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Kamikaze: A Crash Course on the History of the Term

Kamikaze: A Crash Course on the History of the Term

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I’m going to take you along with me on my journey of discovery about the fascinating term “Kamikaze” that went from being a bedrock of Japanese spirituality to a commercialized term familiar around the world.

Let’s dive right in!

What is the meaning of Kamikaze?

Kamikaze is a word that has the literal meaning of ‘the wind of gods’ or ‘divine wind.’  It is usually used in reference to Japanese suicide bombers during WWII, and it also serves as an adjective in English for reckless or self-destructive behavior. 


The Linguistic Origin of Kamikaze

The word Kamikaze is written in kanji as 神風. The literal translation is ‘divine wind’ or ‘wind of the gods’.

Or ‘on the wings of god’ works too. The original Japanese pronunciation is “kah-mii-kah-zeh”, rather than the Americanized “kah-meh-kah-zii.”

Let’s break things down a bit further.

The Meaning of Kamikaze

The Kami Part of Kamikaze: Gods and Divinity

, or kami, refers to gods, the mind, and the soul. The concept of “god” was originally represented only by the right part, .

This character originally looked a little more like lightening, which represented the ancient belief that such night-splitting events marked the arrival of a god.

So, this meant “god” or “god speaking.” Nowadays, 申 just means “to say.”

Since 申 lost its original meaning, an altar was added to the left side. The more ancient version of looked a lot more like a god kneeling at an altar, but things changed pretty radically through the years.

Shintoism, the native religion of Japan, is strongly based on the idea that everything we see in nature has a spirit or kami.

This includes trees, rocks, frogs, and in this case, wind.

There are a great many kami in Japanese mythology, most of which were first written about in the 8th century by Motoori Norinaga in the Kojiki-den (Records of Ancient Happenings).

Norinaga defined kami as: “…any being whatsoever which possesses some eminent quality out of the ordinary and is awe-inspiring.”

In Shintoism, kami are, in the wise words of Master Yoda, one with nature.

Like the spirits and gods of other folklore, Japanese spirits can turn from mischievous to good-willed to evil incarnate.

This is a fitting notion to remember as we explore the history of the word Kamikaze.


The Wind Part of Kamikaze: Mythical Birds and Creepy Crawlies

The kanji for wind is, or kaze, and it actually refers to a bit more than just wind. It also encompasses the ideas of air, style, and manner.

One mistaken etymology of the word comes from breaking down the character. The outer layer wraps over the top of the figure inside, , representing an insect.

One etymology suggests that “the wind brings bugs” is where the character comes from.

However, that’s not quite so.

In fact, this kanji shares an origin with , which represents Fenghuang, a mythical Chinese bird with wings made out of the wind itself (fun fact: is where the Pokemon Ho-oh got its inspiration from!).

Originally and were the same thing, sharing a sense of things taking to the air, but over centuries of logographic evolution, they went their separate ways. In fact, the kanji used to represent a snake, not bugs.

And snakes are Fenghuang’s natural prey.


A Wild Divinity Appears: Origins in the Manyoshu

The first recorded appearance of the term kamikaze is in the Manyoshu, an 8th-century collection of Japanese waka poetry.

The name literally means “Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves” and is the oldest anthology of Japanese poetry in existence.

Contained within are a variety of old waka-style poems, meaning they’re written in Japanese, as opposed to being written in Chinese by Japanese poets (this was an important distinction to make back when writing in Chinese was a mark of good breeding and education).

The expression “kamikaze” makes numerous appearances throughout as a makura-kotoba, aka a “pillow word.”

These makura-kotoba are a sort of metonymy, where some thing or concept is referred to by substituting in a different, but related, word.

In our case, kamikaze was used to refer to anything dealing with Ise (e.g. Ise Shrine, Ise River, etc), a famous place in modern-day Mie, somewhat near to Kyoto.

