Emperor Meiji
Emperor Meiji; drawing by David Levine


Imagine what it must have been like to be squeezed into a human torpedo loaded with three thousand pounds of TNT, or into the cockpit of a flying bomb, and crash into a ship at six hundred mph, if one is lucky, or suffocate slowly inside a tight steel coffin if the target has been missed. As a military tactic adopted by the Japanese at the end of 1944, suicide bombing did considerable damage to the US Navy. Ships were sunk; many Americans lost their lives. And the attacks left a terrible mess. A witness recalls:

After the sailors had thrown overboard the hunks of metal that remained from the attacking planes, they began hosing down the decks, and soon the water was red with blood. Here and there they found shreds of flesh and other remains from the bodies of the Japanese pilots—tongues, tufts of black hair, a brain, some arms, a leg. One sailor triumphantly hacked off a finger and removed a ring. Before long the decks were clear.1

But suicide bombing, horrible as it was, did nothing to stave off Japanese defeat. Perhaps it wasn’t really meant to. It was more like a deadly theatrical gesture, a horrendous face-saving device, aimed at the Japanese themselves more than their enemies. Vice Admiral Onishi Takijiro, who intro-duced this practice, admitted as much to the first kamikaze unit in 1944. He said: “Even if we are defeated, the noble spirit of the kamikaze attack corps will keep our homeland from ruin. Without this spirit, ruin would certainly follow defeat.”2 Onishi committed suicide the day after Japan surrendered. But his message resonates even now at kamikaze memorial museums in Japan, where schoolchildren are still told that the young suicide pilots sacrificed their lives for the peace and prosperity of future generations.

Who were these young men who volunteered, sometimes but not always under considerable pressure, to die in this ghastly manner? On the surface, the kamikazes, or Special Attack Forces (Tokkotai), bore a certain resemblance to suicide bombers today, even though they never targeted civilians—a considerable difference. Their public declarations about purity, noble sacrifice, and the conviction of a heroic afterlife suggest a similar kind of religious zeal. And they were dying for a country that was fighting a war against the West, not only for economic or political reasons but, according to Japanese propaganda, for spiritual and cultural reasons too.

In fact, however, a closer look at the Tokkotai turns some currently received views of suicide tactics upside down. Suicide bombing, in Palestine, Israel, or New York, is often seen as an act of desperation, bred from oppression (by Israel, US imperialism, corporate globalization, or whatnot), but also from ignorance and the humiliating failure of Muslim societies to adapt to modern civilization, that is, the scientific, secular, universalist, post-Enlightenment civilization, usually described as Western. The implication of this view is that suicide bombing is an atavistic act typical of a pre-modern society.

The kamikaze pilots may have been at war with the West, but despite their frequent references to ancient Japa-nese traditions, the samurai spirit and all that, they were in fact typical products of modern civilization, and as steeped in European and American culture as educated Westerners of their class and age, perhaps even more so. Some of them were Christians. Not just that, but the nation they chose to die for had been, for at least half a century, a model of modern development, much of it diligently copied from the West.

It is of course possible that the Western-style modernity of twentieth-century Japan and its brightest young men was just veneer, a phony piece of mimicry with no authenticity or substance. Perhaps a fanatical samurai, in thrall to ancient codes and fierce ancestral gods, was always ready to jump out from under the polished surface of every graduate of Tokyo Imperial University. But I rather doubt that things were so simple. Consider Sasaki Hachiro, one of the student suicide pilots featured in Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney’s important new book. Like many Tokkotai volunteers he was a student at one of Japan’s top two universities: Tokyo Imperial University (the other was Kyoto Imperial University). It was also typical that he was a humanities student. Engineers and the like were deemed to be less expendable in a country at war and thus not asked to volunteer for an early death.

Sasaki was a keen reader of, among others, Engels, Marx, Schopenhauer, Bentham, Mill, Rousseau, Plato, Fichte, Carlyle, Tolstoy, Romain Rolland, Erich Maria Remarque, Weber, Chekhov, Wilde, Mann, Goethe, Shakespeare, Tanizaki, Kawabata, and Natsume Soseki. This short list was not unusual for a Tokkotai. Ohnuki-Tierney mentions a suicide pilot who read not only as widely, but in English, French, German, Italian, and Sanskrit too. Others wrote their wills in French and German. Certain authors—Heidegger, Fichte, Hesse—come up in most of the young pilots’ reading lists, which reveal a common taste for German idealism. Death, for obvious reasons, is a much-quoted subject in Tokkotai diaries and letters, hence the interest in Kierkegaard and Socrates. And Goethe’s Faust, too, was much read.


