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

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

by Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney
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University of Chicago Press


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

Why did almost one thousand highly educated "student soldiers" volunteer to serve in Japan's tokkotai (kamikaze) operations near the end of World War II, even though Japan was losing the war? In this fascinating study of the role of symbolism and aesthetics in totalitarian ideology, Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney shows how the state manipulated the time-honored Japanese symbol of the cherry blossom to convince people that it was their honor to "die like beautiful falling cherry petals" for the emperor.

Drawing on diaries never before published in English, Ohnuki-Tierney describes these young men's agonies and even defiance against the imperial ideology. Passionately devoted to cosmopolitan intellectual traditions, the pilots saw the cherry blossom not in militaristic terms, but as a symbol of the painful beauty and unresolved ambiguities of their tragically brief lives. Using Japan as an example, the author breaks new ground in the understanding of symbolic communication, nationalism, and totalitarian ideologies and their execution.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226620909
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 10/01/2002
Pages: 428
Product dimensions: 6.34(w) x 9.28(h) x 1.14(d)

About the Author

Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney is the William F. Vilas Research Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is the author of a number of books in English and Japanese, most recently Rice as Self: Japanese Identities through Time; The Monkey as Mirror: Symbolic Transformations in Japanese History and Ritual; and Illness and Culture in Contemporary Japan.

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

By Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney

University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2002 Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0226620913



Cherry Blossoms as Agrarian Productive Force

In ancient Japan the most sacred plant was rice. The ears of rice housed the souls of the deities, objectified as grain, and the plant thus represented agrarian productive energy. Cherry blossoms were the symbolic equivalent of the rice plant. Because of the equation, cherry blossoms also stood for life-sustaining energy.

The Japanese notion(s) of soul as well as of its relationship to the deities is both complex and ambiguous. In the myth-histories, the deities are referred to as the ear of rice plant, rather than the husked grain. My interpretation is that the husk of the rice plant is the body of the deities, whereas the grain is the soul. Since the reference for the deities must be to deities who are alive rather than dead, the myth-histories use the character for the ear, since the most important notion about the human soul is its departure, which characterizes death. The soul is often objectified as a mirror, a pebble, a rock, or even an empty space. However, Yanagita states that there is no definitehistorical or ethnographic evidence to claim that the Japanese conceptualize the soul as having a definite shape (Yanagita, ed. 1951: 677-78). Although not formless, the soul is extremely fluid in its mobility-it departs the body, of humans and deities, and the Japanese soul may be given to non-Japanese, as we will see later in this book.

The equation of rice and cherry blossoms is clearly present in the two earliest written documents of Japan, the Kojiki, dated A.D. 712, and the Nihonshoki, dated 720, which were compiled at the time of state-formation and the beginning of the ancient imperial system. These "chronicles" were commissioned by the Tenmu emperor (r. 672-86) in order to establish a Japanese identity distinct from the Chinese, whose "Great Civilization" was engulfing Japan at the time. He did so by adopting folk oral traditions in which rice, introduced from the Asian continent, was appropriated as indigenous to Japan. That is, rice was grown in heaven by Japanese deities, whose names all bear references to the ear of rice. Thus, a foreign element, rice, was turned into the marker of Japanese identity. This cosmogony, drawing on folk agrarian cosmologies at the time, established the official agrarian cosmology, which became the symbolic foundation of the political economy for centuries, and in fact, even today.

The symbolic association between cherry blossoms and rice is articulated in the Japanese myth-histories. In a version given in the Kojiki, the Sun Goddess sends her famous grandson (Ninigi-no-Mikoto) to transform a wilderness into a country of rice stalks with succulent ears of rice (mizuho) grown from the original seeds grown in heaven and entrusted to him. The grandson marries a female deity named "A Blossom on a Tree" (Konohana-no-Sakuya-Bime).

Already present in this episode is an explicit link between cherry blossoms and a short life--a major characterization of cherry blossoms in later years. At the time of the marriage, the woman's father urges the grandson to take both this woman and her older sister, whose name refers to a rock. According to the father, if the grandson takes the older sister, he will live long like a rock, but if he takes only the younger sister, his life will be short like the blossoms. The grandson, however, refuses the older "ugly" daughter. The grandson and the younger daughter produce the imperial offspring after one night together. A passage in the Kojiki explains that, although emperors are supposed to live for a long time, because of the grandson's marriage to this female deity bearing the name of the short-lived cherry blossom, emperors' lives are also short. In the Nihonshoki version, the union between the two is the reason that humans in general do not live long.

