Cherry Bombs: The Darker Side of Sakura in Japan


Ah, Gods of the Flaming Arrow ~ Title of a poem written in memory of the Jinrai Special Attack Corps as published in Asahi Shimbun, June 5, 1945

I’ve written previously about the happy history, immense popularity and deep symbolism of cherry blossoms threaded through the fabric of Japanese culture. In modern times, sakura are cause for celebration, exactly because of their beautifully ephemeral nature (see Budding Beliefs for more).

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However, there’s a darker side to this story embedded in recent Japanese history. During World War II, the historically rich history and moving symbolism of the cherry blossom was used as a propaganda tool with aims of not just stoking nationalism and militarism among the populace, but helping to motivate the Japanese people (and others such as the Okinawans) to sacrifice their very lives for country and emperor.

Japanese Military with Sakura

Japanese Military with Sakura

In the long lead-up to the Japanese war of imperial conquest and expansionism, sakura were used as hype to inspire “Japanese spirit” by exulting citizens to be “ready like the myriad cherry blossoms to scatter.” In other words, be ready to die. In the 1930s, poetry based around the symbolism of the sakura urged Japanese soldiers to endure sufferings as they themselves committed the most terrible atrocities in China (see the movie Flowers of War to see and feel just how bad the then Imperial Japanese could be, and read about other atrocities committed by Japan in Asian in The Railway Man and Nuking Japan), comparing their dead comrades to beautiful but short-lived cherry blossoms. During the war, Imperial Japan often planted cherry trees as a means of visually and symbolically claiming occupied territory as Japanese.

Japanese school girls waving sakura at a departing Kamikaze

Japanese school girls waving sakura at a departing Kamikaze

Such mysticism seems to have taken root in that war-mongering version of Nippon. In the fall of 1944, Japanese senior military leaders pleaded that, during the Battle for Leyte Gulf, the Navy be permitted to “bloom as flowers of death.” The last message of the surrounded Japanese forces on Peleliu before they were annihilated was “Sakura, Sakura.”

Note the Cherry Blossom Nose Art

Note the Cherry Blossom Nose Art

Pic44Japanese Kamikaze pilots would paint sakura on the sides of their planes before embarking on suicide missions, and even took branches of such trees with them on their fools’ errand. In Japan’s resulting desperation after facing their impending wholesale defeat in 1945, falling cherry blossom petals came to represent the sacrifice of the country’s youth, woman and old men in suicide attacks…all in honor of their god-like emperor. The government even encouraged the Japanese people to believe that the souls of downed warriors were reincarnated in the blossoms found throughout Japan.

The "Baka Bomb"

The “Baka Bomb”

Ohka's Basic Cockpit

Ohka’s Basic Cockpit

Taken this idea to its ultimate extreme, the Japanese embarked on designing and producing large numbers of disastrous suicide missiles. The Yokosuka-made MXY-7 Ohka (桜花 Ōka, “cherry blossom”) was a purpose-built, rocket powered human-guided anti-shipping kamikaze attack plane employed by Japan towards the end of World War II. American sailors and GIs were quick to give it the exceedingly fitting nickname “Baka” (or “Baka-bomb), Japanese for “fool” or “idiot.”

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I’ve always been confused about the naming of the Ohka suicide plane. They are referred to as “cherry blossom,” but in Japanese that word is sakura. In terms of written languages, kanji, the intricate characters that seem impossible to draw let alone learn to read, are shared between Japan and China. Thus, Japanese kanji characters have more than one reading – one in Japanese and one in Chinese. Sakura is the Japanese reading of the kanji 桜, but in Chinese it is pronounced as “ou” or “oh.” Likewise, the Japanese reading of 花, “hana,” is pronounced in Chinese as “ka.” This character means flower, bloom or blossom or both languages. Thus, “cherry blossom” in Chinese is written as 桜花 and holds the same meaning in Japanese. The pronunciation just happens to be different. Turns out the Ohka is named correctly…if you’re Chinese. I have yet to find a credible explanation of why the Chinese name, when it seems that the Japanese despised the Chinese of the time….

