Flowers That Kill
Communicative Opacity in Political Spaces
Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney



This book has been in the making for a long time—for, in fact, my entire career as an anthropologist, from the days of my study of the Sakhalin Ainu and their hunting-gathering life to the most recent foray into World War II. This is a thorough reconceptualization of my previous ethnographic and historical work, in light of what I have learned, often slowly, from the changing emphases in anthropology and history. All along I have received insights, criticisms, suggestions, and warm encouragement from a great number of colleagues in various countries, whose generosity does not cease to amaze me.

This book, the result of such a long-term project, would not have been written if it were not for the generous support of the William F. Vilas Trust Fund of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, for which I would like to extend my deepest appreciation. My interest in communicative opacity started way back, when I was working on the Japanese monkey performance, during which different actors were reading different meanings of the monkey. I was overwhelmed by a most generous remark from Edmund Leach, who was a discussant at an American Ethnological Society meeting. In fact he was the first to articulate the concept of communicative opacity, or failure of communication, in his study of the gumsa and gumlao systems of the Kachins in highland Burma. Keith Basso, James Fernandez, Stanley Jeyaraja Tambiah, Terry Turner, Victor Turner, Valerio Valeri, and many others all extended warm encouragement to my fledging efforts, as did Clifford Geertz, who pushed me to engage in comparative work while I was at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton for a year at his invitation. I have been fortunate to receive encouragement and inspiration from scholars of different persuasions. Sidney Mintz has always been willing to share his professional “capital” as was Eric Wolf, who sent me postcards when he traveled, in one of them declaring his priority being tai chi over the American Anthropological Association meetings. Since the time we spent a year together at the Center for Advanced Study in Behavioral Sciences at Stanford, Peter Stansky has become my regular sounding board, and so has Henry Rosovsky, whose wisdom I have sought over many years since my year at Harvard. An appointment as Distinguished Chair of Modern Culture at the Kluge Center of the Library of Congress by Dr. James H. Billington, the Librarian, enabled me to have access to that treasure-house of books and archival material. His work on a long-term Russian cultural history, with the symbolism of the axe and the icon, became an inspiration for my own long-term cultural history, as did his explication of the limits of rational enlightenment. Even now, his discussion of synesthesia in the sung liturgy of the Eastern Church, together with his powerful baritone voice—with which he sang, only too briefly, a piece from Boris Godunov, his favorite—resonates. The work by Natalie Zemon Davis alerted me to the antiestablishment message carried by flowers, and roses, in particular, which led me to an understanding of the rose as the logo of the Socialist International. H. Mack Horton offered me crucial information and suggestions from his vast and meticulous knowledge of ancient Japanese culture and history. Special thanks are due Stanley Payne for suggesting an extraordinary title for the book, Flowers That Kill. Renée Fox and Jan Vansina have been advisers/critics of the direction I have taken in my work.

In the United Kingdom, Tim Ingold offered invaluable comments on my work, first as the editor of the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, then with his invitation to be a Lord Simon Professor at the University of Manchester. I will not forget a kind invitation to give a lecture in the Social Anthropology Department, Cambridge University, arranged by Ernst Gellner, with whom I had the pleasure of feeding ducks together after our breakfast at his house. During my stay at idyllic Bellagio, I forged a lifelong collegiality with Sergio Bertelli, whose work opened my eyes to the medieval European “king’s body.”

My fortunate encounters with French scholars began when Professors Marc Augé and Francis Zimmermann welcomed me to the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales several times. Pierre Bourdieu at the Collège de France listened intently to my plan for research in its inchoate state, which resulted in Kamikaze, Cherry Blossoms, and Nationalisms, the predecessor of this book. The central theme of this book is indebted to his méconnaissance. Most recently, L’Institut d’Études Advançées–Paris became my headquarters, with a most memorable stay in 2014 after it moved to l’Hôtel de Lauzun, a paradise for scholars. I was ecstatic to be in this beautiful seventeenth-century mansion where Charles Baudelaire, one of the most influential figures in my work, resided, leaving behind colorful legends. I thank the directors, Professor Alain Schnapp and Professor Gretty Mirdal, and Dr. Simon Luck. My delivery of two lectures in January 2014 at the Collège de France, arranged by Philippe Descola, helped me finalize Chapters One and Four of this book. Dr. Jean-Luc Lory, anthropologist and director at Maison Suger of the Fondation Maison des Sciences de l’Homme, always welcomed me and provided a scholarly environment I could rely on. My stays in France over all these years were made most enjoyable by the sustained friendship and collegiality of Marie-Thérèse Cerf, whose formidable knowledge of and voracious appetite for art and intellectual endeavors have been most stimulating.