At a more abstract level of interpretation, however, cherry blossoms gave birth to the heir to the throne, safeguarding the perpetuation of the imperial line. If so, cherry blossoms represent the reproductive force, rather than death (Miyata 1987: 128). The marriage guarantees the rebirth of rice, which represents deities qua emperors, who in turn represent humans (Japanese) in general.

The symbolic association of cherry blossoms with rice in these myth-histories derived from folk agrarian cosmology, which involves the mountain worship (sangaku shinko¯) that antedated the introduction of Buddhism to Japan from India, via China and Korea, and remained one of the most powerful forms of belief for many Japanese until recently (Orikuchi 1928a). Despite regional variations, mountain worship centers on the belief that the Mountain Deity (Yama-no-Kami) is the most powerful deity in the Japanese pantheon and that the mountains, as the abode of the deity, are the most sacred space in the Japanese universe (Blacker 1975; Yanagita [1947b] 1982). Cherry blossoms in ancient Japan were exclusively mountain cherries (yamazakura), providing the basis for their symbolic association with the Mountain Deity.

Orikuchi (1928a) first proposed that both snow in early spring and flowers, especially mountain cherry blossoms, were thought to forecast the condition of the rice crop in the fall. If petals fell prematurely, it was an inauspicious sign. As a way of praying for the petals to last longer, people started to perform the flower festival (hana-e-shiki or chinkasai), which was first held during the eighth century and has been since held at the imperial court as well as at various temples and shrines. Although these rituals, whether conducted specifically for cherry blossoms or for flowers in general, have undergone many changes over time, they have two interrelated purposes: (1) to expel by the power of "flowers of rice plants" the evil spirits that cause epidemics, (2) to pray that the flowers will rest and stay in bloom for a long time--an auspicious sign for the rice crop in the fall. Because of the power of cherry blossoms to foretell the condition of the rice crop in the fall, people began planting cherry trees in their own yards (Orikuchi 1928a: 471-93).

Some scholars believe that the etymology of the term sakura (cherry blossom) derives from the seat (kura) of the spirit of the deity (sa), namely, the Deity of Rice Paddies. According to these scholars, in the ancient Japanese cosmology the Mountain Deity descended to rice paddies by lodging (yadoru) on the petals of cherry blossoms, becoming the Deity of Rice Paddies (Ta-no-Kami) in order to look after agricultural production. Farmers therefore took the blooming of cherry blossoms as a signal to prepare for planting rice seedlings. In the fall, after being treated by farmers to a feast at the time of harvest, the deity returned to the mountains (Miyata 1993; Sakurai 1976; M. Suzuki 1991: 6-9). Some scholars further suggest that sa in sakura (cherry blossoms) is the same root as sa in such terms as "to prosper" (sakaeru), "to be prosperous" (sakan), "good fortune" (sachi), and "rice wine" (sake), all signifying a positive power (Saito [1979] 1985: 45-46; Yamada Munemutsu 1977: 21). There is a logical connection between etymologies, since a major function of Japanese deities is to bring about worldly prosperity.

In contrast to the metaphor developed during the Meiji era, in which cherry blossoms represented soldiers' sacrifice for the emperor, in the imperial accession ritual it was the deity qua emperor who sacrificed himself for humans. The imperial accession ritual, which has undergone many changes in time, began as an agrarian harvest ritual. The first record of it having become the imperial accession ritual dates to the reign of the Seinei emperor (a.d. 480 - 84) (for details, see Ohnuki-Tierney 1993a: 48 -50). On one level, the harvest ritual is a cosmic gift exchange in which a new crop of rice--a few grains of divinity--is offered to the deity as a return gift for the original seeds he gave to humans. The mode of exchange takes the form of commensality--eating together--between the deity and humans at a feast during the harvest ritual. On another level, the harvest ritual constitutes a cosmological exchange of the soul and the body. Since rice embodies the peaceful soul of the deity, by offering rice grains to humans, the deity offers his own soul--the ultimate "gift of self"--"a man gives himself" (Mauss [1950] 1966: 45). It is a sacrifice initiated by the deity who came down on a cherry petal from the mountains to rice paddies to offer his body-soul to humans. Humans in turn nurture the divine soul, that is, rice grains, with the rays of the Sun Goddess and make the return gift--the first crop of rice--at harvest time. It is a generalized exchange between the deity and humans. The initiator of the cycle of cosmic gift exchange was the opposite of the emperor, for whom, starting in the Meiji period and in the ideology of pro rege et patria mori during the military period, soldiers were told to sacrifice themselves, without his sacrifice in the first place.

