Missing Axioms VII – Explicit Euphoria

November 30, 2020

In continuation of this series I wanted to find a category of martyr which contrasted sharply, culturally and ideologically, with my previous example of Socrates. I was drawn toward the tokkōtai1 of 20th century Japan who conjure up a potent image of martyrdom through suicidal destruction as a result of industrial-grade ideological possession. The tokkōtai, along with the other categories of suicide ‘bombers’, are bewildering to a rationalist mind in the extent to which they invoke horror. The suicidal agent is made terrifying by the inability to place rational motivation. Monsters, fictional or otherwise, are made more horrific by the imagination as a result of their elusiveness, physical or intellectual. Our fear is stoked by the unknown and the lack of motivational understanding for our cultural villains is no exception. Hence the reason why the word “kamikaze” doesn’t merely denote a military classification but has also developed an emotive use in the post-war lexicon: a general reckless abandon. We find comfort in recognisable and understandable patterns and discomfort when something becomes unpredictable. Anglophone linguistics loaned a term from the language of the enemy which has been elaborated in the mythos of the post-war milieu resulting in my initial assumptions about this instance of martyrdom. The tokkōtai where still martyrs, yes, but of quite a different nature then I assumed.

I set out with my initial misunderstanding to reiterate that our common notion of authenticity, insofar it is normatively viewed positively, is deeply flawed. I planned to demonstrate this with the image of the tokkōtai pilot donning a headband of the rising sun to serve, what he saw as his ultimate honour, in death. Not some otherworldly deity but the emperor of Japan, explicitly represented as an earthly god. The reality is not so unilaterally demonstrated, the cultural context within which the events of tokkōtai sacrifice occurred is far more complex then the archetypal “kamikaze” of the post-war imagination. Multiple levels of explicit intellectual and top-down state construction birthed a euphorically ideological Japan, with which the Western wartime and post-war imagination created a uni-dimensional villain.

The ideology which was and is caricatured in the Western zeitgeist is not of some inherently Japanese ethic character but in fact the blossoming of a nation-building ambition catalysed during the Meiji restoration. In response to the threat of an encroaching world after a long period of enclosed destiny-snuffing, Japanese state apparatus settled decisively not to become a colony or defacto subject of any Western power. Like many of the modern European nations, which carried out similar nation-building programs before it, in it’s efforts to centralise Japan required some essence. An explicit identity canonised by a sufficient number of the citizenry with which the mass of a modern nation state could organise itself around. Although the economic progression of Japan involved the use of foreign ‘enlightened’ technologies and parliamentary politics a large factor in the assembly of the Japanese national identity was a romanticised vision of the past. A Japan where nobility was awarded through miliary might and tangible earthly benefits where given through respect for the spirits of war fallen.

A major, previously mentioned, component of the Meiji constitution was the doctrinal enshrinement of the emperor as divine. This took the European model of kings as a representative of god on the earth and exaggerated the intoxicating factor. Initially, a practical motivation for this doctrinal component of the Meiji constitution seems to have been useful for a stumbling nation in need of a central spiritual point of authority through which oppositional disparities can be made a unity. But eventually, this metastasised into military dictatorship which could refer back to the authority invested in them from the then silent emperor.

The Meiji restoration also utilised the elaborate mortuary rituals which were ubiquitous but fractured in specificity across the mother peninsula as a means towards ideological homogenization. These naturally emotive aspects of the national culture where centralised in the construction of a national monument in the form of the Yasukuni Shire constructed at Kundan, Tokyo2 The “survivors” of military endeavours (this includes all nationals and not simply the comrades-in-arms you might naturally expect) had a duty to commemorate the souls of the deceased, normally compiled regional lists of soldier deaths where now consolidated in the governmental refashioning of military worship practices.

A prominent smoking-gun exposing the constructed nature of the post-Meiji ideology is to be found in the history of a term which is still used and associated with the Japanese today: bushido. Bushido (bu-shi-do, literally meaning Militrary-Knight-Ways3) a term whose meaning is still alive was derived from admiration of the romanticised ‘chivalry’ of European culture in conjunction with Japanese historical and cultural references. Published in 1900 by Inazō Nitobe4: Bushido: The Soul of Japan constructs this cultural touchstone post hoc. Much like the image of “kamikaze”, bushido provides an intellectual underpinning of exotic aggression which persists, from the furore of Imperial Japan through to the commercialised fetish that uses katanas for decoration. In an ideological context this ethnography of aggression expressed through the notion of bushido was used by the post-Meiji state to project a cultural-historical vision of what the individual Japanese ought to be. An orienting value. A value which could be followed not only explicitly, but also implicitly.

