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

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05Why did almost 1,000 highly educated “student soldiers” volunteer to offer in Japan’s tokkotai (kamikaze) operations near to the end of World War II, though Japan was losing the war? In this fascinating study from the role of symbolism and aesthetics in totalitarian ideology, Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney shows that this state manipulated the time-honored Japanese symbol with the cherry blossom to convince individuals who it was their honor to “die like beautiful falling cherry petals” with the emperor.

Drawing on diaries nothing you’ve seen prior published in English, Ohnuki-Tierney describes these young men’s agonies as well as defiance contrary to the imperial ideology. Passionately dedicated to cosmopolitan intellectual traditions, the pilots saw the cherry blossom not in militaristic terms, but as a symbol with the painful beauty and unresolved ambiguities of these tragically brief lives. Using Japan as one example, this author breaks new ground within the understanding of symbolic communication, nationalism, and totalitarian ideologies along with their execution.

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