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Neither Suicide, Nor for the Emperor: Intellectual Trajectories of Tokkotai (Kamikaze) Pilots

Neither Suicide, Nor for the Emperor: Intellectual Trajectories of Tokkotai (Kamikaze) Pilots

Presenter: Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney, Anthropology, University of Wisconsin

Monday, October 06, 2003
3:00 PM - 5:00 PM
Hacienda Room

    E. Ohnuki-Tierney, University of Wisconsin, Madison

The tragic finale for the Pacific War included the historically unprecedented tokkÇtai operation, which sent thousands of young men to their deaths. Of them, about one thousand were students from top universities who were graduated early to be drafted. They were the intellectual elite. Some were Marxists and devout Christians. None died for the emperor, none truly "volunteered," and none considered their act as suicide – all contrary to the stereotype of the "kamikaze" which buried the factual information in the historical dust bin.

The writing of diary, each several hundred pages long, offered them a medium for their soliloquy, as they confronted the most pressing issues of life and death, individual responsibilities to one’s society, etc. They reveal an astonishing level of sheer intelligence and dedication to learning, engaging in highly sophisticated discussions of Greco-Roman classics, other Western intellectual traditions, including literature, philosophy, writings on economics and history in French, German, Russian, and many others, in addition to those by the Chinese and Japanese intellectuals. They were particularly drawn to the European Romanticism. Their intellectual quests epitomized the experience of many Japanese since the end of the eighteenth century – passionately devouring Western high cultures, while resisting Western political and cultural imperialism, and espousing modernity while attempting to overcome modernity. Their diaries are full of idealism, searching for the beauty and purity of thoughts and feelings.

Why did these highly intelligent men, the most unlikely group of young men to endorse Japan's military and imperial mission, reproduce the military ideology in their action and fly to their deaths, when they knew that Japan was losing the war? By no means is the question raised in this book simply a "Japanese problem" -- intellectuals world over, in the past and at present, become involved in totalitarianism, wars and politics that turn out to be against humanity.

In order to understand this perennial question in human history, the book examines in detail the pilots’ diaries written over several years, on the one hand, and the development of Japanese militarism in the legal and political structures and the militarization of the masses. It pays a particular attention to the ways in which the successive Japanese governments re-invented the traditions in their to attempt to convince that sacrifice for the emperor had been the Japanese tradition from time immemorial. In this process, the government strove to aestheticize military actions, especially sacrifice for the emperor, with the master trope of "thou shall fall like beautiful cherry petals." Sine the ancient times, the Japanese assigned complex symbolism to cherry blossoms and its rich field of meaning made it possible for the government to change the symbolism of this flower without alerting the people – all symbolized by the flower are beautiful, even when its falling petal became a metaphor of sacrifice by the tokkōtai pilots or those foot soldiers killed in freezing trenches in north China.

The role of aesthetics is crucial in imbricating the imperial nationalism of wartime Japan and the patriotism of the pilots who as Japan faced the American landing on their homeland tried to see meaning and beauty in sacrifice for the country, but not for the emperor. In the end these young men's responses to "Hitch your wagon to a star" doomed them – not being able to detect the wicked hands of the military. They misrecognized the "general will," transformed by the Japanese government as the Nazi did, as the general will of Rousseau and Kant. They read cherry blossoms as representing "our nature" of the Japanese ultra-nationalists as "nature" of Beethoven, Goethe, Thomas Mann, or Japanese literary figures who valorized Japanese nature without political agenda.


Cost: Free

For more information please contact

Mariko Bird

Sponsor(s): Terasaki Center for Japanese Studies

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