Human Flower Project

Creeping Literalism

Symbolic slippage and a ceremonial flower in Japan—Allusionists, watch where you step!


‘Applause,” the blue rose developed by a Japanese company and presented as an emblem of collaboration and accomplishment to Barack Obama.

Photo: inventorspot

Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, elected just this fall, hosted Barack Obama during the U.S. President’s recent trip to Asia.

In his weekly address, Hatoyama narrated a human flower project of diplomacy: “At the beginning of the (official state) dinner, I presented President Obama with a single blue rose.” 

Hatoyama wrote, “It was believed impossible to create a blue rose, since roses lack the gene to produce the color blue. However, a Japanese company spent 14 years in research and finally succeeded in developing the world’s first blue rose. I explained to President Obama how this blue rose, which holds the meaning ‘to accomplish the impossible,’ was created and said, ‘Let us work together to accomplish the impossible.’”

Yesterday, writers on the global economic weblog Euromoney went after the prime minister’s gesture with symboli-cide.

“Having campaigned against his opponent’s 50-year policy of spending huge amounts of public money on unneeded public works projects,” wrote the Euromoney editorialists, “Hatoyama might have paused to consider whether his anecdote about an expensive and idiosyncratic 14-year project to create a blue flower might best demonstrate his new ethos. ‘We can accomplish the impossible,’ it says, leaving the listener to supply the concluding, ‘whether it’s a good idea or not.’”

We must come to the prime minister’s defense – not to justify blue roses, which we find peculiar, but to combat onesidedness. In this era of “transparency,” our capacity for symbolic thinking and figures of speech seems to be shrink wrapped. The fine and risky thing about symbols is that they invite multiple interpretations. Whereas for the prime minister the blue rose signifies accomplishment, for the editorialists it suggests frivolity or, worse, unnatural, nefarious and ultimately perilous meddling. (Quite probably, the genetic modifications behind the blue rose touched off this sour reaction; European societies have been most vociferously anti-GM.)


Schematic diagram of the blue rose’s development

Image: inventorspot

“It occurs to Euromoney,” the editorial continues, that “those bankers now working deep within the bowels of investment banks to create the next generation of torturously complex we-made-it-because-we-could structured products have found a fine emblem. Look out for Bluerose CDO’s, blowing up around 2023.” (Collateral Debt Obligations – CDOs – best we understand, are a complicated type of derivative securities which some say caused Japan’s recent fiscal problems.)

imageEmperor Akihito and Empress Michiko with then-Vice President Dick Cheney and Lynne Cheney at the Imperial Palace in Tōkyō, on April 2004. The chairs look identical but Emperor Akihito’s seat is actually the Chrysanthemum throne.

Photo: via wiki

In their handling of symbols, we find the editorialists guilty of a kind of creeping literalism (note the anal fixation, too)—more proof that economics is indeed “the dismal science.” Unfairly, we think, they imply that the Japanese government put state money behind the blue rose’s development, but we don’t believe that’s true. Suntory, a Japanese company, paid the costs of creating the blue rose ‘Applause,’ in conjunction with Australian biotech firm Florigene. Further, the Euromoney writers have overlooked the centuries-old associations between flowers and leadership within Japanese culture. The emperor occupies the Chysanthemum Throne, not because he sits on furniture made of flowers but because he holds a singular, revered and somewhat mysterious office.

Of course, the power of any symbol depends on its communication (and the Euromoney writers are as entitled to their reading as the next world leader or sociologist of flowers). What did President Obama himself make of the blue rose offering? Regrettably, we have not been able to find further reports—- photographs, either – of this intriguing, overt and increasingly rare incidence of floral diplomacy.

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 12/04 at 02:15 PM


Interesting, Julie.  To my eyes, the rose looks purple.

Posted by Georgia on 12/05 at 12:36 PM

Dear Georgia,

Seems the prime minister’s declaration may have been a benign version of GWB’s “Mission Accomplished.” I see what you see.

Thank you!

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 12/06 at 10:42 AM
Commenting is not available in this channel entry.