22 November 2004

The Meanings of Kamikaze

Language Hat has an interesting discussion thread about how kamikaze came to mean 'suicide attack'. I'll elevate my comment there to a blogpost here.

I suspect kamikaze 'divine wind' was probably first no more than an inscription on the hachimaki 'headband' that is still worn by many Japanese on a special mission, whether or not that mission is likely to be fatal. Other hachimaki can have other motivational slogans like 'Victory', 'Success', or 'Fighting Spirit'. (Too bad there aren't old Confucian slogans that literally translate as 'Exceed Sales Target' or 'Constantly Innovate'!)

There is nothing intrinsic in kamikaze that suggests suicide (less than there is in an American slogan like "Remember the Alamo!"), but there is a strong suggestion of a devastating air attack on shipping. I wonder if the suicide submarine Kaiten Tokkoutai ('Turn Heaven Special Attack Force') also wore hachimaki with kamikaze written on them. I can't quite make out the characters on the hachimaki in the photos at the link, but I doubt they say 'Safety First'. Like the original kamikaze, the suicide submarines and airplanes both aimed to destroy ships at sea.

There were at least two varieties of "special attack" planes: Thunder Gods and Kamikaze. 'Thunder god' may translate kaminari 'thunder', now written with a single Chinese character but clearly derived from something like 'god-sound'. The Kaminari Ohka ('thunder cherry-blossom') "was a piloted glider bomb released from beneath a mother plane and used in suicide attacks on Allied ships." Cherry blossoms in samurai culture connote the transience of life--therefore death, and frequently death in battle.

To end off on a lighter note: I'm sorry, but the much rarer Chinese reading of kamikaze--shinpuu--just makes me think of a divine wind of the odiferous (though hardly suicidal) kind!

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