of cuts that dotted the surface of his palm soothed with the salve made from herbals. But even then, he would always manage to fold one last crane.

A white one. Just for my grandma.

“My little crane, these orizuru are far more than just folded paper. They are the embodiment of happiness, no matter what that may be. The breeze that kisses your cheek when you wake up, the bamboo that shields you from the hot sun, or even the earthy touch of soil that hugs your feet as you walk, they are all your orizuru,” my grandpa would lovingly whisper to me as he guided my hands to fold my own cranes, talking step by step through every slanted crease and awkwardly transformed paper crane.

* * * * *

Time continued to flow as the shop became a little more worn-out, my grandpa became a little more haggard and tired, yet the cranes still retained their everlasting beauty. But the sky that seemed big enough to hold all the paper cranes in the world soon darkened one day. Ominous clouds began to cover Little Tokyo in its gloom, and soon began to release punishing and unrelenting torrents of rain.

I remember when that broken bell had let out a screech, and a customer in all black walked in. His thumping boots dirtied the floors with mud water and the blackness that this man carried with him began to invade the shop’s colorful walls until all I could see was a wide back covered in a drenched trench coat. My grandpa’s own hunched-over back made its way over, as he politely greeted the first customer of the day.

From under the brim of the man’s black hat, a deep and hoarse voice sounded, “I heard that you take requests for paper cranes. Are you able to fold 1000 cranes by next week?”

A senbazuru? I thought. Impossible, folding all 1000 by next week is asking my grandpa to overwork himself to death!

However, contrary to my hopes, my grandpa took up the challenge to get it done by then. When I asked him in pleas on why he wouldn’t rescind his answer, he answered back, “Little crane, how could I turn down folding someone’s orizuru? That is like asking me to turn down someone’s happiness and I cannot do that.”

During those 7 long days, the usually dark lamp in the store was lit in the dark hours nearing midnight and the coughs that would plague my grandpa ever so often became more frequent. But my grandpa remained steady. His fingers would continuously dance over the colorful paper, as the bags underneath his dulled eyes grew bigger and his hands began to tremble with fatigue. But when that man in all black came once again, all 1000 cranes packaged and wrapped were presented on the countertop. A delicate representation of my grandpa’s craftsmanship and hours of perfection only protected by a thin sliver of cardboard from the box that housed his cranes.

But I learned that every happiness comes with a price. My grandpa’s hours of labor that chipped away at his health and sleep took its toll on him and he was soon admitted to the nearby hospital. My grandma and I stayed by his side, watching his crane folding on his hospital bed as he laughed off his condition and told us he was fine. But he wasn’t.

As the pile of cranes on his bedside grew, his days of life became numbered. And then finally reached 0.

I know my grandpa would never have thought death as a sad occasion where the people he loved and the people who loved him were all in grief. So, I arranged for all his loyal customers, his long-time friends, and the Little Tokyo community to each fold a crane to bring to his grave. As we each sent him off, I hoped that everyone’s orizuru would bring him the happiness that he had always hoped for others. And some say that it was my own hallucination, my own disillusion that came to be from my grief, but I swear on the thousands of cranes that line the shop’s wall that amidst the gentle shower of rain that fell, there was a majestic, white crane standing atop my grandfather’s grave.

Whether it be because of my rich imagination as everyone had claimed or the manifestation of my grief, I had always hoped that the divine creature that had stopped on that one spot was a symbol of the crane that my grandfather had always told had watched over our family. A being that had come to retrieve my grandpa to take him soaring, always and forever watching over me and my grandma as a crane in the sky.

However, my grandma had never gotten over the death of him. Every day, she starts her morning folding paper cranes to remind herself of him till her bones begin to ache and those relentless fingers start to tremble. And the only thing that can calm those shakes and the tiredness that possesses the whole of her body, is the white crane that my grandpa used to make for her every night.

* * * * *

As I seated my grandma at the quaint little table in the corner of the restaurant, I called over the waitress to order 2 orders of Tsukimi Soba to enjoy in the dimly lit, cozy atmosphere that carried over the heat and warmth from the kitchen. As I patiently tended to my grandma, doling out colorful papers that were soon transformed into the familiar elegant cranes that decorated the table, I noticed a flash of bright white in the corner of my eye. Turning my head to look, I found a single white crane standing against a softly lit backdrop of the bustling people of Little Tokyo, staring directly at me with eyes of familiarity.

Surrounded by my grandma’s orizuru and the earthy aroma of soba noodles, I began to smile and slowly whispered to the standing crane:

“Hi grandpa.”


Actor Mika Dyo reads “One Thousand Cranes” by Jocelyn Doan.
From the 10th Annual Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest Award Ceremony on May 20, 2023. Organized by the Little Tokyo Historical Society in partnership with JANM's Discover Nikkei project.


*This is the winning story in the Youth English category of the Little Tokyo Historical Society’s 10th Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest.


© 2023 Jocelyn Doan

fiction Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest Little Tokyo paper cranes

About this series

Each year, the Little Tokyo Historical Society’s Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest heightens awareness of Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo by challenging both new and experienced writers to write a story that captures the spirit and essence of Little Tokyo and the people in it. Writers from three categories, Adult, Youth, and Japanese language, weave fictional stories set in the past, present, or future. This year is the 10th anniversary of the Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest. On May 20, 2023 in a celebration moderated by Tamlyn Tomita, noted actors, Greg Watanabe, Mika Dyo, and Mayumi Seco performed dramatic readings of each winning entry.



*Read stories from other Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contests:

1st Annual Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest >>
2nd Annual Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest >>
3rd Annual Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest >>
4th Annual Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest >>
5th Annual Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest >>
6th Annual Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest >>
7th Annual Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest >>
8th Annual Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest >>
9th Annual Imagine Little Tokyo Short Story Contest >>