The constructed explicit ideology was most potent not in it’s discursive symbols (words) but in it’s non-discursive symbols (“presentational symbols”)5 from which followed the implicit actions of the nation. The discursive symbols of ideology suggest themselves as the most convenient in appeal to the masses through symbolic vagueness and potential for emotive exploitation through the use of familiar images. The explicit euphoria, present in the wartime period, was made ever more intoxicating by the wide fields of Japanese cultural references to draw upon along with the indeterminacy of ritual contexts e.g. cherry blossoms, the symbolic rising sun or samurai paraphernalia. The final act of the tokkōtai martyr being the ultimate ritual in both respect paid to ancestors and in becoming ancestor. Ohnuki-Tierney has coined this phenomenon “méconnaissance”6 where “the use of non-discursive symbols and ritual contexts increase the likelihood of the absence of communication”, a sort of “talking past each other”7. The “shared field of meaning” doesn’t guarantee “an abstract set of meanings frozen in culture nor a linear progression through time from one meaning to the next.”8. This can be demonstrated within the ideological context of the tokkōtai. “Sange” derived from a Buddist term for the practice of scattering flower petals in praise of the Buddah in a ritual called “Shika hoyo” was co-opted to aestheticise the falling soldiers as cherry petals9. Pulling the original meaning away from uninstrumental religiosity and graduating it’s familiarity into an ideological context which could be utilised in organisational ends.

Japan, like much of Europe before centralisation in modern nation states, had been fractured among various nobilities. Although admittedly in a state of ubiquitous war, the historical Japanese culture goes far beyond total devotion to war efforts. As far back as the Nanboku-chō period (1336-92) displays of culture were important in displaying strength. Military might (bu) had to be complemented with “culture” (bun, “refined learning”) for success in both upper-class and aristocratic life. Far from hermetically sealed, the Japanese have not consistently been as closed-off as the historical narrative tells. Chinese literature was of primary influence and a famous cherry blossom viewing (a later symbol of radical Japanese nationalism) by the daimyō Toyotomi Hideyoshi had the attending feudal lords “ordered” to wear the most fashionable attire of the time, which was Portuguese10. I am not putting these historical facts forward, like most cosmopolitan ‘historians’, as some sort of justification for globalism normatively in virtue of being a sort of historical norm (falling afoul of a historical variant of the naturalistic fallacy). But only to make it clear that ideologies, which are instances of explicit values, are ‘half-truths’ based on some human prejudice of reality. Serving a necessary place in our heuristic understanding of the sprawling world as it is seen from our finite embodied context. The narrative explicit value overlay which guides our finite and implicit actions.

To reiterate, ideological explicit values are guides and do not determine the way we explicitly think, even though structures such as the nation state can have a determining effect on our implicit action. Although the cherry-blossom was used as a state-sanctioned metaphor for human sacrifice it was adopted by various tokkōtai throughout their dairies and poetical writings in metaphors of calm and peace, in contrast to the reality they found themselves within11.

  1. Although known colloquially in Western culture as “kamikaze” (“divine wind”), particularly within the anglophone context, this term only denotes the tokkōtai aircraft however (submarine torpedoes and boats filled with explosives were also used).
  2. Ohnuki-Tierney, E., 2010. Kamikaze, cherry blossoms, and nationalisms: The militarization of aesthetics in Japanese history. University of Chicago Press, p.83
  3. Nitobe, I., 1911. Bushido: the soul of Japan. Teibi publishing company, p.3
  4. Interestingly, considering the hijacking of his study for aggressive nationalist purposes, a diplomat of the ultimately impotent League of Nations
  5. Langer, S.K., 1951. Philosophy in a new key (1942). New York: New American Library.
  6. Literal translation “ignorance”
  7. Ohnuki-Tierney, E., 2010. Kamikaze, cherry blossoms, and nationalisms: The militarization of aesthetics in Japanese history. University of Chicago Press, p.281
  8. Ibid. p.283
  9. Ibid. p.111
  10. Ibid. p.34
  11. Ibid. p.283
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