- Flowers that Kill: Communicative Opacity in Political Spaces by Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney
Ohnuki-Tierney offers a compelling, central proposition: Japan’s culturally dominant nationalist ethos during World War II was enabled by [End Page 262] “communicative opacity.” She defines this term as “an absence of communication or mutual understanding due to individuals in a given social/ historical context drawing different meanings from the same symbol, or, more often, due to an absence of articulation in their minds of the meaning they are drawing” (2). Communicative opacity operates through polysemy, totalization, ellipsis, and aesthetics to convert “innocent cultural nationalism” into “dangerous political nationalism” (17). It is discernible not only in the discourses surrounding specific acts of fervent nationalism (such as the suicide flights of the tokkōtai, or kamikaze pilots) but also in the broader discursive framework within which the accountability—or lack thereof—of Emperor Hirohito was located.
Part I argues that various well-worn cultural symbols of Japanese nationalism (cherry blossoms, monkeys, and rice) became imbued with the various “meanings” attendant upon nationalist fanaticism. Ohnuki-Tierney shows persuasively how these symbols were deployed to affirm a nationalistic aesthetic, configuring the collective modern Japanese self-hood as self-sacrificing (and ready to die), obedient, and pure. Notably, she discusses how images of the rose were deployed in Germany during World War II as a means of bestowing Adolf Hitler with a fatherly image. She compares this strategy with the way in which cherry blossoms came to represent the expectation that the tokkōtai would die for the emperor.
Part II discusses the mechanisms of German and Japanese wartime propaganda, describing and comparing these countries’ overarching methods for indoctrinating its people during World War II. Part III looks specifically at the role of the emperor in Japanese politics sub-sequent to the Meiji Restoration, leading up to World War II. In stark contrast to Hitler’s visibility and audibility, the emperor’s invisibility and inaudibility lent him (or rather his position) discursive power.
Ohnuki-Tierney’s book is wide-ranging in its scope, marshaling substantial evidence to demonstrate the adaptation of culturally familiar symbols to achieve the propagandist ends of the German and Japanese states. Nonetheless, her argument suffers from an imprecision about where the responsibility for such cultural appropriations actually lay. “The major thesis of this book has been the unawareness of communicative opacity on the part of social actors who live under its impact” (203). Communicative opacity would seem to forestall resistance by its very opacity. However, rather than hold that it functions preemptively to thwart resistance, Ohnuki-Tierney instead contends that people at the time were merely suggestible, through long exposure to more congenial understandings of, say, the cherry blossom and the rose as symbols of “life” and “love.” This tack absolves the general populace of any complicity in the construction and dissemination of these nationalist formations while ironically also underplaying any contemporary resistance to the very communicative opacity that she seeks to critique. [End Page 263]