Cherry Blossoms and Kamikaze: Japanese Honor and Suicide in Germany during World War II

Saturday, January 4, 2014: 12:30 PM
Thurgood Marshall Ballroom West (Marriott Wardman Park)
Sarah Panzer, University of Chicago
Abstract: Cherry Blossoms and Kamikaze: Japanese Honor and Suicide in Germany during World War II

            In my dissertation, “The Prussians of the East: Samurai, Bushido, and Japanese Honor in the German Imagination,” I examine the ways in which Japanese martial culture was imagined and appropriated by the German Bürgertum in the period between the Russo-Japanese War and the end of the Second World War (1905-1945). As opposed to Orientalism or Exoticism, which were often predicated on distancing the non-West from the West culturally and intellectually, the implicit goal of much of the discourse of twentieth-century German Japonismus was to make Japanese culture more immediately familiar and recognizable to a German audience, creating a form of transcultural romanticism that was deeply informed by concepts like chivalry, virtue, and honor.

            One major element of the German interest in Japanese honor, especially after 1939, was the reevaluation of suicide. Officially proscribed by most Western intellectual and religious traditions, suicide was nevertheless a persistent theme in many of the ongoing discussions about Japanese ethics and morality; the ritual of seppuku or hara-kiri, historically a source of curiosity for Western observers, became particularly invested with meaning in Germany during the Second World War as an idealized image of masculine loyalty. Similarly, the concept of battlefield suicide, whether as a “human bomb” or as one of the kamikaze pilots, became a common trope that the German state deployed through various media in order to inspire comparable levels of sacrifice from its citizenry and servicemen. Ultimately the German reception of Japanese culture, grounded in the language of masculine heroism and cultural integrity, argued that suicide was not only compatible with honor, but that suicide could actually redeem an otherwise insufficiently honorable life.

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