Since its petals embody the Deity of Rice Paddies, the cherry tree itself was regarded as sacred. It is the sacred tree for the order of mountain ascetics (shugendo¯) (Miyake 1985: 435). Consequently, the ritual of cherry blossom viewing (hanami) originated as a religious ritual under cherry blossoms in the sacred mountains. The drinking of sake that accompanies this ritual derives from a sacred ritual during which the deity and humans drink together the sacred wine, made from the deity's body, as it were, as an act of commensality (Wakamori 1975: 180 - 81).

The belief in cherry blossoms as the abode of the deity gave rise to a practice of wearing the blossoms on one's head in order to receive the blessing of the deities (M. Yamada 1977: 116). The practice appears already in the Manyoshu --the earliest collection of poems, dating from the eighth century. In one poem, the poet sings of the land of the emperor covered with the fragrance of cherry blossoms because men and women are wearing the blossoms in their hair. In another, a male poet laments the falling of the cherry petals, which he had intended to wear on his head, a gesture of courtship; obviously he was unsuccessful. The practice continued until later periods as with a geisha who wears a rice stalk with grains on it, again testifying to the symbolic correlation between rice and cherry blossoms.

It is almost eerie to witness this practice adopted in the tokkotai operation, in which single blossoms were painted on the sides of the airplanes, which were given various designations referring to cherry blossoms (chapter 5). It is easier to understand why those navy officers who invented the operation would resurrect the ancient belief and practice. However, it is hard to imagine that the tokkotai pilots, who flew to their deaths with fully blooming cherry blossoms on their uniforms, were desperately trying to enlist a little additional assistance against the impossible. Or, did they embrace the latter-day symbolic association between warriors and cherry blossoms, as described later in this chapter?

Ultimately, the symbolic equivalence of cherry blossoms and rice rested on the aesthetics of productive power in an agrarian cosmology. In ancient Japan, both cherry blossoms and rice were beautiful because they stood for agrarian productivity, which was above all sacred: seeds of rice were thought to embody deities who grew to maturity under the rays of the Sun Goddess. Until metallic currency, introduced from China during the twelfth century, gradually replaced it between the twelfth and fifteenth centuries (Ohnuki-Tierney 1993a: 67-74; Reischauer and Craig 1978: 63), rice served as currency, but currency conceptualized in religious terms (Amino 1987), as in ancient Greece (Hocart [1952] 1970: 97- 104). Thus, the character kin (or kane) refers to both money and gold. Ripe heads of rice stalks are described to have a golden luster even today.

Since the ancient period, the aesthetics of rice has been expressed in poems, essays, and visual arts, which in turn have further propagated the perception of the beauty of rice. In In Praise of Shadows (In'ei Rai-san), Tanizaki Junichiro¯ (1886-1965) extols the beauty of cooked rice with an analogy of each grain to a pearl shining in a black lacquer container placed in the dark (Tanizaki [1933] 1959: 17-18). Even today brand names of rice almost always bear the character for luster in them. Like the aesthetics of mirrors, also thought to embody Japanese deities, the aesthetics of rice lies in its luster as well as in its whiteness and purity. The visual aesthetics of cherry blossoms as rice, then, ultimately derives from its religious nature. The aesthetics of the sacred that characterizes productive forces is the common thread in the symbolism of rice and cherry blossoms. It is only a short step, therefore, for these symbols to become symbols of cultural nationalism, as we see in Motoori Nori-naga (1730 -1801), a nativist scholar of the Edo period, who discerned the superiority of Japan and the Japanese in the superiority of its rice and cherry blossoms (Watanabe Tadayo 1989: 89).

Cherry Blossoms as Reproductive Power

The aesthetics of cherry blossoms has been extended to other "beautiful" human beings and things, including women. Like rice, women in agrarian cosmology represent both productive and reproductive power, both of which were seen as beautiful in cosmological terms. In ancient Japan production and reproduction were seen as equivalent and both were conceptualized in terms of souls. The term musu meant simultaneously encapsulation of a soul in a knot and both production and reproduction. The act of making a knot (musubi) with a string, twig, or piece of grass, as described in the Manyoshu poems and other literature of the time, was a ritual act to encapsulate a soul in the knot. In addition, the term musubi meant reproduction and production: musu meant reproduction and bi (= hi) meant production or growth by means of the sun (Matsumae 1977: 96-97; Orikuchi [1953] 1976).

Therefore, cherry blossoms as a symbol of women naturally follows from the symbolic equation of women's reproductive power with the productive power of rice. If rice production under the rays of the Sun Goddess is sacred and thus a beautiful activity, women with their reproductive power were also "beautiful" in a religious sense.

