Kamikaze, Cherry Blossoms, and Nationalisms: The Militarization of Aesthetics in Japanese History

By Ward, Vanessa B. | Anthropological Quarterly, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview

Kamikaze, Cherry Blossoms, and Nationalisms: The Militarization of Aesthetics in Japanese History


Ward, Vanessa B., Anthropological Quarterly


Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney. Kamikaze, Cherry Blossoms, and Nationalisms: The Militarization of Aesthetics in Japanese History. University of Chicago Press, 2002. 411 pp.

This curious title is in itself a good introduction to this book. It is not simply a history of the kamikaze, the symbol of the cherry blossom, or the development of nationalist ideology in Japan; rather these are threads interwoven into a more complex argument about the role of aesthetics and symbolic communication in totalitarian ideologies.

The resulting discursive tapestry is detailed, dense and multi-layered. Essentially diachronic, the book is divided into four distinct parts, each with separately titled chapters with several levels of discussion. The focus of concern is the question of what motivated young men to volunteer as kamikaze pilots. Part 3 of the book, in this reader's view the most interesting, deals with the thoughts of these men as revealed in their diaries and other writings. The complex forces that impacted upon their decision are analysed and interpreted in the preceding and subsequent chapters.

In the preface, Ohnuki-Tierney recalls that she was inspired to write Kamikaze, Cherry Blossoms, and Nationalisms out of a 'rage against the forces that terminated these young brilliant minds', and because she felt a 'moral obligation to introduce them to non-Japanese readers' because of their stereotyped portrayal outside of Japan. Far from being ultra-nationalistic zealots, these students are shown to be intelligent individuals, extremely well-read and cosmopolitan in outlook, and sensitive to the issues of war and death. Ohnuki-Tierney not only rehabilitates the image of the tokkotai pilots, but also makes a valuable contribution to scholarship on this generation of Japanese intellectuals. (The detailed list of their reading which forms the appendix is in itself a valuable source for scholars.) This group has received little attention in English-language literature on Japan-its relative neglect is apparent from the useful survey of related material in Part 3-and Japanese secondary-sources are frequently biased towards distinct political agenda. That access to important archival sources continues to be restricted indicates the difficulty of conducting original research into this sensitive period of Japan's recent past.

The question of why intelligent and intellectual young men fight wars orchestrated by totalitarian states, or indeed, any state, is an important one, with contemporary relevance. Ohnuki-Tierney examines this in historical perspective, and offers valuable insight into the mechanics of totalitarian ideology. While clear introductions to each section and frequent recapitulation guide the lay reader through the analysis of multiple complex processes, frequent digressions obfuscate rather than explicate the author's attempts to answer her central question.

The first part of the study examines the polysemic nature of the cherry blossom symbol through an exploration of its artistic and literary representations, from the earliest history Kojiki (712) through to Edo period (1600-1867) kabuki theatre and woodblock prints. The cherry blossom appears variously as a metaphor for agrarian productive force, reproductive power, celebration of love and display of pomp, celebration of life, and rebirth; Ohnuki-Tierney concludes that, '[u]ltimately, cherry blossoms symbolize processes and relationships' (p. 38). In premodern poetry and literature, the cherry blossom in full bloom is associated with evanescence (youth, women, courtship), and the falling cherry blossom with pathos (impermanencc, decline, sometimes death). Another set of meanings relate to the depiction of identity: non-normative identity (the alternative universes of madness, "the floating world", and homosexuality) and collective identity (the elite in ancient Japan, the imperial court, and "Japaneseness").

Part 2, "The Road to Pro Rege et Patria Mori: Naturalization of Imperial Nationalism," consists of three chapters which treat the manipulation of the cherry blossom metaphor by Japan's modern institutions, principally the emperor system and the military. …

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