War of Words – ‘kamikaze’

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In August 1281, a gigantic Mongol invasion fleet floated in Imari Bay, off Takashima Island, intent on landing in Japan. But a tremendous typhoon came up and obliterated the Mongol force. Japan was spared, and the timely and welcome appearance of the storm was credited to the gods, the kami. It was thus called the kamikaze, from kami (‘divine’) and kaze (‘wind’).

Driven by desperation in the waning months of the Second World War – and motivated by a martial code, bushido, that glorified self-sacrifice and brooked no surrender – around 4,000 Japanese aircrew conducted suicide attacks against US and Allied warships in a vain attempt to halt the onslaught against Japan.

Officially, the Japanese Navy called a suicide air-attacker shinpu tokubetsu kogeki tai, or ‘divine wind special attack unit’. However, the term kamikaze, recalling the 1281 typhoon and used informally by the Japanese during the war, caught on instead.

Today, in English, the term ‘kamikaze’ is used to denote reckless or self-destructive behaviour. ‘The kamikaze liberals who prefer glorious death’ is one example, found in the Evening Standard. ‘A kamikaze roller-skater who weaves his way through traffic’ is another, from the Daily Mail.

Formal kamikaze attacks began in October 1944, during the Battle of Leyte Gulf. For the rest of the war, the US Navy and other Allied fleets struggled to fend them off, finding it immensely difficult to stop pilots who were determined to die.

By the end of the war, the losses sustained by the Allied navies were high, with 66 warships ruined and about 400 damaged. There were around 15,000 Allied servicemen injured, including more than 6,000 killed, because of aerial suicide attacks.

Marc DeSantis

This is an article from the February/March 2021 issue of Military History Matters. To find out more about the magazine and how to subscribe, click here.

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