Far from being a fanatical militarist, Sasaki had been against the war from the beginning, and deplored the vulgar gloating over Japanese victories in China. Nor was he taken in by emperor worship, which official propaganda had whipped into a frenzied national cult. But he was an idealist and a patriot. What makes his and other cases analyzed by Ohnuki-Tierney so fascinating is that the romantic patriotism of these Japanese warriors in the last ditch was filtered through and often expressed in the language of Western thinkers.

Sasaki, like some other Tokkotai, considered himself a Marxist. Although he was appalled by the Japanese war in China, he thought the war against the US and Britain was justified, because they were the homelands of evil capitalism. Japan, too, of course, had been infected by the capitalist poison. He wrote:

If the power of old capitalism is something we cannot get rid of easily but if it can be crushed by defeat in war, we are turning the disaster into a fortunate event. We are now searching for something like a phoenix which rises out of ashes.

Sacrificing his life, then, was a way to save his country, a show of spiritual purity that would usher in a better, more equitable world. Such a spiritual task could not be left to ignorant soldiers. It had to be done by the best students.

Ohnuki-Tierney shows how common this kind of thinking was among the Tokkotai. She argues that military authorities had deliberately exploited the youthful idealism of these elite students. This is no doubt true, but the speech by Vice Admiral Onishi in 1944 suggests that at least some of the military officers shared their idealism. Marx is unlikely to have been the vice admiral’s bedside reading, but his view that only a show of sacrificial spirit would save Japan from ruin was no different from Sasaki’s. And right-wing nationalists were as anticapitalist as the Marxist intellectuals, which is why some Marxists found a niche in the Japanese empire, especially in Manchukuo, the puppet state in northeastern China.

The symbolism surrounding the Tokkotai was not all European, of course. The short-lived beauty of the cherry blossom is an ancient symbol of evanescence, though not, as Ohnuki-Tierney rightly observes, of military self-sacrifice. So the suicide planes were called oka, or cherry blossoms. And the suicide pilots had cherry blossoms pinned onto their uniforms. Before their final sorties, Tokkotai would often sing a song set to an eighth-century poem, which went:

In the sea, water-logged corpses,
In the mountains those corpses with grasses growing on them
But my desire to die next to our emperor unflinching.
I shall not look back.

The idealization of early death and self-sacrifice is present in many, perhaps in most cultures. In the history of Islam, it belongs to a rebellious tradition, of assassins and purist sects. This is true, to some extent, in Japan as well. Suicidal last stands are associated with reactionary lost causes and sincere rebels. The much-cited hero of many Tokkotai was a fourteenth-century samurai named Kusunoki Masashige, who committed suicide after losing a battle for the old imperial dynasty against a new, more vigorous regime. Another heroic model was Saigo Takamori, the champion of samurai values in a rapidly Westernizing society, who led a hopeless rebellion in 1877 against the Meiji government, and then killed himself. His followers—samurai who had lost their old privileges in the modern state—marched to their deaths singing the following words (translated by Donald Keene):

We’ve reached a point we can take no more
We warriors can only do our utmost
To save tens of thousands of people,
Today our last, on the road to the other world.

What all these heroic last stands have in common is a romantic ideal of recovering ancient purity from modern corruption. In the same song, quoted above, Saigo’s samurai reviled the traitors who “sold our country to the dirty foreigners.” This is not a uniquely Japanese idea. In line with a number of fashionable modern theorists, whose words she is much too fond of quoting (with such fascinating material at hand, why drag in Pierre Bourdieu at every opportunity?), Ohnuki-Tierney points out, over and over, how the Tok- kotai symbols, the cherry blossom, the hero worship, the cult of self-sacrifice, the beauty of violent death, and so on, are all modern constructs and distortions. True enough. But that is in the nature of all culture, modern or not. To think otherwise is to assume the existence of some untouched source of purity. For a modern construct to be convincing, there has to be something in the history of a culture to exploit.


The culture that produced Sasaki and his fellow Tokkotai was a fusion of Japanese, Chinese, and Western ideas and aesthetics. One cannot usefully disentangle them to identify the purely native from the foreign, even though nativists still claim that they can. Nor can we take Tokkotai references to Japanese traditions at face value, for such references were often compulsory. The wills of many Japanese were couched in heroic cherry-blossom phrases. But as one Tokkotai, quoted by Ohnuki-Tierney, put it in a letter home: “Of course, we could not say what we really thought and felt. So we had to lie. It was taboo to express our true thoughts….”