The earliest reference I could find is in book one, poem 81:

山邊乃 御井乎見我弖利 神風乃 伊勢處女等 相見鶴鴨

Unfortunately, I could not find a good translation, and this being Classical Japanese, I don’t feel remotely comfortable translating it myself.

So, I leave it here, intact, for your general reference and amusement.


Of Khans and Kami

For all of its history, Japan had never been invaded, its distant shores and organized military keeping any marauding forces well at bay.

However, in the 13th century, this long defense would be tested by an attempted invasion by Mongol forces.

This event would only be rivaled seven centuries later with the D-Day assaults on Normandy. According to legend, only the Gods could save Japan.

To Kublai Khan, the first emperor of Yuan Dynasty, Japan was a ‘small’ but tempting piece of real estate located not 100 miles off the coast of China.

Yet his repeated demands of submission were met without a response from the Emperor of Japan.

Furious and with thousands of warriors recruited from China and Korea in his shadow, the grandson of Genghis Khan attempted not one but two major invasions in 1274 and 1281 AD.

Nearly five thousand warships were launched across the Sea of Japan with tens and tens of thousands of troops aboard.

They landed at the shores near modern-day Fukuoka, hoping to claim Japan for their own, but they were met with the steely resolve of over a hundred thousand Japanese samurai.

It was a tense situation that could have ended a millennium of sovereignty, but the Gods took pity—Raijin and Fujin descended, lifting the waters and rending the skies.

In 1274, a massive typhoon obliterated the Mongol forces, dashing the ships on the shore.

Those who didn’t drown were slaughtered as they crawled upon the beach. In 1281, the reddened sands of Hakata Bay saw an encore as Kublai Khan made his second and final attempt on Japan.

These twin typhoons of salvation became known as the Kamikaze, the “divine winds” or “winds of god.”


The Gods of the Wind: Raijin and Fujin

To the people of 13th-century Japan, their everyday lives were very much intertwined with the wills and wiles of the many gods to whom they paid worship.

In popular myth, the divine winds that swept through Hakata Bay are attributed to the brothers of storm and wind, Raijin and Fujin.

Said to be direct descendants of Izanagi and Izanami after they first created Japan, their conjuring of the typhoon to protect Japan from foreign rule was in direct defense of their parent’s creation.

雷神 Raijin (Rye-jin) is the Shinto god of thunder, lightning and storms.

He is usually depicted as a big, muscular figure (often with a potbelly), with a truly demonic face.

Many Sculptors chose to adorn his head with wicked-looking horns, while others will craft wild, gravity defying hair.

Many images of Raijin will show him with three fingers on each hand, each finger representing the past, present and future.

Both Raijin and Fujin share demonic features and would otherwise be mistaken for each other if it were not for the objects they carry.

Raijin is typically portrayed holding hammers surrounded by Taiko drums (presumably used to make the sound of thunder.)

While he is most often portrayed as a demon, in some parts of Japan, he is known as Raiden (yes, that Raiden, the inspiration for the Mortal Kombat character). He will then take the form of a robed man with a straw hat.

Even today, parents warn their children to cover their belly buttons during a storm lest Raijin steal them away to devour their bellies.

風神 Fujin (Fu-u-jin) is the leopard skin-wearing, putrid-faced, green-bodied god of wind.

Slung over his shoulder and clasped tightly in both hands is a great bag of wind. four fingers adorn his hand, one for each direction.

When he opens the bag, the winds are set free, creating storms.

Terrifying to behold, statues of the two brothers can be found all over Japan.

Among the most famous depictions, statues of Raijin and Fujin stand guard within the Kaminarimon gate at the entrance to the Sanjusangendo temple located in Kyoto.

Crafted from wood and lacquer, gold leaf, and, most prominently, red and green paint, their eyes are hauntingly inlaid with crystal.


Redux: Shinpuren Rebellion

Roughly six hundred years after the Mongols’ failed assault, in 1876, Samurai aggression turned inward, and Japan faced an attack from within during the Shinpuren Rebellion.

How is this related to our story of the kamikaze? Well, the Shinpuren Rebellion is known as “Shinpuren-no-Ran in Japanese, and written as 神風連の乱.

