Death by Cherry Blossoms

Another look at material religion in Japan

I took the high-speed bullet train down to see the Chiran Kamikaze Peace Museum, built at the site where 1,038 Tokka kamikaze pilots gathered, partied, rested and raged before dying in their rocket-powered Okah “cherry blossom” plane-bombs. The museum is surrounded by cherry blossom trees, and the gift shop is filled with cherry blossom-embellished trinkets.

Material Minds

Archeologists and cultural historians like to remind us that we “think through things,” that we not only imbue objects like flowers and trees with meanings but that the physical things themselves lead our imaginations in certain ways.

A sad example of this, a really sad example, is the way that cherry blossoms were employed by the Japanese government to brainwash children into becoming suicide bombers. In her book Kamikaze, Cherry Blossoms, and Nationalisms: The Militarization of Aesthetics in Japanese History, one of my favorite historians, Emiko Ohunuki-Tierney, traces the evolution of cherry blossom symbolism in Japan from fertility symbol to fuselage emblem and explains how the flowers were used to sell suicide to student pilots, some as young as 15.

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A kamikaze plane with a cherry blossom mark. Some of the planes were even named after cherry trees.
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Cheerleaders holding cherry blossom offerings to the young men leaving to die.

Essentially, ever since they were toddlers, these young men were led to believe that their souls were like cherry blossoms destined to fall, and by accepting this fate, their souls became divine.

Part of the power cherry blossoms wielded over the Japanese imagination had to do with the flower’s association with an even older metaphor for the self: rice. From ancient times, cherry blossoms were thought to forecast the condition of the rice crop. In the spring, as the Deity leaves the mountain, its energy blooms the flowers and their petals then impregnate the ground and enrich the rice. The term sakura (cherry blossom) even derives from the Chinese characters that mean “the Seat of the Deity of Rice Paddies.” The yearly ritual of hanami (cherry blossom viewing) is thus a religious ritual, for lack of a better term, involving the drinking of rice’s spirit to signal the physical marriage between the rice deity, the cherry flower diety, and their children, the humans.

Because rice is the physical and metaphorical “body” of the Japanese people, the cherry blossoms can become the soul: that which comes before, and remains after, the body (see Rice, Semen, and Material Religion in Japan).

We read about this association between cherry blossoms, rice, and the soul in two important Japanese religious texts. In the Kojiki, the Sun Goddess Amaterasu sends her superstar grandson Ninigi-no-Mikoto to “transform a wilderness into a country of rice stalks.” He uses his seed from heaven. After planting the rice, Ninigi falls in love and marries a deity named Blossom on a Cherry Tree, Konohana-no-Sakuya-Bime, and together they give birth to humans.

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Kamikaze pilots holding cherry blossoms.

In the Nihonshoki, we read about how Ninigi should have never mixed his divine bloodline with such a fleeting flower. It’s one reason why our precious lives are cut so short. We’re half cherry blossom! The union between these two georgic beings, Prince Rice and Princess Cherry Blossom, is the Japanese version of original sin.

Material Resonance

So we can already see a link between cherry blossoms and a short life. But it’s not only the mythopoeic power that affords cherry blossoms their significance: their shape, color, and rubbery materiality help to legitimize their power. Cognitive scientists and cultural historians often write of the need to overcome our rigid worldview that sees material things as mere props for culture and language. Ideas, stories, and myths do not precede the material things, but rather are “helped into being” by the material world (see Boivin 2008). Material things, like cherry blossom petals, are therefore not completely arbitrary in relation to the concepts they signify but play an active role in the construction of meaning. We can call it metaphorical thinking, or an unconscious neurochemical resonance between parts of the brain, but sensual qualities of things get bundled together (Keane’s term) and mobilized within systems of value and meaning. The rubbery flesh of the pink and white petals really does look and feel like human skin. And like snow, they rapidly cover the ground in a thin layer of white. Whiteness also signifies purity and cleanliness, and the bliss-inducing smell of the cherry blossoms wafting through the streets often accompanies music, festivals, and sexy graduation ceremonies.

In his book Entangled, Ian Hodder (2012) uses the term resonance to describe the process by which, at a non-discursive or pre-verbal level, a subtle “coherence” occurs “across domains in historically specific contexts.” Fleshy blossoms also resonate with the planting of rice, with joyful, drunken partying, and with feelings (and values) associated with whiteness, milk, semen, bones, self, community, fleetingness, and death. All this signification is activated before the thought, “a cherry blossom,” ever hits the surface and conscious mind of the person.

Brainwashing Textbooks

Program or be programmed. Ohnuki-Tierney looks at elementary school textbooks and their totally obvious shift from what she calls “nationalism without militarism,” to “nationalism with militarism but without cherry blossoms,” and finally to the elementary school textbooks released from 1933–1943, correlating with the ages of the kamikaze pilots, that suddenly relied heavily on cherry blossom imagery juxtaposed with solders, suns, and Mount Fuji. She also looks at the school music, which was even more powerful than the textbooks at communicating the ideology, (because it appealed to the people at an emotive level). Ohnuki-Tierney shares some of the song lyrics that used the symbolism of cherry blossoms for ideological purposes, like the popular evocation “to fall like a beautiful cherry petal for the emperor.”