Cherry blossoms representing the beauty of women appear in the Manyo¯shu¯, which contains 4,516 poems composed during the four hundred years before 759, when it was compiled. The poets include emperors as well as farmers, beggars, and other people of "low status." Cherry blossoms do not occupy center stage in the collection, and they are overshadowed by bush clover (hagi) and plum blossoms (ume) as motifs and metaphors. When they appear in these poems, as they do in forty-seven of them, cherry blossoms stand for love and women in poems by male poets. Other poems about cherry blossoms praise their blooming, or, when they refer to their falling, do so without foregrounding the falling as the main theme (M. Yamada 1977: 117). In his anthology Cranston includes fourteen poems from the Manyoshu in which cherry blossoms appear, and he declares that "aware [pathos over impermanence]-- an important ethos in later history--has no place in these sunny glades" (Cranston 1993: 539). A poem by the well-known poet Otomo-no-¯ Yakamochi (716 - 85) testifies to his view: "The cherry blossoms / Now are out in full splendor / In the shining palace / At sea-bright Naniwa she reigns / Grave in the flowering time" (Omodaka 1968, no. 4361 [92]; Cranston 1993: 479).

Celebrations of Love and Displays of Pomp:

Cherry Blossom Viewing (Hanami) Ultimately, cherry blossoms celebrate love itself--an intense relationship between a man and a woman. If men used the metaphor of cherry blossoms for women, women too used the flower in their expressions of love. The practice of wearing a cherry branch with its blossoms on one's head or of placing it on top of a bamboo pole in the yard has been recorded from ancient times as an expression of courtship by women. This custom is followed in later times by another in which a woman would tie her kosode, a type of garment, to a cherry tree as a sign of courtship (Miyata 1987: 123-24).

In cherry blossom viewing, hanami, the symbolic association between the flower and love is most conspicuously expressed. An eighth-century record, Hitachi-no-Kuni Fudoki, tells us that the hanami was already an established annual activity not only among the elite but also among the common folk. In this account for the Hitachi region near Tokyo, the hanami was an established annual event, as described in a passage about Mount Tsukuha (now called Tsukuba): "When the flowers [hana] bloom in the spring and when the leaves turn color, men and women from various regions east of Mt. Ashigara throng [at the mountain], some on foot and others on horseback, bringing food and drinks. They exchange poems and dance" (Akimoto [713] 1958: 41; my translation). An exchange of poems between men and women and their dances were the institutionalized modes of courtship at the time.

In ancient Japan, singing, dancing, and music were all religious rituals. Even sexual intercourse was not singled out as purely "sexual" behavior but had religious and other dimensions. Thus, cherry blossom viewing in ancient Japan seems to have been an important spring religious rite during which women and men climbed a mountain--the sacred space--to feast and drink, while composing poetry, dancing, and making love.

The aesthetics of cherry blossoms, including their viewing, was taken over by urbanites already by the eighth century, overshadowing the rural counterpart. The political elite, including the imperial family, were people of agrarian origin who no longer tilled the soil but whose culture derived from an agrarian cosmology. These members of the urban elite incorporated the aesthetics of cherry blossoms into their high culture. By the Nanbokucho period (1336-92), upper-class warriors were among the aristocrats for whom the display of culturedness became important. In contrast to demonstrations of military might (bu), they had to cultivate "culture" (bun, meaning refined learning)-- the ability to play musical instruments, compose poems, be well versed in Chinese and Japanese literature, and so on. Cherry blossom viewing among the elite, both aristocrats and upper-class warriors, became the occasion for the literati to demonstrate their culturedness, since composing poetry in praise of cherry blossoms and reading were the most important features of their cherry blossom viewing, along with playing music and other expressions of refined taste. These lavish aristocratic cherry blossom viewings, however, were also expressions of their political power and wealth.


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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations Preface Chronology: Important Events and Publications Note on Names, Dates, and Titles of Works Introduction
Part 1: The Symbolism of Cherry Blossoms in Pre-Meiji Japan
1. The Field of Meaning, Images, and Aesthetics
Part 2: The Road to Pro Rege et Patria Mori: Naturalization of Imperial Nationalism
2. The Emperor's Two Bodies: Sovereignty, Theocracy, and Militarization
3. The Militarization of Cherry Blossoms: Cherry Blossoms as the Souls of Fallen Soldiers
4. The Militarization of the Masses
Part 3: The Making of the Tokkotai Pilots
5. The Tokkotai Operation
6. Five Tokkotai Pilots
Part 4: Nationalisms, Patriotisms, and the Role of Aesthetics in Meconnaissance
7. State Nationalism and Naturalization Processes
8. Patriotism: Global Intellectual Currents as Its Source
9. The Crooked Timber of the Cherry Summary Appendix: List of Readings by Four Pilots Notes References Index

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