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

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Kamikaze, Cherry Blossoms, and Nationalisms: The Militarization of Aesthetics in Japanese History. By Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002. Pp. xvii + 411, preface, introduction, illustrations, photographs, appendices, notes, bibliography, index. $45.00 cloth, $20.00 paper)

How do political, military, and intellectual leaders persuade young adult males to sacrifice their lives for flag, fatherland, king, emperor, Fuhrer or god? Given the carnage of World War I, World War II and the Holocaust, the Russian and Chinese revolutions and the excesses of Stalin and Mao, Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia and Pol Pot, the Middle East, and scores of other armed conflicts that comprise much of the history of the twentieth century, this question demands our attention. The author of the book under review attempts to delve into the murky area of war, nationalism, and symbology in Japan in the 1930s and 1940s. The ... of the book is on young kamikaze (suicide) pilots-graduates of ... universities, interested in the arts, well-read in both Eastern and Western (especially French and German) philosophy and literature, and from close, loving families. How could such men be persuaded to crash their airplanes or torpedoes into enemy warships, resulting in their own deaths? The author attempts to find the answer through cultural analysis of Japanese symbol systems, particularly that of the cherry blossom.

Citing the work of Victor Turner, Ohnuki-Tierney argues that "we must get out of our vision of a grid classifying symbols and meanings in isolation." (57). In support of this approach, the author has provided an overview of the symbolism of cherry blossoms in Japanese history. Of particular interest is the multiple meanings that cherry blossoms have had since the early eighth century, when, as the author maintains, "folk agrarian cosmologies" (28) centering on rice and cherry blossoms were developed in which the cherry blossom symbolized "life, death, and rebirth . . . and productive and reproductive powers" (38). She will focus on the connection the Japanese government attempted to make between cherry blossom as a symbol of impermanence ("life, death, and rebirth") and willingness to sacrifice one's life for the emperor.

Ohnuki-Tierney then gives an overview of the position of the emperor in Japanese history. The author's main concern here is to trace the steps leading up to the emperor's being seen in the Meiji period as a living god (1868-1912), the rise of Japanese militarism, and the use of the cherry blossom "as a dominant and evocative trope for pro rege et patria mori" (willingness to die for the emperor) (62). After a chapter on the creation during World War II of the tokkotai (suicide) operation, commonly known as kamikaze, and connections between the symbolism of falling cherry blossoms and pilots sacrificing their lives for the emperor, we get to the heart of the book-the published diaries of five pilots (four airplane, one torpedo). It is Ohnuki-Tierney's contention, from a close reading of the diaries, that these young men did not internalize the government's attempt to glorify sacrificing one's life for the emperor, but instead sacrificed their lives for their families and/or for Japan. …