Kamikaze: the Divine Wind

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Towards the end of World War II, desperation by the Empire of Japan led them to adopt the extreme tactic of flying suicide missions against allied shipping. Planes laden with explosives would be deliberately crashed into ships with the object of causing maximum casualties for the loss of a single Japanese pilot.

These missions were termed “kamikaze”, which means “divine wind”. But where did the term originate?

It relates to an important incident in Japanese history back in 1281. The Mongols of central Asia had established a vast empire that stretched from Hungary in the west to Korea in the east. This had been due largely to the campaigns of Genghis Khan, but it was his grandson Kublai Khan who was determined to add Japan to what had, up to that point, been a contiguous land-based empire.

In August 1281 he assembled a vast fleet of ships that were capable of transporting 140,000 soldiers. These were landed at Hakata Bay on Kyushu, the southernmost of Japan’s four main islands, but they were met by a fierce response in the form of Japanese samurai warriors. The invaders withdrew to their ships to plan their next move.

Traditionally, the Japanese had always feared the 1st of September, which is day 210 of the lunar calendar then in use in Japan. This was called the “day of storms” because it was the mid-point of the typhoon season and bad weather often occurred on that day.

Had the Mongols spent more time at sea and less on land during their many years of conquest, they might have realized that this was not a good time of the year to mount an invasion from the sea, but that was the mistake they had made. A terrible typhoon duly arrived on 1st September and caused utter havoc to the Mongol fleet.

Many of the ships were sunk in the storm, with others being driven on shore and the shipwrecked soldiers promptly killed by the Japanese defenders. One estimate of the disaster put the casualty figure as high as 100,000.

The typhoon therefore became the divine wind – the kamikaze that would deliver Japan from its enemies.


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  1. I bet Kublai didn’t think there was anything kami about that kaze 🙂 If he’d been prepared to wait a week or two, how different would have been the course of world history!
    But I wonder where you got the date 1 September? The Japanese lunar year began 4 February, give or take one day, resulting in a day 120 of 15 August, the date mentioned by Harold Winters on page 13 of this: as well as the ‘Japan at War’ encyclopedia page 253 .

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