“If only we might fall Like cherry blossoms in the spring — So pure and radiant !”
Quoted by historian Ivan Morris in “The Nobility of Failure,” 1975
World War II transfigured the cherry blossom. The 22-year-old kamikaze pilot who composed that haiku shortly before dying in combat in February 1945 couldn’t have foreseen the macabre twist Hiroshima and Nagasaki would soon give to “radiance,” but the new cherry blossom — the blossom transformed into a human ideal of beauty attainable by a beautiful death — was his to savor, and savor it he did, to the full, he and his fellow suicide bombers.
“Dear Parents,” wrote another, “Please congratulate me. I have been given a splendid opportunity to die. This is my last day. The destiny of our homeland hinges on the decisive battle in the sea to the south where I shall fall like a blossom from a radiant cherry tree.”
Cherry blossoms had long symbolized evanescence, beauty, the beauty of evanescence; and Japan’s warrior ethos had always glorified self-sacrifice; yet it took 20th-century total war to unite those strands into a notion that men dying for their divine homeland became, in effect, cherry blossoms who acquired an unearthly, transcendent beauty, “so pure and radiant !”
Other nations too, of course, have bred warriors and patriots imbued with a vision of the individual life as a trivial thing compared to the great cause being served. But few images have invested that vision with such eerie, appalling beauty as the cherry blossom.
More down-to-earth, an example of how another culture might treat the same theme, is this jarring passage from a letter a young French revolutionary fighter wrote to his father in 1792: “Our liberty can only be assured if it will have for its bed a mattress of cadavers. … I consent to become one of those cadavers.” (Quoted by historian Simon Schama in “Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution,” 1989.)
A Japanese would admire the spirit but wish the man were more of a poet.
It was, says Morris, “one of the strangest and most poignant weapons in the history of warfare” -“a one-way glider which would be transported at high altitude close to the target and would then dive down at enormous speed to detonate its warhead onto the enemy ship. … The suicide craft itself with its ton of tri-nitro-anisol (explosive) would sink, or at least incapacitate, the ships of the enemy navy, which were now (1944-45) slowly strangling Japan’s home islands; in addition, the use of this new secret weapon would overawe and demoralize the foreigners, who were psychologically unprepared for such methods.”
Oka, this bizarre weapon was called, an alternate reading of sakana hana — cherry blossom.
The American enemy had another name for it: Baka bomb. Baka means “idiot.”
Some 5,000 Japanese pilots “fell like cherry blossoms.” The damage their cherry-blossom craft inflicted on U.S. and Allied warships was slight. Psychologically, the impact was, as foreseen, tremendous — but not in the manner the Japanese had expected. Far from demoralizing the enemy, it seems to have solidified their view that extraordinary measures were needed against this extraordinary nation — hence the atom-bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on Aug. 6 and 9, 1945, respectively.
Japan surrendered on Aug. 15, 1945. That same day, Vice Admiral Takijiro Onishi, the brain behind the Oka suicide bombing, ritually disemboweled himself at his official residence in Tokyo. He, too, was a poet:
“Today in flower, Tomorrow scattered by the wind — Such is our blossom life. How can we think its fragrance lasts forever?”