Who knows whether Marx or Socrates were bigger influences on Tokkotai than Saigo Takamori, but the extraordinary fusion of East and West, which shaped the culture of modern Japan, produced one of the most sophisticated, economically successful, artistically rich countries in the modern world. The question is how all this creative energy turned into such an orgy of self-destruction. Possible answers must lie somewhere in the story of Japan’s effort to adopt the “civilization and enlightenment” of the modern West, the story of the Meiji Emperor’s Japan.


The Meiji Emperor, known to foreigners as Emperor Mutsuhito, was only fifteen when he was suddenly plucked, in 1868, from the cloistered world of the imperial court in Kyoto to become the central figure of the new Japanese state. This is what he looked like then, in the description of an English interpreter, quoted in Donald Keene’s book about the emperor:

He was dressed in a white coat with long padded trousers of crimson silk trailing like a lady’s court-train…. His eyebrows were shaved off and painted in high up on the forehead; his cheeks were rouged and his lips painted red and gold. His teeth were blackened.

But in 1871, a mere three years later, he was shaking hands with foreign dignitaries at Western banquets in Tokyo. Soon after that he had an elaborate Western-style uniform designed for himself. He even remembered to adopt that peculiar foreign custom of smiling in public—with foreigners, of course, never with Japanese.

Keene does a heroic job of painting a personal picture of the Meiji Emperor, which is an impossible task. Even after seven hundred–odd pages, we don’t really know what he was like, apart from the fact that he drank too much, liked the company of concubines, was a stickler for detail, and, like Neville Chamberlain, disliked meeting foreigners but was unfailingly polite to them. Keene depends a great deal on a multivolume court chronicle, the Meiji tenno ki, which is a dubious source of veracity. No doubt, as Keene points out, Japanese men cried a lot more in those days, but the number of times the nobility of the emperor’s character reduces courtiers and politicians to tears must surely be an exaggeration.

Keene’s book, however, is also about Meiji’s world, and specifically about the astonishing band of provincial samurai, later known as the oligarchs, who engineered the Meiji Restoration of 1868, and built the modern Japanese state. Such men as Ito Hirobumi, Yamagata Aritomo, and Matsukata Masayoshi, all of whom served as prime minister, were the architects of Japan’s new central government, the constitution, the modern armed forces, the education system, and much else that went with bunmei kaika (civilization and enlightenment). The other slogan of the time was fukoku kyohei (rich country, strong army). The two slogans were, of course, conceptually linked.

One of the interesting aspects of Keene’s book, which is stronger on description than on original ideas (and those descriptions of court protocol can be tedious), is the emperor’s personal involvement in political affairs. The privy council, which Ito presided over for some time, was one of the most powerful ruling institutions. Like his grandson, Hirohito, the emperor dutifully attended its meetings, and was directly involved in the appointment of his government ministers.

But his main significance was still symbolic, as a constitutional monarch and a sacred figure, half kaiser and half pope with bloodlines that supposedly went back to the Sun Goddess. The imperial institution was the national church, as it were, which gave religious sanction to the political arrangements of his time. The emperor personified the nature of the modern Japanese state: hence his interest in military matters, the quasi-traditional Shintoist mystique, and the speedy costume change from ancient Japa-nese court dress to a Western-style uniform. His Western style was meant to convey to the world the progressive, modern nature of the Japanese state. The Japanese tradition, tailored for this purpose, was meant to give the Japanese a sense of reverence and continuity in a world of lightning change.

Ohnuki-Tierney calls the Meiji oligarchs “intellectual cosmopolitans” who built the Japanese state as a fortress against Western colonialism. This is a fair way of putting it. Ito Hirobumi and his colleagues, including the very conservative Yamagata Aritomo, were passionately interested in Western ideas. They traveled to Europe and the United States, shopping around for models of the ideal modern state. The Meiji constitution was modeled after the Prussian one, though an article was added about the “sacred and inviolable” nature of the emperor. The armed forces followed French and British examples. Education was organized along French lines. And from elementary schools to the top universities, the doors had been opened wide to all manner of European and American influences.

Keene describes a visit of the emperor to a rural elementary school in 1876. The emperor, whose education included a close reading of Samuel Smiles’s Self-Help, was nonetheless taken aback when he heard Japanese schoolchildren recite Andrew Jackson’s speech to the Senate and Cicero’s attack on Cataline. In just the same way, many conservatives were annoyed when the Japanese elite held fancy dress balls for foreign guests. The idea of Ito Hirobumi dancing polkas and waltzes dressed up as a Venetian was not universally approved of, even if, like the adoption by educated Meiji men of Western clothes, it was meant to show foreigners that Japan was a serious modern country, worthy of their respect.

