When most people think about 神風 (kamikaze), they think about the infamous tokubetsu kōgeki tai (special attack units) that plagued the Allies’ navies with suicide attacks during World War II. However, to the Japanese, the word has a history that goes back a long time before the 1940s, as well as a number of nuances that differentiate it from its English equivalent.
Before considering the meaning of kamikaze, it’s worth going back in time to the word’s earliest usages. The first mention of the kamikaze dates back to waka poetry: one of the most ancient poetry styles in Japan. In this art form, the word was often attached to descriptions of the Ise-area to give the place a more poetic-sounding name.
One of the most famous mentions of this version of kamikaze is in a waka that starts with 神風の伊勢の国にもあらましを なにしか来けむ (It would have been better to remain in Ise, so why did I even come here?).
While the word started in beauty and poetry, the infamous Mongolian warlord Kublai Kahn would soon give kamikaze another, more violent meaning.
In the mid-13th century, the renowned warrior had carefully plotted a bloody invasion of Japan that would make him the supreme ruler of most of Asia. The Mongols had seemed unbeatable up to this point, and Kublai Kahn assumed that a small nation like Japan would be an easy victory for his battle-hardened forces.
After being narrowly defeated at their first attempt to conquer Japan, the second invasion was supposed to be the attack that brought the island nation under the Kahn’s control. The Mongols had 140,000 heavily armed soldiers who were ready to defeat the Japanese.
However, what should have been a victory soon became a tragedy for the Mongols as they had underestimated both the Japanese general’s military tactics and the weather. Instead of facing the terrifying hordes in battle, the Japanese used their resources to heavily fortify the docks so that the Mongol army couldn’t land.
Unfortunately for the Mongols, the preparations for their invasion had been overly rushed resulting in many of them riding in ships unsuitable for spending a long time at sea. The result was that the hordes were stuck for a long period of time in unseaworthy boats, leaving the entire army at the mercy of the typhoons that often pass near Japan.
And the typhoon that did come turned out to be a big one, shipwrecking almost half of their forces. With their boats destroyed and countless warriors captured, the presumed invincibility of the Mongol hordes was brought into question. This, coupled with additional surprising losses in Vietnam and Java, lead to the successors of Kublai Kahn losing their desire to invade Japan.
Despite the large role that the military played in the victory, the leaders of the various religious sects vying for power in Japan lined up to thank their kami for the victory. It was proclaimed that Japan was 神国思想 (chosen by the gods for protection). Naturally, as a typhoon destroyed the Mongols, the chosen form of the gods’ protection was clearly 風 (the wind). Therefore the word 神風 (kamikaze — wind of the gods) is often associated with Japan’s victory.
From this word a Japanese idiom was created; 神風が吹く(the wind of the gods is blowing) which is used to mean that one’s fortunes are changing for the better. Recently, this phrase is becoming less popular, but you will still see it used in written Japanese.
Of course, the western use of the word kamikaze meaning ‘someone who is dangerous to the people around them’ is used in Japan too. Many older Japanese will tell you about newspaper reports that used the phrase 神風タクシー to describe dangerous cab drivers.
Interestingly, in places where English would use the word kamikaze, such as when describing suicide bombers, Japanese would more likely call these terrorists: 自爆テロ.
Whereas Japan is notorious for loaning words from other languages and then changing their meanings, it is interesting to note that the English language does similar things with Japanese. The way that most English speakers would use ‘kamikaze’ is very different to the way most Japanese would. It serves as a good lesson for learners that it is important to understand the way each country uses its own words since they can often be used in ways that are very different to their English equivalents.