The Spirit of Sakura

posted by Kaihsu Tai on April 25th, 2007

Author’s note: This is an essay I wrote in 1996 for the late Dr. Peter Fay‘s class, Hum 9a, at Caltech; transcribed with corrections in 2001. [Editor’s note: Hiroshima is the subject of a chapter in David Griffith’s A Good War Is Hard to Find, which we’ve been discussing here. Here are more of Griffith’s reflections on the subject.]

I come from Taiwan, or Takasago, as one would call it back in the days of colonization under the Empire of Japan before the end of World War 2. Taiwanese people who are of my grandmother’s generation were educated to be Japanese; for example, the late pastor of my church, like many Taiwanese who were drafted by the Imperial Armed Forces at that time, was to be one of the kamikaze, the suicide pilots who were crashing their fighters into the carriers of the Allies. People of that age often talk to us about the times of the Japanese occupation and the Pacific War. Although they resented the unnecessary War they had to fight and complain about the occasional cruelty of the Japanese, they described the Japanese rule as a period of order and stability, in which even during the extreme of hardship near the end of the War, rarely did riots arise and corruption of the administration were unusual. It seemed that everyone in the neighborhood cooperated to remain organized for the War. I always wonder how this kind of disciplined behavior was attained.

After reading John Hersey’s Hiroshima, I think I know a bit more about the way of the Japanese. Although the emblem of the Japanese Empire is the glorious chrysanthemum signifying the Royal Family, common people refer to themselves as sakura, the cherry blossoms, which bloom brilliantly in the spring for a very short time, usually only a few days, and then fall to the ground. A respectful Japanese is one that suffers tragically, or even sacrifices oneself, for the cause of the greater organization (e.g., the Empire, or, as is observed in the modern, post-War society Japan, the kaisha, the Japanese idea of the “firm”), just like the sakura flowers. Any performance less than this is considered a shame in the Japanese mind.

In Hiroshima, one of the parishioners Father Kleinsorge was taking care of, Fukai-san, refused to be rescued from the fire caused by the atomic bomb explosion, and insisted on staying at the site. “Leave me here to die.” (p. 27 ff.). After some more ado on the part of Kleinsorge to carry the reluctant Fukai-san out of the fire, he still ran back to it. Hersey wrote: “the last the priests could see of him, he was running back toward the fire.” I could almost see that, if the book Hiroshima is ever to be made into a movie, at this point, thousands of sakura petals would be falling down behind the running Fukai-san, paying tribute to his tragic death. Although this scene might be absurd in the sterile ruins of post-atomic Hiroshima, it is metaphorically appropriate in the Japanese mind, and a familiar ending scene in many Japanese tragedies.

A story in the Reverend Tanimoto’s letter to his American friend also gives us some insight into this Japanese way of thinking. Dr. Y. Hiraiwa of Hiroshima University of Literature and Science, and his son, a student at Tokyo University, were buried under their burning two-story house and could not move even a few centimeters. The son thought they were going to die anyway and suggested that they make up their mind up to consecrate their lives for the country”, and they gave Banzai, the Japanese way of paying homage, to Tenno, the Japanese Emperor, “Tenno-heika, Banzai, Banzai, Banzai!” (“Your Majesty the Emperor, ten thousand years of longevity!”) Tanimoto then quoted the later-rescued Dr. Hiraiwa, “Strange to say, I felt calm and bright and had a peaceful spirit in my heart, when I chanted Banzai to Tenno.” “What a fortune that we are Japanese! It was my first time I ever tasted such a beautiful spirit when I decided to die for our Emperor.”

The pastor then recorded another incident: While the bomb
exploded, a heavy fence fell upon a few girls from the high school
Hiroshima Jazabuin. They could not move and the smoke was choking them to death. “One of the girls began to sing Kimi ga yo, the national anthem, and others followed in chorus and died.” To these incidents, the Reverend commented, “Yes, people of Hiroshima died manly in the atomic bombing, believing that it was for the Emperor’s sake.” This is probably why Father Takakura (formerly Kleinsorge) said, “If a Japanese hears the word ‘tenno heika’ [His Majesty the Emperor], it is different from a Westerner hearing them — a very different feeling in the foreigner’s heart from what is felt in the Japanese person’s heart.”