An Ohka Carried under a Betty Bomber

An Ohka Carried under a Betty Bomber

kamikaze_betty_ohkaThe Ohka was necessarily carried underneath a mothership, usually a twin-engined Mitsubishi G4M2e “Betty” bomber, since it had to be carried within range of American shipping. However, a catapult-launched version was being prepared to be located in caves and shelters all along potential invasion beaches of Kyushu and Honshu, while a submarine-launched version was also in-work to provide a suicidal layered defense of the homeland (proper).

Massive 2,500+ Pound Warhead

Massive 2,500+ Pound Warhead

The only operational Ohka was the Model 11. Essentially a 2,646 pound bomb with wooden wings and a tail, the craft was powered by three Type 4 Model 1 Mark 20 solid-fuel rocket motors which allowed the missile to attain very high speed but with very limited range. The slow, heavily laden mothership needed to carry the missile within 23-25 miles of potential targets made the coupled pair extremely vulnerable to defending allied fighters. On release, the pilot would first glide towards the target, and when close enough, would fire the Ohka ’s three solid-fuel rockets, one at a time or in unison. The “pilot” would fly the missile using conventional aircraft controls all the way to impact against the ship intended for destruction.

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The manned-missile’s terminal approach to its target was almost unstoppable due to its excessively high speed, in excess of 400 mph in level flight and up to an unseen and almost unbelievable-for-the-time 620 mph in its terminal dive. This diving velocity was almost 200 mph faster than the fastest conventional fighters which saw action in the Pacific (the German Me-262 jet fighter had similar performance but was only seen defending Germany in 1945). From combat records, Ohkas struck less than ten American warships (although never a capital ship), sinking one American destroyer and damaging beyond repair three other ships.

A Betty Carrying an Ohka goes Down in Flames

A Betty Carrying an Ohka goes Down in Flames

During the Battle of Okinawa these perverse weapons – the Ohka specifically – achieved little success, given the sacrifice suffered: out of 185 total planes used in Ohka attacks, 118 were destroyed, taking the lives of 438 persons, including 56 suicide pilots and 372 mother-plane crew members.

Kadena AFB WWII Shelter

Kadena AFB WWII Shelter

Okinawa Battlesites 2015, Baka Bomb hangars, historical marker on KAB WM-1But their presence is still darkens the mood of a few wooded areas of modern Kadena Air Force Base.  There, along one a main thoroughfare which cuts through the expansive base one can still find shelters from WWII which, when discovered by the invading American army on April 1st, 1945, contained various Ohka aircraft in various states of assembly, some even ready to employ.  As a nearby placard states, these shelters – and suicide rockets – came as a complete surprise to the Allies.  The Ohka attacks started against the fleet the very next week.

Okinawa Battlesites 2015, Baka Bomb hangars, wooded aircraft shelter 2 WM-1

Okinawa Battlesites 2015, Baka Bomb hangars, filled aircraft shelter on KAB 2 WM-1Kamikazes in general caused a significant amount of death and destruction, and while they created terror in the hearts and minds of sailors throughout the Pacific, they also highlighted the need to avoid an invasion of Japan proper at all costs. During World War II, about 3,860 kamikaze pilots were killed and although only about ~15% of kamikaze attacks managed to hit a ship. However, these strikes when successful were devastating: sinking at least 34 combat ships – including three small aircraft carriers, they damaged another 368 others and killed over 4,900 sailors and wounded another 4,800 in the process. Roughly 8.5 percent of all ships hit by Kamikazes sank, and from casualties, it was safer to be a Marine ashore fighting the Japanese on land than a sailor at sea during the Battle of Okinawa. You can read about my scuba dives visiting the Wreck of the USS Emmons, an American Destroyer/Fast Minesweeper sunk by Kamikazes off the coast of Okinawa in early April of 1945.

