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Kamisaka Sekka A thousand grasses 1899-1900, single page from three volumes of woodblock prints: ink and colour on paper, 23.6 × 35.5 cm, Unsōdō, Kyoto

The crane (tsuru in Japanese) appears often in the art, literature and folklore of China, Korea and Japan. The folktale of the Crane Wife (Tsuru no ongaeshi) is retold all over Japan, and more recently the story of Sadako and the thousand paper cranes made from origami has spread all over the world. There is a saying that ‘cranes live 1000 years, tortoises 10,000’ (tsuru wa sennen, kame wa mannen), and cranes have been a symbol of long life in popular culture for centuries. Because cranes are known to mate for life, they are also a symbol of fidelity and a common motif at weddings.

Their auspicious connotations and graceful lines made cranes a popular subject for Rinpa art. They would have been a common sight for early Rinpa artists, but today the red-crowned crane is an endangered species.

Focus works

All works featuring cranes, including these three examples, will be displayed 25 July – 26 August.

The woodblock print design by Kamisaka Sekka of two cranes in water echoes the birds’ dancing movement. They are painted with other auspicious symbols such as the sun and pine trees.

In contrast, the cranes Sekka designed for the writing box and desk seem to stroll along the banks of a stream looking for food.

The lacquer box crowds five cranes on its lid in different poses. Some of their shapes are created in lead and two in gold. Their legs and feet are inlaid with mother-of-pearl. If you could open the box, you would find three more cranes inside.

K-6: activities

  • Compare the cranes in these artworks. How often are cranes paired? Is any pose common? Does the object itself dictate how the crane is posed? Which artwork do you think most effectively uses the crane as a motif, and why? Sketch cranes from the examples in the exhibition. Choose your favourite and develop that drawing into a flick book by slightly altering the crane’s pose on each page so it becomes animated when you flick the pages.
  • Find out more about the significance of the crane in Japanese culture, in particular the story of Sadako and the thousand paper cranes and Obon Day. What did the cranes symbolise for Sadako? Find instructions to make your own origami cranes and create cranes of different sizes to display in class.

7-12 Visual Arts: issues for consideration

  • Choose artworks from the exhibition that depict cranes in different ways. Describe the way in which the birds are portrayed in each. Consider poses, angles and placement. Explain how the shape of the object and the media used has influenced the composition.
  • Crisp, firm brushstrokes, flat areas of wash and sensuous outlines are characteristic of Sekka’s style. Create an artwork that shows influences of Sekka but is based on a subject in your local environment. Consider how you can make the artwork unique to you while appropriating another artist’s style.

Kamisaka Sekka (design) Writing desk and box for writing implements with design of young pine trees and cranes 1920–25, ink and colour on paulownia wood, ceramic and silver, desk 11.2 × 36.1 × 59.6 cm, writing box 3.7 × 21 × 21 cm, Hosomi Museum, Kyoto

Unknown artist Box for writing implements with design of cranes 1700s, black lacquer, gold maki-e, lead and mother-of-pearl inlays on wood, 12.5 × 26 × 23 cm