The military deployment of the flower really developed in the beginning of the Meiji period, but it reached its exaggerated expression in the kamikaze Tokkotai operation. There was reportedly a systematic effort in this regard to name the planes, and bombs, and corps after types of cherry blossoms. The rocket-powered, “flying bomb” plane design is called Ohka, 桜花, literally “cherry blossom.”

What gets really weird is how the construction of blooming cherry blossoms as apotheosized soldiers at the Yasukuni Shrine represents a reversal of the ancient cosmological scheme already accepted in the myth-history, thus completing it.

Onuki-Tierney recounts that in the already established and beloved version, the Deity of the Mountains “Yama-no-Kami” would come down to the rice paddies on the petals of cherry blossoms to offer and sacrifice his own soul (embodied in the white rice grains) to humans — a cosmological cycle and “gift exchange of the self.” And in the newly constructed Yasukuni scheme, it is the humans who fall/descend and sacrifice for the emperor, the “manifest deity.” The soldiers’ deaths are expressed through falling cherry blossom petals; these petals then dissolve into the ground and ascend to become divine cherry blossoms which in ancient times grew only in the mountains and thus represented the Deity of the Mountains.

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The blossoms infuse everything.

At the museum, I read some of the pilots’ poems and letters described in Ohnuki-Tierney's book, and they really do reflect an obsession with cherry blossom imagery, specifically falling cherry blossoms as a metaphor for their deaths.

“I am a man who is falling like cherry petals.”

“I must share the fate of falling cherry blossoms.”

“Like beautiful cherry blossoms, I will fall and be reborn.”

“I will do my best in order to die for the emperor as soon as possible like falling cherry petals.”

“I shall plunge into the enemy vessel and fall like petals for the emperor.” One young man wrote in his will: “Many soldiers (senpai) are gone like falling petals. I do not hesitate to sacrifice myself. I am pleased. For the emperor, I shall fall like cherry blossoms.” Onuki-Tierney: “In the process of accelerating militarisation, cherry blossoms were called into duty to aestheticize soldiers’ deaths on the battlefield, followed by their resurrection at Yasukuni Shrine — like cherry blossoms which fall after a brief life, the young men sacrificed their lives for the emperor but were promised to be reborn as cherry blossoms at the shrine where the emperor would pay homage.”

The museum includes a recreation of the barracks and dining halls where the soldiers partied before their final flight, and despite all the published wills, photos, and films in which we see smiling pilots saluting or waving goodbye before their final mission, the following description tells a different story. It’s a letter written in 1995 by eighty-six year old Kasuga Takeo. He was drafted into the navy and was given the assignment of looking after the meals, laundry, and other daily affairs of the student soldiers at the Tsuchiura Navy Airbase, which was very similar to the one at Chiran.

Takeo describes the night before their final flights:

“At the hall where their farewell parties were held, the young student officers drank cold sake the night before their flight. Some gulped the sake in one swallow, others kept gulping down [a large amount]. The whole place degenerated into chaos. Some broke hanging lightbulbs with their swords. Some lifted chairs to break the windows and tore white tablecloths. A mixture of military songs and curses filled the air.“While some shouted in rage, others cried aloud. It was their last night of life. They thought of their parents, their faces and images, lovers’ faces and their smiles, a sad farewell to their fiancées — all went through their minds like a running-horse lantern. Although they were supposedly ready to sacrifice their precious youth the next morning for Imperial Japan and for the emperor, they were torn beyond what words can express — some putting their heads on the table, some writing their wills, some folding their hands in meditation, some leaving the hall, and some dancing in frenzy while breaking flower vases. They all took off with the rising sun headband the next morning. But, this scene of utter desperation has hardly been reported. I observed it with my own eyes, as I took care of their daily life, which consisted of incredibly strenuous training, coupled with cruel and torturous “corporal punishment” as a daily routine.”

Kasuga Takeo’s letter is invaluable for describing how the “volunteers” really felt the night before their deaths.

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26 May 1945. Corporal Yukio Araki, holding a puppy, with four other pilots of the 72nd Shinbu Squadron at Bansei, Kagoshima. Araki died the following day, at the age of 17, in a suicide attack on ships near Okinawa.
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The previous environment becomes a work of art in the new invisible environment, or as William Irwin Thompson liked to put it, we kill with technology and then save the victim with art. Four actual kamikaze planes recovered from the ocean floor are on display inside the museum. All the other planes are miniaturized like toys and sit on pedestals or hang from the ceiling. The walls are adorned with framed black and white photographs of all 1,038 young men. Glass cases and curio cabinets are filled with letters, death poems, wills, possessions, and clothes.

The largest wall of the museum is covered in a photograph of Satsuma Fuji, the miniature Mount Fuji that overlooks southern Kyushu. It’s the last view of mainland Japan every student soldier saw before reaching Okinawa to die. The mural turns the wall into a window, and suddenly we are positioned inside someone’s head, looking out of someone's eyes. Suddenly, without warning, the entire museum becomes an inner world filled with airplanes, toys, friends, and dreams.

As I left for Yakushima the next morning on a high-speed Jet Ferry, the jet-propelled “aircraft of the sea” developed by a US manufacturer, I saw the mountain, the exact same mountain.

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Painter and Art Instructor at Haskell Indian Nations University

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