The red-crowned or Tancho crane of Japan (grus japonensis) is most easily identified by the bright red patch of skin on the top of its head, its white feather’s with black-tipped edges, and its long and pointy beak. Although revered for centuries as a symbol of long life in both Japan and China, the crane itself is now an endangered species. While efforts to promote its survival are underway, its place in Asian mythology and Japanese tattoo symbolism are secure.
Our vermillion crowns – perfect for catching the sun;
Our frosty-white wings – not to be tainted by mud,
Delighting in ponds, long can we stand there;
Looking at the moon, we have yet to roost.
Spring grasses throughout the yard – so high;
The road home to Three Mountains – so hazy.
(Excerpt from Poem II, by Liu Yu-hsi, ca. 826)As is so often the case with Japanese tattoo symbols, we have the good fortune of being able to look to ancient China for some of the earliest evidence of their meanings. For the crane, the chief symbolic meaning has universally been long life. Although their natural lifespan in the wild averages some 30 years, they have been known to live over 60 years in captivity. Although these numbers may not seem staggering, the average life expectancy in China around 680 B.C. ranged from 22 to 35 years. Even as recently as 1955 life expectancy there was still only in the mid-forties. Perhaps inspired by their relatively long lives, cranes were thought to live not just decades but thousands of years. In Taoism, they were virtually synonymous with immortality, sometimes depicted accompanying the god of longevity, along with a deer or a tortoise.
Much of this symbolic meaning is still ascribed to the crane in Japan, where the northern island of Hokkaido isstill a natural habitat for a non-migratory population of this large bird. Considered a national treasure, the image of the crane will often make an appearance at weddings where it represents not only long life but also fertility and fidelity. The dancing display, with its bows, head bobbing, leaping and calls is justly famous and is often filmed and photographed. Again, their symbolic meaning may be inspired by their actual lives, since these cranes are monogamous and may stay together for many years.
In tattoo artwork, these beautiful creatures are most often seen in the midst of larger pieces in the Japanese style, perhaps set against a swirling grey cloud, or with a pine tree (another symbol of longevity), or perhaps in pairs to emphasize their marriage symbolism. The circular version of the crane is also a popular form for this tattoo and, from time to time, you will also find the origami version as a tattoo as well – which has its own history.
According to Japanese tradition, a person who folds one thousand paper cranes is granted a wish. Folded and then strung together in multiple strands, they serve as good luck offerings for new parents and reminders of long life and marriage at weddings. Perhaps one of their more poignant uses is as a symbol of world peace, especially when left at the Sadako Sasaki memorial in Hiroshima. Two years old when the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, one mile from her home, Sadako later contracted leukemia as a result of the radiation exposure. During her hospital stay, she folded cranes earnestly, inspired by the tradition of receiving a wish, although she would ultimately die of her disease at the age of 12. Today, children worldwide learn of her story and the Japanese folded crane is the symbol of the lessons that they learn from her brief life.