Bunker at Atsugi

Bunker at Atsugi

Av_J_4507_Baka_p211_WOn the surface, it’s hard to feel any compassion for these pilots who would so knowingly die in the pursuit of nothing more than mass-murder. But then again, we give medals to our troops – often posthumously – that sacrifice to the same end. In the final analysis, many of these boys went to their deaths scared, alone and with no other choice, no matter the happy and brave faces they hid behind. As Hayashi Ichizo, a Kamikaze pilot puts it, “It is easy to talk about death in the abstract, as the ancient philosophers discussed. But it is real death I fear, and I don’t know if I can overcome the fear. Even for a short life, there are many memories. For someone who had a good life, it is very difficult to part with it. But I reached a point of no return. I must plunge into an enemy vessel. To be honest, I cannot say that the wish to die for the emperor is genuine, coming from my heart. However, it is decided for me that I die for the emperor….”

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But for each Japanese Kamikaze who died, we must account and remember the over 13 allied servicemen who also met their demise. To the victor go the spoils of course, but losses on all sides should and need to be honored.  The Ohka pilots, members of the Jinrai Butai (“Thunder Gods Corps”), are remembered in Japan at various locations, including Ohka Park in Kashima City, the Ohka Monument in Kanoya City, the Kamakura Ohka Monument at Kenchō-ji Kamakura, and the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo.

Crews Briefing a "Thunder Gods" Attack

Crews Briefing a “Thunder Gods” Attack

“I remember vividly the change in the war situation, and there are painful memories of saying farewell with tears day after day to rosy-cheeked men departing never to return. Filled with the emotion of all Japanese people, I write these words praying for the repose of the souls of these young soldiers.” ~ Sohachi Okamura, naval press correspondent at Kanoya airbase in 1945, as quoted on a modern Kanoya City memorial

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Cherry Blossoms: Budding Beliefs of Traditional Japan


“The individual is ephemeral, races and nations come and pass away, but man remains. Therein lies the profound difference between the individual and the whole.” ~ Nikola Tesla

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“Ooooh, oooh, cherry blossom, sakura HAI!!” Setsuko proclaimed just about every time she spied a cherry tree readying to bloom. Her expression was like that which could be found on any American kid’s face on Christmas morning. Except Setsuko is Okinawan, and she’s almost 71.

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The Okinawans and Japanese have a deep-rooted love affair with cherry blossoms. Festivals honoring the blossoms are widely held, complete with a carni-like atmosphere reminiscent of our tri-county fair back home. In fact, it’s one of the few times on Okinawa that cotton candy is easily found. And lucky for me, during this time of year it’s even easier for me to devour!

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491413-bigthumbnailA cherry blossom is the flower of any of several trees of genus Prunus, particularly the Japanese Cherry Tree, Prunus serrulata. The blossoms are referred to as sakura in Japanese. The blossoming begins in Okinawa in January and spreads north as warmer temperatures slowly walk into higher latitudes throughout the spring, reaching Kyoto and Tokyo at the end of March or the beginning of April. A few weeks later they finally spread into higher altitudes and to Hokkaidō, the northern most of the Japanese main islands.

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japanese_cherry_blossom__by_ging3r295-d45w2odThe Japanese and Okinawans pay particularly close attention to blossom forecasts each year. The many festivals celebrating the flowers arrival are carefully planned around such predictions, and people here in this island-nation turn out in huge masses at parks, shrines, temples and castles with family and friends to hold flower-viewing parties. Hanami (花見, “flower viewing”) or sakura matsuri (“cherry blossom festival”) celebrate the beauty and evanescent nature of the cherry blossom, a custom which dates back many centuries in Japan, possibly to as early as the third century CE.

The Kings hangin' with the Ryukyu King at Nakijin Castle

The Kings hangin’ with the Ryukyu King at Nakijin Castle

Okinawa Cherry Blossom Festival 2015, Nakajin Castle, sakura blossoms WMJody and I attended one of the more scenic areas to view sakura on Okinawa, a flower viewing festival at Nakijin Castle just outside of Nago on the Motobu peninsula of Okinawa. The castle ruins, perched high on a jungle-covered ridge overlooking the East China Sea, serves as a dramatic backdrop for the festivities. A large greenspace just outside of the gusuku is set with a stage for traditional music and dance, highlighted against theatrically lit castle walls. Inside the ramparts, the pathways are lined with glowing candles every foot or so, while up-lights illuminate the cherry trees lining the bastion’s ancient entryway.

