“Kamikaze” …now it makes sense

I’ve been doing a lot of reading in to Japanese history lately. Why?

I happened to come across a short interview within a documentary of a Hokkaido man talking of his Ainu ancestry. Some jobs I’ve had in Australia have led to an understanding of indigenous Australian culture I probably wouldn’t have had otherwise, and I guess that’s what made me listen in when I heard the words “indigenous” and “Japan” being mentioned together.

I had to find out more. After treating the word “Wikipedia” as a verb for longer than it deserves, I bought a book on Japanese history. Well, you know, downloaded it to my Kindle; A History of Japan: From Stone Age To Superpower by Kenneth Henshall.

One might suggest that fitting the “history of Japan” in to one book is a little ambitious and so, perhaps there are a parts I’d like to hear more of, however, for what it’s worth, I’m finding the read fascinating thus far.

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With my questions about indigenous Japan mostly answered for the time being, I moved on. Obviously, there is so much to Japanese history that it’s almost impossible to mention an example of an event that truly shaped the nation above another. But one part stuck out, if only because it made me wonder why I hadn’t considered the subject earlier; the origin of the word “kamikaze”.

Unless where I grew up is somehow unique, I’d suggest that the Western world would readily associate the term with Japanese pilots from the Second World War. “Kamikaze” is a common enough term in the West, right?

Given that I’m also studying the Japanese language and do have the words “kami” (“spirit” or “God”) and “kaze” (“wind”) in my limited vocabulary, why hadn’t I put them together and questioned the origin?

Forgive me if this is common knowledge and I’m the odd one out, but why would suicide military aviators of Imperial Japan be named after “divine wind”? A History of Japan: From Stone Age To Superpower gave me the fascinating answer to a question I’d never before considered.

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The term “kamikaze” was originally used back in 1281, in reference to typhoons which played a major role in thwarting attempted Mongol invasions in 1274 and 1281. Kublai Khan (grandson of Genghis Khan) had established the Yuan dynasty, ruling over present-day Mongolia, China and  Korea, and sent word to Japan which essentially demanded they submit to become a vassal of the Mongol Empire or it was game on.

And yeah, it was indeed game on. However, both the 1274 and 1281 attacks of northern Kyūshū where unsuccessful for the Mongols. Henshall’s book suggests that while Japanese resilience and hastily built boats (1281) where also major factors in protecting Japan, so too were the two typhoons (particularly in 1281) which decimated the Mongol fleet. Hence the term, “kamikaze” or “divine winds”.

Obviously, there’s a lot more to be read and known on this particular subject, however, it’s almost certainly best told by others. I just found it weird that I’d been learning the Japanese language and never once stopped to consider the origin of quite a well-known word.

Then, I thought I might write a humble little blog post about it….


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