Alas, however, for the more liberal and pacific-minded Japanese, the quickest way to gain respect for a modern nation in the late nineteenth century and to stave off Western colonialism was to win wars and build an empire of its own. Here, too, Meiji Japan was amazingly successful. In 1895, the Japanese army, though vastly outnumbered, managed to humiliate China, and acquired Taiwan as its first colonial spoil. Even more astonishingly, in 1905, Japan became the first modern Asian state to win a war against a European power, imperial Russia.

The Sino-Japanese War in particular was seen by most Japanese, even the liberals, as a blow for progress against a backward, decadent nation. Popular woodblock prints of the war show the Japanese as long-legged, pale- skinned heroes, and the Chinese as pig- tailed little yellow men. Keene quotes Uchimura Kanzo, a free-thinking Christian, who later became a pacifist and bravely defied the excesses of Japanese emperor worship: “Japan is the champion of Progress in the East, and who, except her deadly foe, China—the incorrigible hater of Progress—wishes not victory for Japan!” The racist contempt for Chinese and other Asians, later to explode in such atrocities as the Rape of Nanking, began at this time, in the name of progress, civilization, and enlightenment.

It was not entirely by chance that Japan’s victory over Russia should have coincided with the British agreement to finally end its extraterritorial privileges in Japan. The “plucky Japanese” were enormously admired for their military prowess, not only in Britain, but in the US. President Theodore Roosevelt said he was absolutely “pro-Japanese,” because Japan was fighting for civilization. Victory in 1905 prepared the way for Japan’s gradual colonization of Korea. This, too, was done in the spirit of progress. It was Japan’s duty, after all, as the most advanced Asian nation, to benefit its backward neighbors with the firm smack of discipline.

At home, in Emperor Meiji’s Japan, progress was more open to question. Even though Japanese authorities (following the Chinese example) had done their best since the mid-nineteenth century to reserve “Western learning” for purely practical matters, such as building guns and battleships, and to preserve Sino-Japanese thought for ethics, morality, and social order, this didn’t really work. With Western ideas came demands for more democracy and civil rights. Exposure to European literature and philosophy encouraged individualism, and a different perspective on sex and romantic love. Industrialization brought millions of rural people to the cities and changed social relations in the countryside. Political parties were formed. Critical journalism started to appear. And a national movement for civil rights began to spread fast.

By 1890 the forms of parliamentary democracy had been adopted as another badge of modern progress, like colonialism abroad. But all this made the Meiji oligarchs nervous. Their worry was how to control the forces they had unleashed, how to create a modern nation, without being hindered by the “selfish” interests of party politicians or the subversive influence of socialists and other dissenters. Even Ito Hirobumi, a relative liberal among his peers, was dismayed by what he saw as the unruliness of American and British politics. French republicanism was hardly a suitable example either. The newly unified German state, held together by a strong monarchy, authoritarian government, military discipline, and mystical ethnic nationalism, was by far the most congenial model.

Ito Hirobumi rather fancied himself as the Japanese Bismarck, and was impressed by such Prussian jurists as Rudolf von Gneist and Lorentz von Stein. What emerged was a German-Japanese concoction in which von Stein and others had a hand. The following words by Ito, quoted by Ohnuki-Tierney, go to the heart of the matter:

Under the great teachers, Gneist and Stein, I have come to understand how to conceptualize the basic structure of the nation. The cardinal point is to strengthen the imperial foundation and safeguard his sovereignty as indissoluble. There is a tendency now [in Japan] to regard the writings of radical liberals in England, the United States and France as the golden threads, but they will lead our country to decline.

It was von Stein who advised the Japanese to make Shinto into a national religion, which would supply the reverential ceremonies of the imperial court and hold the nation together. Where such ceremonies didn’t exist, they were invented. This was not so different from Victorian England. But the mixture of Teutonic legalism and Japanese nativism laid the foundation for an authoritarian, militarist state, whose highest authorities became almost impossible to challenge, because their decisions were wrapped in the priestly mantle of divine kingship.

