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  • kamikaze, Cherry Blossoms, and Nationalisms: The Militarization of Aesthetics in Japanese History
  • Gary L. Ebersole
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.

In the 2004 American presidential campaign, a film clip of a young John Kerry testifying against the Vietnam War before a congressional committee hearing received significant television air time. In the clip, Kerry poignantly asks: "How do you ask a young man in his twenties to be the last to die in the Vietnam War?" In kamikaze, Cherry Blossoms, and Nationalisms: The Militarization of Aesthetics in Japanese History, anthropologist Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney attempts to answer a similar set of questions regarding the best and the brightest young Japanese men sent to their deaths as kamikaze pilots in the closing days of the Pacific War. "How and why," she asks, "do individuals sacrifice themselves for the[ir] country?" "When a soldier 'volunteers' to die for his country, does he do so both in thought and in action? Or does he sacrifice himself only in action without espousing the ideology of state nationalism in toto?" (p. 1).

Ohnuki-Tierney suggests that in recent years, as a reaction against structuralism, many anthropologists have shifted their attention to issues of praxis (what social actors and agents do). This shift is certainly evident, but I wonder if her next characterization is accurate: "Thus we now seldom differentiate between reproduction of behavior and that of an ideology or thought structure" (p. 186). She is certainly correct [End Page 607] to answer two of her own additional questions in the negative: "Is identifying reproduction in behavior enough for us to understand historical continuity and discontinuity? Is our quest satisfied if we find that a perfect reproduction takes place in action, even in the absence of reproduction in the thoughts and feelings of social agents?" (ibid.). She is wrong, though, to suggest that few other scholars have recognized and addressed this issue. If anything, the issues surrounding structure and change or cultural reproduction and change have been at the center of the work of Marshall Sahlins, James Fernandez, and Talal Asad, to name only three such scholars of note in anthropology. Moreover, generations of sociologists and historians of religion have also grappled with the issues of continuity and change.

In this study, Ohnuki-Tierney has made an important contribution to our understanding of the kamikaze pilots by focusing on the lives and writings of a handful of university conscripts. Specifically, she has culled the limited number of published writings in Japanese by these former students, as well as more numerous unpublished diaries, letters, and other documents. Additionally, in an appendix (pp. 307-340) she has compiled a startling list of the works read by four of the kamikaze pilots that can help us to understand their interests and the possible influences on their thoughts. They were extremely well read in theology, philosophy, literature, and political thought—and they read widely in European languages, as well as Japanese. Through these sources, Ohnuki-Tierney attempts to understand why these young men went off to certain death, even when they did not ascribe to the emperor-centered ideology of the Japanese militarist state. In part, she seeks to counter the prevalent image that these patriotic young men worshipped the emperor and died for him. In doing so, she argues for the necessity to distinguish between patriotism and state nationalism, or, to put it another way, between dying for one's country and dying for the emperor.

Much of Ohnuki-Tierney's earlier work has dealt with the roles of specific symbols in Japanese society. The Monkey as Mirror: Symbolic Transformations in Japanese History and Ritual (Princeton University Press, 1987) traced the changing uses of the monkey as a symbol of identity and otherness throughout Japanese history, while Rice as Self: Japanese Identities through Time (Princeton University Press, 1993) focused on rice as an important multivalent symbol of Japanese identity. The present study apparently began innocently enough as a study of the symbolic complex surrounding cherry blossoms in Japanese cultural history. Only in the course of her research did Ohnuki...