Why did almost one thousand highly educated "student scholars" volunteer to serve in Japan's "tokkotai" (kamikaze) operations near the end of World War II, even though Japan was losing the war? Did they embody the imperial ideology both in thought and in action? In this study of the role of symbolism and aesthetics in totalitarian ideology, Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney shows how the state manipulated the time-honoured Japanese symbol of the cherry blossom to convince people that it was their honour 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.
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 and The Monkey as Mirror: Symbolic Transformations in Japanese History and Ritual.