Keene mentions, rather summarily, the two imperial rescripts, or decrees, that had a particularly disastrous effect on Japanese politics until the very end of World War II. First, in 1882, came the Imperial Rescript to Soldiers, drawn up by the architect of the modern armed forces, Yamagata Aritomo. The idea was to remove soldiers from politics. Their loyalty was not to the civilian government, but to the emperor, their “supreme Commander-in-Chief.” They were his “limbs” and he was their “head.” It went on:

Do not be beguiled by popular opinions, do not get involved in political activities, but singularly devote yourself to your most important obligation of loyalty to the emperor, and realize that the obligation is heavier than the mountains but death is lighter than a feather.

This was one of the pillars of the Meiji state. It took the traditional loyalty of samurai to their feudal lords and focused it on the emperor alone. The rescript made the duty to sacrifice one’s life for the emperor official. Designed to take the military out of political affairs, it actually introduced a dangerous political element. For if a soldier’s loyalty was solely to his commander in chief, then it was legitimate to rebel against civilian politicians who were seen as a threat to his divine authority. This would lend justification to all kinds of coups d’état and assassinations by military fanatics, especially in the turbulent 1930s.

While the unofficial coups, led by middle-ranking army hotheads, were crushed by the authorities, top military officials also used imperial propaganda first to undermine and then to destroy the authority of civilian politicians. By 1932, political parties were excluded from the cabinet, and military decisions were taken by a Supreme War Council, made up entirely of military figures. By the late 1930s, the Japanese Imperial Army was ready to carry out its version of the emperor’s will and gather China and eventually the rest of Asia under one imperial roof.

The second Imperial Rescript, on education, was handed down by the emperor in 1890. Much discussion among the oligarchs and their advisers had preceded it. All were united in the worry that Westernization had gone too far, or at least had to be countered by an official dose of traditional morality. Some stressed the importance of Shinto, others, including the emperor himself, of Confucianism. The rescript begins with a solemn statement about the founding of the empire by “Our Imperial Ancestors,” and goes on to say that loyalty and filial piety of the emperor’s subjects are the unique characteristics of his empire. In the neo-Confucian tradition, people are taught to obey their fathers and social superiors. The Meiji Emperor’s subjects were told to “offer [themselves] courageously to the State; and thus guard and maintain the prosperity of Our Imperial throne coeval with Heaven and Earth.”

Nationalism, then, based on neo-Confucian notions of obedience and Shintoist ideas of ancestral purity, was the basis of modern Japanese education. All Japanese were expected to bow to copies of the rescript, which was treated, quite literally, as holy writ. Again, there were elements of this kind of thing in European monarchies too, but Meiji nationalism was designed to destroy the substance of democratic politics with cultural propaganda. Instead of the legitimate contest among different political interests, the Japanese political space was filled with exhortations to be loyal, united, and obedient, and, above all, to worship the emperor.

If the emperor had actually been an absolute monarch or a military dictator, the system would at least have been coherent, but the Meiji constitution was vague about political authority. The emperor was invested with absolute sovereignty without clearly defined government powers. The famous political theorist Maruyama Masao later characterized the Japa-nese emperor as a sacred shrine carried on the shoulders of the men who ruled in his name. This worked quite well under the Meiji oligarchs, because they at least knew where they were heading, and had the authority to keep the turf battles of court, parliament, and the armed forces under control. After they passed from the scene, no one inherited their authority, and these institutions were at each other’s throats most of the time. Once the imperial shrine had been hijacked by military leaders in the 1930s, it ran amok without anyone being able to stop it.

Keene concludes his mammoth study by stating: “Emperor Meiji definitely left behind the footprints of a great monarch.” Well yes, perhaps. But he also left behind an important lesson for developing societies. Contemporary China springs to mind. It is dangerous to modernize economic and military institutions without political reforms that lead to genuine popular sovereignty. Westernization without guarantees of political freedom makes no sense.

The great Meiji novelist Natsume Soseki warned his countrymen that the combination of nationalism and slavish imitation of the West would lead to a national nervous breakdown. He was not far wrong. The effect of Japan’s particularly virulent brand of authoritarian modernism was especially hard on the educated young. Their heads filled with Marx, Kierkegaard, and imperial propaganda, they were confused about their proper role in a quasi-totalitarian society. Where was a bright idealistic graduate of Tokyo Imperial University to turn when his country took on the world in the 1940s? He could become an extreme nationalist, a Communist martyr, or he could go down in flames as a human bomb, hoping his spirit would save the nation. So we should pity the poor Tokkotai. Their likes will not be seen again. For they were the last representatives of the very best of Meiji, and the modern empire’s final sacrificial victims.

This Issue

November 21, 2002