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

Cherry blossoms became the dominant symbol associated with kamikaze pilots from the beginning of their operations. Vice Admiral Ohnishi, who initiated the kamikaze attacks in the Philippines in October 1944, named several of the first units after cherry blossoms, such as the Yamazakura-tai or Mountain Cherry Blossoms Corps. The ohka, a piloted bomb powered by a rocket, means "cherry blossom" in Japanese, and each ohka used in attacks against American ships in Okinawa had a painted cherry blossom on each side. Cherry blossoms became associated with kamikaze pilots in several other contexts, such as references in many of their last letters to falling cherry blossoms to signify death in battle. This book by Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney, Professor of Anthropology at the University of Wisconsin, explores why the kamikaze pilots sacrificed themselves for their country and examines the political use of aesthetics in the case of cherry blossoms.

Kamikaze, Cherry Blossoms, and Nationalisms has received much attention in academic journals, probably due to the absence of other significant scholarly works in English about the tokkotai (special attack forces), generally know as kamikaze outside of Japan. This book's nomination for the 2004 Kiriyama Pacific Rim Book Prize attests to the originality and depth of Ohnuki-Tierney's research. She examines the diaries and other writings of five tokkotai pilots to consider why they volunteered and what role cherry blossoms played in their considerations. These five pilots were part of about a thousand "student soldiers" who were drafted from the universities and who later died in tokkotai operations. Ohnuki-Tierney shows conclusively that these five pilots differed considerably than the stereotypical image of kamikaze pilots as patriotic zealots who eagerly died for the emperor.

Although this book's title starts with "Kamikaze," the discussion of kamikaze operations does not begin until about halfway through the book. The author explains in the Preface that this work started as a study of cherry blossom viewing, but later the book's concern shifted to a study of how the Japanese totalitarian government used aesthetics for its purposes. Maybe as a result of these shifts in the author's direction, the book lacks focus and digresses frequently to extended discussions only indirectly related to the book's primary objectives. Some of these discussions can be quite fascinating, such as a section covering the period from the 1870s to the early 1940s about how school songs and popular songs referring to cherry blossoms unconsciously encouraged the advance of militarism. Scholars may find this extensive background on subjects supporting the book's main arguments to be valuable, but the everyday non-academic reader looking for insights into the motivations of the tokkotai pilots will find this book difficult to read.

Only Part 3 of this four-part book deals directly with the tokkotai operations and the writings of the pilots, but Part 4 does has some references to the pilots' writings discussed in Part 3. Part 1 discusses the symbolism of cherry blossoms prior to 1868, and it shows that they came to symbolize both a wide range of human experiences and a sense of collective identity for the Japanese people. Part 2 surveys the transformation of the role of the emperor and imperial system starting with the beginning of the Meiji period in 1868, and this part also describes the militarization of the masses and of cherry blossoms during the same time period. The first chapter in Part 3 outlines the tokkotai operations and the associated use of cherry blossom symbolism. Part 3's last chapter contains Ohnuki-Tierney's examination of the pilots' writings to determine their thoughts on life and death and to investigate the role of cherry blossoms during the period of their writings. Part 4 analyzes how Japan's political nationalism influenced the beliefs and actions of the Japanese people, with particular attention paid to the effects of aesthetics and cherry blossoms.

Ohnuki-Tierney's use of the writings of only five "student soldiers" drafted from Japan's two most elite universities does not seem to be sufficient to conclude on the motivations of the several thousand kamikaze (tokkotai) pilots. The first paragraph of the book's summary (p. 299) states that 85% of the tokkotai pilots were "student soldiers" from the universities, but this contradicts statistics provided earlier in the book (p. 167), which indicate only about 25% of the pilots were "student soldiers." The author apparently mistakenly used the 85% of Naval officers who were "student soldiers," rather than including in the calculation both officers and enlisted men and both Army and Navy pilots. Although Chapter 6 has the title "Five Tokkotai Pilots," one pilot was never a member of a tokkotai unit but was instead a Naval reconnaissance pilot. The diaries of three pilots end long before their death (i.e., 16, 12, 17 months respectively for the first three pilots covered in Chapter 6) and even before they were assigned to a tokkotai unit. Since the book examines their reflections on life and death, the time period after they have been assigned to a kamikaze unit destined for death seems to be the most critical to understand their considerations.

Japan's militaristic state used cherry blossoms as the leading military symbol. Fallen and scattered cherry petals signified soldiers' deaths, and blooming cherry blossoms symbolized fallen soldiers reborn at Yasukuni Shrine, the national memorial dedicated to honor the spirits of Japan's war dead. Ohnuki-Tierney concludes that cherry blossoms significantly influenced the tokkotai pilots:

In this process of méconnaissance ["absence of communication that results when people do not share a meaning but rather derive different meanings from the same symbols and rituals" (p. 3)], the evocative power of the aesthetics of cherry blossoms played a critical role. The role of méconnaissance is extremely important for an understanding of the most important question of this book—why did the pilots reproduce the imperial ideology in action without reproducing tits intellectual and spiritual content. The flower did not move them to take action, but it made them not confront the méconnaissance between their thoughts and the state ideology. (p. 303)

However, the author's examination of the five soldiers' diaries does not seem to substantiate the conclusion that cherry blossom symbolism as manipulated by the state prevented the tokkotai pilots from resisting the government. Most of the diaries contain few references to cherry blossoms, and many of these were typical comments made by Japanese people in springtime to recognize the beauty of the cherry blossoms. More plausible reasons exist for the pilots' inaction in opposing the military and government. The military required unquestioned obedience, and dissenters received swift and severe corporal punishment. All Japanese citizens, including those in the military, lived in an environment of intense social pressure to conform, and soldiers did not want to be shunned by their fellow soldiers, family, and neighbors if they protested even slightly against military and government policies. Anyone actively resisting government policies, military orders, or the war would have been killed or imprisoned.

Although this book contains analyses of five kamikaze pilots' writings, it does not include any extended quotations from the diaries or letters. The author uses numerous short quotations to support her arguments, but a reader cannot get a sense of the flow of the pilots' writings. In contrast, the book Listen to the Voices from the Sea, translated in 2000 by Midori Yamanouchi and Joseph L. Quinn, has 300 pages of English translations of the writings of 75 fallen Japanese students, including four of the pilots whose diaries were reviewed by Ohnuki-Tierney. This book was originally published in 1949 under the title Kike Wadatsumi no Koe and became a bestseller in Japan. Listen to the Voices from the Sea includes writings of both regular soldiers and kamikaze unit members, and it allows readers to understand their feelings and opinions better than Ohnuki-Tierney's book, which has just short quotations and content summaries from their writings.

Ohnuki-Tierney's thoroughly researched and thought-provoking book makes an important academic contribution, but its unfocused structure and detailed academic approach will lead most readers to prefer other more accessible books on kamikaze.

Source Cited

Nihon Senbotsu Gakusei Kinen-Kai (Japan Memorial Society for the Students Killed in the War—Wadatsumi Society), comp.  2000.  Listen to the Voices from the Sea: Writings of the Fallen Japanese Students (Kike Wadatsumi no Koe).  Translated by Midori Yamaguchi and Joseph L. Quinn.  Scranton: University of Scranton Press.