Is it cultural appropriation to have Japanese paper cranes at my wedding?

Updated Feb 12 2021
Is it cultural appropriation to have Japanese paper cranes at my wedding?
1000 3" Gradient Origami Paper Cranes

I started folding origami cranes obsessively back in elementary school after reading the very sad story about Sadako, a Japanese girl who survived the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima only to develop leukemia and die while working to fold 1,000 cranes (a Japanese tradition states that the person who makes 1,000 cranes will get good luck or a wish from the gods). Since then, I'm sure I've made far more than a thousand, as I literally make them everywhere I go — restaurants in particular. My first tattoo was even an origami crane. We're talking nearly two decades of origami crane love on my behalf. My fiance has his own personal love for Japanese culture; he's been there numerous times and speaks the language fairly well. We're hoping to go there for our honeymoon.As a result, I would love to use origami, and particularly origami cranes, in our wedding (origami crane bouquets for the bridal party and decorations for the ceremony), but I'm afraid that it might be cultural appropriation. Neither of us are Japanese; we just appreciate the culture. I've researched online and several websites say that it isn't — it's just paper-folding and a lucky thing in the culture — but I do know that it started out as a religious tradition (if only because paper was quite expensive in the past and these cranes were used as religious offerings), and I want to be sure that I remain cognizant and respectful of Japanese beliefs and culture.

If I do decide to use the cranes, I plan to include an explanation of the tradition of the origami crane, the specific story of Sadako, and both of our personal connections to Japan and the crane in our program and/or at a table on the side. We'll take up a collection for the Hiroshima Peace Culture Foundation and donate some of our own money as well.

Are these steps enough to demonstrate our deep love and appreciation of this tradition without being cultural appropriation? I would really love the perspective of the Offbeat Bride staff and readership on this. – Nellie

Hi, Nellie! As a longtime reader, I can tell you've already hit these related posts and are clearly well aware of what kind of territory cultural appropriation falls into. The issue with appropriating an aspect of someone's culture is that it often either demeans or lessens the meaning of the facet of that culture or it's done without clear knowledge of the origin. The worst case is that it's insulting, and the best is that it's merely being used for aesthetic purposes. Either way, it's uncool. In your case, however, I think there's merit to the fact that you've ardently challenged yourself to overcome these hurdles.

When it comes to using a cultural element that isn't yours, but has also become a large part of your own identity through research and respectful admiration, it has always felt to us that it can be used respectfully in your own traditions, with caution. In this case it almost becomes an exchange of traditions instead of a theft. We tend to believe that the exploration of other cultures does not have to mean the exploitation of other cultures.

Is there still a risk that someone could take offense or see your choice as a flippant use of something you may not understand? Absolutely. There's always a risk. I think that since you'll be addressing it in your program/ceremony/etc., that you'll likely avoid these issues.

TLDR: when in doubt, don't do it. But in this case, your sincere acknowledgment of the origins and your connection to it should be fine. Let us know how it goes!

Want some paper crane wedding decor inspo?

  1. I'm a white girl, so I don't really have any personal stake in the cultural appropriation issue, but from what I understand about it, Nellie seems to be going about this the right way by giving background on the Japanese roots of the cranes, their personal connection to her and her partner, and taking up a collection for a related cause. Nellie's plan seems like a pretty good model for anyone with a potentially appropriative element in their wedding.

  2. Such good questions being asked here–I'm really appreciating the read.

    Nellie, I'm wondering if there are any Japanese friends or people in your networks who you might ask about this? As white folks, even when we do our research, it is sometimes hard to know what the consensus would be from those who actively participate in or have experience with a cultural tradition. (This is not to say that any one or two Japanese people could speak for their entire community, but rather that they might have insight that hasn't been thought of.)

    • I think the problem with this approach is twofold.

      Firstly, I think that most people, when asked about something like this, unless it's a GIGANTIC taboo in their culture, are just going to say "Yeah, sure, do what you want!" Especially if you ask a friend. Most people want to be upbeat and positive about things, so putting the ball in a Japanese person's court to give permission is either going to result in them telling you what you want to hear or will force them to be the big meanie who says no.

      Secondly, it's kind of racist to expect people to act as a representative of their culture in this way. I'm marrying a Chinese-American man, and there have been a few times I've asked if there is some family tradition we should incorporate, or are his mom and aunts going to flip out if we have white flowers (white flowers are considered unlucky or funereal in traditional Chinese culture). But I've really tried not to ask, "As a Chinese Person, please tell me how to best represent Chinese Culture at our wedding." Because my FH and his family are people, not National Geographic articles. My FH wants samba music (which, is *that* cultural appropriation? hmmm) and his favorite IPA, not, like, Double Happiness calligraphy or whatever. His mom just wants grandbabies. His extended family just wants to come to a fun party with an open bar, just like literally all people who get invited to weddings.

  3. Nellie, I fell in love with origami and crane folding after reading Sadako too! You can check out our (old!) wedding post here 🙂 Here's what I wrote in my program as an example:
    "Throughout the venue, you'll find 1,000 origami paper cranes. In Japan, it is said that folding 1,000 paper origami cranes makes a person's wish come true. They were traditionally given as a wedding gift, to wish a thousand years of happiness and prosperity upon the couple."

    At the time, I struggled with the concept of cultural appropriation vs. appreciation as well. Ultimately, I felt comfortable in our use of the tradition, and the cranes are now hung/displayed throughout our home to continue to wish us luck in our married life.

    Best of luck to you in your decisions!

  4. If you simply Google the term "cultural appropriation" you will see that what you are doing is cultural appropriation.

    • It amazes me how many white people are afraid of widening their horizons. You can hide behind the term "cultural appropriation" all you want, but you're basically saying that everyone should live in a cultural bubble.

      My car is Japanese, I'm wearing a sweater styled after a poncho, my fast food is Chinese, my musical of choice involves rap battles… Get off the internet and go outside. You'll understand what I mean soon enough.

  5. I'm getting married to a Japanese guy after living in Japan for 8 years. I asked about cranes at the wedding and everyone thought I was crazy. They said they're only for sick people or when some tragedy happens.
    Japanese Americans, for example the diaspora in Hawaii use them and that is part of their culture, but I've been told by multiple Japanese people, in Japanese, that they're not commonly used in weddings in Japan.
    If you search for 'origami crane wedding' *in Japanese* for this, you'll find all the top results are of white peoples' weddings! Cranes are a common wedding motif on shiromuku and so on, but origami cranes do not feature at all and bear a totally different meaning.

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