In Japan, I am indebted to a large number of scholars and institutions. Let me first thank Prince Mikasa-no-miya Takahito Shinnō, a younger brother of Emperor Shōwa. He not only listened to my talk on rice in Japanese culture at the Japanese Academy of Science but also took me to Sutoraipuhausu Museum to watch a performance of In the Forest, Under Cherries in Full Bloom by Sakaguchi Ango. It gave me a flash of insight into the connection between cherry blossoms and madness, a vital element of the polyseme of the flower. For a number of dimensions of this book, I am profoundly grateful to Professors Irokawa Daikichi, Kasaya Kazuhiko, Kuramoto Kazuhiro, Miyake Hitoshi, Miyata Noboru, and Amino Yoshihiko, and to Professor Inoki Takenori, who extended to me a special invitation as director’s guest at the International Research Center for Japanese Studies, where I learned from many experts in Japanese history.

Given the importance of publishing in one’s academic career, I was unbelievably fortunate that two young editors found my work worthy of publication at a very early stage of my career: in the United States, Walter Lippincott, when he was a young editor at Cambridge University Press and eventually director of Princeton University Press; and in Japan, Ōtsuka Nobukazu, a young editor at Iwanami Publishing who became its director. The books they published formed the basis of this book. Without their open-minded generosity (I did not belong to any “power” group), I would not have been able to pursue my writing, which has become the central obsession in my life.

At an early stage of the preparation for this project, I received invaluable help from the following scholars who were then graduate students and now are successful academics: Professor Suzuki Keiko of Ritsumeikan University, Professor Erika Robb Larkins at the University of Oklahoma, and Professor Tajima Atsushi at the State University of New York, Geneseo. I thank Nancy McClements and Andy Spencer at the University of Wisconsin Memorial Library for their expert help. I should like to extend my deep appreciation for excellent editorial help from Leslie Kriesel, a co-sufferer during all these years when the manuscript went through many revisions. The two anonymous reviewers for the press offered exceptionally constructive critiques that were most helpful in the final revision.

The book publishing business is always very exhausting. I could not be more thankful for the support of Michelle Lipinski at Stanford University Press, who is generous, brilliant, and professional—a superb acquisitions editor indeed—and who made this process so much more pleasant than usual for me. Richard Gunde, a scholar of Chinese culture, did a superb job in editing the manuscript, with his scholarly insight coming through in his comments and suggestions.

While I was growing up in Japan, “girls” were all to be wise mothers and good wives. I am indebted to two of my teachers in my early school days for encouraging me to be otherwise. Mr. Fujita Akira at Kōnan Elementary School took us to see a film on Madame Curie, who inspired me so much that I told him that I would like to be a Mme Curie. Rather than laughing at me, he suggested that we begin a chemistry experiment every day after school to discover a way to produce artificial potato starch. Mr. Ishimura Iwao at Kōnan Girls’ High School introduced us to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Hitch your wagon to a star”—a motto taught to young men at higher schools and one that appears in the diary of Sasaki Hachirō, tokkōtai pilot. I have failed to follow the teaching in the motto but Mr. Ishimura’s encouragement of my studies was invaluable at the school where sewing, cooking, child-rearing, and morality were required courses, with English and mathematics optional. We keep in touch via email.

The unconditional love of my parents shaped my life, providing me with a sense of security and warmth always available when I needed it. My father, Ohnuki Kōzaburō, fluent in five languages, taught me to appreciate every individual regardless of class or “racial/ethnic” background. Despite occasional questioning by the Japanese police, he remained friends with some of the local foreigners in Kobe, and helped them during the war, including two Americans from Guam who saved him during the 1923 Great Kantō Earthquake and were captured by the Japanese military and imprisoned in Kobe. My mother, Ohnuki Taka, made quilted clothes for them to survive the Kobe winter, which was much colder than in Guam. In this childhood environment, my sense of the Japanese and Japan was as a part of the world. My mother, raised in a wealthy household where she never cooked or cleaned, became a “tigress” during the war. During an air raid, when I was nearly shot at, my mother risked her life to find me. When wartime conditions became severe and food grew increasingly scarce, she managed to feed us, even swallowing her pride by begging from her former servants who had returned to their farms. Toward the end of the war, the pupils in our small elementary school were moved to a Zen temple in the mountains on the orders of the government so that the adults would be free to fight the fires caused by the continuous aerial bombardment. Despite the long and arduous trip, my mother came every weekend, carrying a huge backpack full of food; the school could feed us only a handful of beans and literally a few grains of rice in a bowl of hot water—we chanted a sutra we invented to express how hungry we were.

Much later in life and after my college years in Tokyo, I came to the United States, not realizing that I would not be there to take care of my parents in their advanced age, when they needed me most. I will always remember them with profound love and respect.

I must also thank Alan Ohnuki Tierney, a historian at heart, whose sustained thoughtfulness has provided me with the very best environment for concentration on research and writing at home. R. Kenji Tierney has been the very best colleague one can wish for and his vast knowledge has always stimulated me and broadened my vista. I thank them deeply.

A Note to the Reader

Following the Japanese practice, the family name is written first, followed by the given name.