Those first two characters look familiar? Shinpuren-no-Ran can be translated as ‘rebellion led by a divine wind’ or ‘divine wind alliance’.

Yes, those are the same characters as in “kamikaze,” leading the word, but they’re also pronounced differently.

Why? Japanese has some strange features of their kanji that causes them to be pronounced differently in different situations.

For now, let’s just run with it and understand that shinpu is effectively equivalent to kamikaze in this instance.

Members of this Shinpuren Alliance were disenfranchised Kumamoto samurai who advocated a purer form of imperial power that would expel foreigners and foreign influence.

The Shinpuren samurai attacked the Imperial Japanese Army barracks in Kumamoto… and were summarily defeated. The survivors all killed themselves.

Their actions sparked the Seinan War, which ended with the suicide of rebellion leader Saigo Takamori (1827-1877) in September that same year (later chronicled in the super-duper-historical Tom Cruise film, “The Last Samurai”).


Return to the Seas: Kamikaze-class destroyers

In 1905 and again in 1922, the Japanese Imperial Navy ordered the creation of Kamikaze-class ships. While these ships shared the same name, their schematics and intended use were very different.

With the expanding presence of the US Navy and the onset of war with Russia, the Japanese Imperial Navy implemented a major expansion program in 1904.

They commissioned the Kamikaze-gata kuchikukan, which were a class of 32 torpedo boat destroyers.

These were the first destroyers to be mass-produced in Japan, and government shipyards were so overwhelmed that civilian shipyards were also assigned for production.

While thirty-six ships were originally ordered, only two realized any action with Russia. They were in commission from August 1905 to April 1928.

The Kamikaze was the lead ship of nine kamikaze-class destroyers completed in 1922, all of which took part in the Pacific War.

While they were advanced for the 1920s and served on the front lines during the Imperial expansion of the 1930s, these ships were technologically obsolete by the start of WWII.

Assigned to patrol northern Japanese waters, the Kamikaze played a significant role in the Aleutian Islands campaign.

After the war ended, the Kamikaze was used as a repatriation vessel to return soldiers home from Singapore, Bangkok, and Saigon.


Kamikaze: a crashing action

Ask any non-Japanese person what they think of when they think of “Kamikaze.” The answer, invariably, will be one thing. The suicide pilots of WWII. Let’s take a look at Japan’s most infamous fighting force.

神風特別攻撃隊 (“Shinpu-Tokubetsu-Kogekitai”), aka the “Divine Wind Special Attack Units” of the Imperial Japanese Navy.

“The spirit of the Special Attack Corps is the great spirit that runs in the blood of every Japanese…The crashing action which simultaneously kills the enemy and oneself without fail is called the Special Attack…Every Japanese is capable of becoming a member of the Special Attack Corps.”

– Lieutenant Sekio Nishina, Nippon Times 1944

What induced thousands of ordinary young men-turned-soldier to end their lives voluntarily? On the one hand, they are portrayed in museums and literature as brave youth who were under the impression that only by sacrificing their own lives would the Japanese Empire be saved from foreign incursion.

We can see this in letters that survived the war and have since been put on display at various exhibits around Japan.

“Dear Mother, my one regret is I could not do more for you before I die. But to die as a fighter for the emperor is an honor. Please do not feel sad.”

Of course, this is only part of the story. Jingoistic zeal and suicidal spiritualism were not the only motivators. Peer-pressure and government strong-arming also let to the formation of Japan’s infamous “special attack” squadrons.

The pilots, who deliberately crashed their planes into enemy targets, were to be the ‘divine wind’ that would once again sweep their enemy from the seas, thus elevating their martyrdom to mythic proportions.

As Raijin and Fujin swept the Mongols from Japanese waters so many centuries ago, so the Kamikaze pilots would become the hands of the Gods themselves and sweep the Allied forces from their seas for good.


Kamikaze in public memory

Public memory of the Pacific War theater is disproportionately colored by the actions of the Kamikaze.

