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Kamikaze: Definition, History & Attacks

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

In World War II, kamikaze missions were among the most brutal and psychologically terrifying. In this lesson, we'll look at the history and ideology of this tactic and see where it was used.

The Kamikaze

In warfare, fear is a common tool used by armies to discourage their enemies from fighting. It makes sense; the fear of death runs deep within humanity. But what do you do if your enemy isn't afraid of death? What if they go into war with the intention of dying?

This is what made the kamikaze pilots of World War II such a formidable and terrifying fighting force. Kamikaze was a military tactic that used pilots as weapons, flying their planes straight into Allied ships. It was seen by pilots as a glorious, honorable suicide, a death to serve the emperor and save Japan from invasion. The kamikaze pilots flew their missions knowing they would never return. How do you combat that?

A kamikaze unit preparing for a mission
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The First Kamikaze

Kamikaze as a suicide-based military tactic emerged in World War II, but the term itself is actually much older. Way back in the 13th century the Mongol emperor Kublai Kahn conquered China, creating an empire that stretched across the entire continent of Asia. He then turned his sights on Japan.

In 1274, the Mongols launched a massive fleet of 500-900 ships from mainland Asia. They defeated the smaller Japanese fleet and continued to make their way towards the islands. Then, a massive typhoon seemingly appeared out of nowhere. It destroyed the entire Mongol fleet, and Japan was saved. The Mongols, of course, were not willing to let Japan slip through their grasp so easily, so they amassed an even larger fleet, totaling over 4,000 ships. Again, as they prepared to anchor their ships and invade the island, a typhoon appeared and destroyed this fleet as well. The samurai of Japan killed the survivors who made it to the beach. Japan had been saved a second time, and the Mongols never again invaded the islands.

A typhoon destroyed most of the Mongol fleet, and samurai defeated the rest
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The Japanese people claimed that they had been saved by a divine wind, which literally translates to a kamikaze (the 'kami' are divine spirits of the Shinto religion). According to sources from the time, people believed that the Shinto deities Raijin (associated with storms) or Fujin (associated with wind) sent the typhoons to save Japan from destruction.

Kamikaze in WWII

The typhoons that saved Japan were seen as divine winds, sent to protect the island from invasion. That history was again evoked in World War II, when the Allies began directly attacking the Japanese islands. Young pilots, raised in a culture of obedience to the state and deeply committed to the defense of their nation, were asked to volunteer for suicide missions that would weaken the invading forces. The war was coming towards an end, and the people of Japan began to worry about an invasion of their homes. Falling from the sky, these pilots would form their own divine wind to sink enemy fleets and protect the islands.

It's important for us to remember that suicide has historically meant something unique in Japan, where voluntary self-sacrifice has long been part of traditional codes of honor. Thousands of young pilots volunteered with little prompting. We can see the importance of this code in the dress of the kamikaze pilots; they were known for wearing a white headband into their missions. This was a samurai symbol of pre-battle composure, courage, and calm in the face of death.

The first major use of kamikaze in World War II occurred in 1944, at the Battle of Leyte Gulf. A massive American and Australian fleet invaded the islands of Leyte and Samar near the Philippines, to cut Japan off from its supply routes. Up to 26 suicide pilots, their ships overloaded with bombs or gasoline, dove straight into a major American carrier and destroyed it.

The USS St Lo, the first ship sunk by kamikaze pilots
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