Once the people associated their death to the Tenno and the Empire, either by giving Banzai to the Emperor or singing Kimi ga yo, death seemed to be only a sacrifice for the greater organization to survive, and did not seem to be so formidable anymore, for the Empire would appreciate their death as a tree would value the falling of its petals. Thus a Japanese death, when connected with submission to the larger entity, transformed into a beautiful blossom of sakura.

Petals fall every so often, and when they fall, they do it without a noise. Japanese also die when they are supposed to, without questioning why, without crying in pain. Tanimoto noted, as many others also did, that he “never heard anyone cried in disorder, even though they suffered in great agony.” The people who were dying, “died in silence, with no grudge, setting their teeth to bear it. All for the country!” Mrs. Nakamura thought about the bomb, and the consequent deaths and suffering as a historical inevitability, “It was war and we had to expect it.” She would then add, “Shikata ga nai,” which approximately meant, “It can’t be helped”. Hersey took this to mean that she saw the bomb as “a natural disaster — one that had simply been her bad luck, her fate (which must be accepted), to suffer.” The account of the bombing by Toshio, the then ten-year-old son of Mrs. Nakamura, was surprisingly matter-of-fact, as if the bomb were just as common an event as a visit to a zoo: “In the morning, I was eating peanuts. I saw a light. I was knocked to little sister’s sleeping place. … We went to the park. A whirlwind came. At night a gas tank burned and I saw the reflection in the river. … [His friend] Kikumi’s mother was wounded and [his friend] Murakami’s mother, alas was dead.” Indeed, Japanese see death as much a biological inevitability as life, comparable to familiar facts such as flowers falling from a tree.

This glorification of sacrifice encouraged the Japanese people to dedicate themselves to one another and to the organization to which they belong, even at the expense of great pain on their own part. Hersey used a peculiar phrase, when he described Dr. Sasaki’s response during the explosion of the atomic bomb, to express the extra bravery due to this sort of encouragement: “He ducked down on one knee and said to himself, as only a Japanese would [emphasis mine], ‘Sasaki, gambare! Be brave!'” Even Father Takakura, a German converted Japanese, “had taken on this Japanese spirit of enryo — setting the self apart, putting the wishes of others first”, and was considered by his German colleagues to be too rüsksichtsvoll, too regardful.

After the bombing, pastor Tanimoto experienced two times the Japanese shame of being a survivor. The first time he was running back to inner Hiroshima, hoping to meet his family. There were people trapped by the ruins screaming for help, and the heavily wounded limped toward the outskirts of the city, as the Reverend ran past them. “As a Christian he was filled with compassion for those who were trapped, and as a Japanese he was overwhelmed by the shame of being unhurt, and he prayed as he ran, ‘God help them and take them out of the fire.'” The second time was a few days later, as he went back to rest after helping some heavily wounded: “he tripped over someone, and someone else said angrily, ‘Look out! That’s my hand!’ Mr. Tanimoto … [was] ashamed hurting wounded people, [and] embarrassed at being able to walk upright….” Probably because of this sense of shame, the Japanese do not use the term “survivors” to refer to those who went through the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, but instead used a more neutral term, “hibakusha”, or “explosion-affected persons”. This same sense of shame might also be the factor that caused Fukai-san to run back to the fire and the Navy man to commit suicide (p. 16). In the Japanese mind, surviving a disaster is like resisting the destiny, which is in turn against the spirit of sakura.

The spirit of sakura, the cherry blossoms, entails the Japanese virtue of self-sacrifice of individuals for the benefit of the higher organization, the glorification of such tragic but heroic sacrifice, the justification of the inevitability of death and suffering, and the shame which will be a burden on the shoulders of anyone unable to achieve such goal when the circumstance requires. This is a spirit deeply rooted in the Japanese culture and dictates the behavior of the Japanese people.

Dr. Fay’s comments (excerpt): Very interesting. You bring to your topic a most illuminating personal background.

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One Comment

  1. On April 26, 2007 at 19:57 Donald E. Bell said:

    Domo arigato gosaimasu, Kaisu Tai sama,
    “HIROSHIMA” was my introduction to Japanese, people, culture, giri. John Hersey captured it all. My experiences as a U. S. Army medic stationed in Tokyo, Japan during the Viet Nam war proved the spirit and the character of the Japanese people to be EXACTLY that which you have captured in your paper.
    My wife is Japanese and we have two daughters, one of who I named SAKURA.
    Thank you very much.
    Sincerely, Donald E. Bell