500bd93475ed790b6ce79ad9a88ae44bOkinawa Cherry Blossom Festival 2015, Nakajin Castle, up close and in full bloom 2 WMIn Japan, cherry blossoms sometimes symbolize clouds as they bloom en masse, but more often they are a central and enduring metaphor for the ephemeral nature of life, an aspect of Japanese cultural tradition steeped with Buddhist influence, embodied in the concept of mono no aware dating back to the 18th century CE.

Okinawa Cherry Blossom Festival 2015, Nakajin Castle, Jody in the sakura light

Okinawa Cherry Blossom Festival 2015, Nakajin Castle, castle pathways 2 WMLast year Jody and I attended this jubilee on a lazy Sunday afternoon at the very start of the 2-week sakura matsuri period in late January. Although the blossoms were not yet in full bloom, there were very few people in attendance, making for a rather peacefully pleasant visit to the fortress.

The surprising line waiting to go in!

The surprising line waiting to go in!

Okinawa Cherry Blossom Festival 2015, Nakajin Castle, castle pathway at dusk WMThis year we went on the last weekend of the viewing period and on a Saturday night, arriving about ninety minutes before sunset. We bought our tickets (cheap!), had a quick bite to eat, and headed into the ruins, showing some friends (new to the island) the ropes. As the sun set, Okinawan music wafted across the stone-fitted walls, filling the wintery cold winds with soft sounds of the island as multicolored lights illumined the trees and bulwarks alike. The cherry blossoms themselves were bathed in bright white to ensure their full brilliance. The festival became a fest for all the senses.

The Castle's Main Pathway

The Castle’s Main Pathway

Okinawa Cherry Blossom Festival 2015, Nakajin Castle, up close and in full bloom WMMono no aware (物の哀れ), literally “the pathos of things” but also translated as “an empathy toward things” or “a sensitivity to ephemera,” is a Japanese phrase which acknowledges an awareness of impermanence (無常, mujō). This acceptance of the transience of all things lends a gentle wistfulness to the Japanese. The fleetingness of the blossoms, their extreme beauty and quick death all have often been associated with mortality. Thus, sakura have become richly symbolic, constantly appearing in Japanese art, song, manga, anime, and film.

Okinawa Cherry Blossom Festival 2015, Nakajin Castle, colored walls WM

Okinawa Cherry Blossom Festival 2015, Nakajin Castle, sakura blossom closeupWhat we didn’t realize, however, was just how many Japanese and Okinawans partake in such festivities. Attempting to leave the castle through its main cherry-tree lined footpath, we were jammed shoulder to shoulder with frolicking picture-takers, cooing and “aaaaah-ing!” with every firing of a camera flash. The going was slow, and upon exiting the fortresses’ exterior rampart, we realized why: there were literally thousands of people standing in line waiting to get in!

Okinawa Cherry Blossom Festival 2015, Nakajin Castle, castle pathways WM

Okinawa Cherry Blossom Festival 2015, Nakajin Castle Jody enjoys the blossomsDeciding to thaw ourselves before our one hour and forty minute drive home, we stepped into a local soba house and were lucky enough to get a table for two with no waiting. Warming our bellies with steaming pork broth and the thick savory noodles of Okinawan soki soba, we laughed at how we ourselves had acted just like Setsuko upon seeing the dramatically-displayed cherry blossoms.

Okinawa Cherry Blossom Festival 2015, Nakajin Castle blossoms in bloom WM

But unlike sakura matsuri mono no aware, Okinawa and its commemorations have become a permanent part of our souls.

Okinawa Cherry Blossom Festival 2015, Nakajin Castle, Jody with sakura