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Kamikaze ideograms

girls waving to Kamikaze pilots
High-school girls wave to Kamikaze pilots as they take off. The plane is a Nakajima army fighter, the Ki-43 Hayabusa, called "Oscar" by Allied pilots. The girls are waving branches of the cherry tree, whose blossoms were popularly associated with the kamikaze.

Kamikaze, Cherry Blossoms, and Nationalisms

Kamikaze, Cherry Blossoms, Nationalisms
Kamikaze, Cherry Blossoms, and Nationalisms, by Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney

This excellent book is a difficult read, because the subject is a tough one, and also because the author uses the worst kind of academic trash-talk in which to approach it. (Hegemony, polysemic, imbrication, and méconnaissance are among the stones to break the unwary reader's teeth.) As the title suggests, the kamikaze are only partly the subject: Ohnuki-Tierney is mostly interested in how they came to be, a quest that takes her through history, culture, and literature.

But several chapters focus on five particular kamikaze pilots who left a particularly rich trove of diary entries and letters to friends and family, and these are what make the book worthwhile for a non-academic reader. These chapters are indeed fascinating reading. OT argues that the kamikaze were the intellectual cream of Japanese youth (which wasn't entirely true: by her own figures, only a third of the 3,000-odd kamikaze pilots were "student soldiers" drafted from the universities), and from that thesis she goes on to argue that the writings she cites are typical.

I'm not convinced. The author is also innocent on historical matters. Several times she tells how the two-man subs at Pearl Harbor "rammed the American ships," when not one of them appears to have made contact, and only one is known for sure to have gotten through the submarine nets. And she tells how the student soldiers were "tortured" by their superiors, because of their erudition, but such beatings were routine in the Japanese military, and were handed out even more vigorously to enlisted men, prisoners of war, and captive populations. Nevertheless, well worth reading by anyone with an interest in the kamikaze phenomenon.

Kamikaze pilots with their mom
left: Japanese army kamikaze pilots pose with Tome Torihama, who ran a restaurant in the southern town of Chiran, and who in her thirties became a surogate mother for them. After the war, she helped establish a museum in Chiran, and became famous in Japan as the "Kamikaze mom."

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