Although Kamikaze tactics weren’t employed until the last two years of the war and relatively few Japanese servicemen died in various forms of suicide attack, Japanese post-war film and subsequent tourism to various commemorative sites around Southern Japan and Tokyo have encouraged the image of the Kamikaze as ‘tragic heroes’ and patriotic symbols.

These help in reinforcing the narrative of Japan as a ‘tragic victim’ of world war II.

In film, the genre of Kamikaze blends human dramas of ‘tragic heroes’ with war action thrill.

One notable example is Saigo no Tokkoutai or The Last Kamikaze, which was released in 1970 and directed by Junya Sato.

It follows a squad leader who is having second thoughts about completing his mission.

Another is The Eternal Zero (2013), directed by Takashi Yamazaki, which follows the story of a young man in search of answers as to why his grandfather was criticized for his “timidity” in battle and his death as a Kamikaze pilot.

While the film was warmly received by Japanese audiences, it was also widely criticized for glorifying war and perpetrating the myth of the divine Kamikaze.


Other Uses of Kamikaze

The word Kamikaze has found its way into the daily lexicon in lots of ways.

A quick Wikipedia disambiguation will show you over a dozen different songs with that title, some novels, films, comics, sports figures, computer terms, and more. Let’s take a look at a handful here.


Kamikaze Taxi

神風タクシー (“kamikaze takushi”) is a slightly dated term, specifically popular during the 1960s, to describe taxis that failed to heed traffic regulations.

The 2020 Tokyo Olympics are just around the corner, and trust me; Japan has been getting ready for years. The 1964 Olympics were a bit of a different matter.

The onslaught of tourists necessitated the rapid hiring of new drivers, many of whom had very limited English and only knew the way to the Olympic stadium.

Thus, they became known as Kamikaze drivers, and some drivers went as far as to post “I am Not a Kamikaze Driver” in English on their dashboard.


Kamikaze: the original shooter

The Kamikaze cocktail was possibly the first ‘shooter’ cocktail invented.

Springing to life in post-war Japan and popularized during the 1970s and ‘80s in the US, this cocktail usually lasts not much longer than it takes to assemble.

Generally, it’s served ice-cold and made from equal parts vodka, fresh lime juice, and orange liqueur.

Give it a shake and serve it strait…as my grandfather always says. And my personal favorite…Give it a twist of lime and you’re sublime.


Thrill Seeking in the 80s

The Kamikaze has established itself at fairgrounds around the world as a stomach-churning, brain-swishing, neck-straining amusement park ride.

It’s the one you’ve no doubt seen that looks like two giant mallets that swing in circles inverting the riders inside the mallet parts over and over until their cotton candy turns to pink sludge down their shirts.


A Reversal: the Mitsubishi Ki-15

As opposed to keeping some people out, the Mitsubishi Ki-15, aka the Kamikaze-go, became famous in 1937 for being the very first aircraft to fly from Japan all the way to Europe. The flight took over fifty-one hours and, luckily, involved no crashes.


Frequently asked questions


How did WWII Kamikaze pilots train?

There was a shortage of planes for training by the time kamikaze pilots were being used. Instead, the trainees were sent up in gliders and were forced to imagine what the instrument panels would be like. 


Did they use kamikaze in Pearl Harbor?

While some pilots did, in fact, crash their planes into American vessels, this was done as a last act of desperation for pilots who felt they had no other options. These were not the kamikaze pilots of two years later who would train specifically for that final kamikaze act.


What did kamikaze pilots yell?

While most suicide charges were coupled with the battle-cry “Tenno heika banzai!” (“Long live the emperor”), kamikaze pilots were trained a different way. They were instructed to scream “hissatsu,” which means “certain hit,” moments before collision.


What is the album “Kamikaze”?

There have been a few albums with the title “Kamikaze.” Most recently, Eminem released his Billboard Top 20 album in 2018, with a song of the same name included inside. The rapper Twista also released an album by the same name in 2004.