The Wikipedia entry for kamikaze says flatly that it was not the Japanese term:

The Japanese themselves did not use the word Kamikaze to refer to these World War II attacks. The official Japanese term was tokubetsu kōgeki tai (特別攻撃隊 “Special Attack Units”). The word Shinpū (also meaning “divine wind”; just another reading of the same kanji for kamikaze) was also used informally for suicide units. U.S. translators erroneously used the Japanese word Kamikaze, which has a similar original meaning of “divine wind” (see Kamikaze typhoon).

Later it explains that “The word kamikaze originated as the name of major typhoons in 1274 and 1281, which dispersed Mongolian invasion fleets,” which I had known. But the business about the two readings (compare hara-kiri/seppuku) intrigued me. Unfortunately, when I investigated further, things got murky; this site says

The two Japanese characters (kanji) for “kamikaze” (meaning “divine wind”) can be read in two ways: “kamikaze” or “shinpu.” Nagatsuka speculates that nisei (second-generation Japanese-Americans) in the U.S. military were the first to use the pronunciation “kamikaze” to describe the special attack suicide squads because “they did not know how to read Japanese correctly and so pronounced the two Japanese characters for Divine Wind in a more vernacular way [kamikaze]” (p. 142). He cites no support for such an assertion. Although Shinpu was the official name given to the first unit formed in the Philippines in October 1944, people in Japan both during and after the war frequently read the two kanji as “kamikaze.”

I added a [citation needed] tag, but being too impatient to wait for some Wikipedian to notice and respond, I thought I’d ask you all: anybody know whether ordinary Japanese used the term kamikaze during the war or whether it was imported from ignorant Yanks afterwards?


  1. Did you notice this other review from that same site?

    The telegraph did not indicate the pronunciation of the two Chinese characters that make up the word kamikaze or shinpu, so they translated it using the most commonly used pronunciation (i.e., kamikaze).

    Which seems to imply a Kanji-based telegraph code.

  2. I wish I knew the answer. I poked around a bit to see if a blind search might lead to an answer, and one interesting site I stumbled across was, wait! . . . Languagehat?
    From 2004:

  3. “Kamikaze” has been the traditional pronounciation, dating back as far as the works of the poet Kakinomoto no Hitomaro. The military started using “shinpu” at one point (although never in an official sense from what I can see). Post-war Japanese mass media also coined the term “kamikaze”.
    The only other example I can think of where “kamikaze” has been turned into “shinpu” was during the Satsuma Rebellion.
    Sorry, not really a direct answer to your question.

  4. For what it’s worth, the Japanese version of the article (under 特別攻撃隊 tokubetsu kōgeki tai), has the following:

    Tokkōtai” covers a wide range of aerial, naval, and other units, both in the army and navy, the most famous of which was the naval air unit “Shinpū Tokubetsu Kōgekitai”.

    (It goes on to explain the older roots of the usage in the Mongol invasions, and possible influence from the abortive samurai revolt of the early Meiji era known as the “Shinpū Insurrection” 神風連の乱.)
    Then we have this:


    The original reading was “Shinpū Tokubetsu Kōgekitai”, but after the narration in volume 232 of Nippon Nyuusu(a wartime “news movie” -Azuma) read it as “Kamikaze Tokubetsu Kōgekitai” in its report of the first such attack, “kamikaze” became the standard usage.

    The citation after the volume number helpfully ads only that the records of the cameraman 稲垣浩邦 INAGAKI Hirokuni show that the actual date of his footage (and thus the first such attack) was 10/21, not 10/25 (presumably as reported in said vol. 232).
    I’m not really qualified to comment on the probable veracity of all this, but it does seem more likely to me personally that the switch from on’yomi to kun’yomi came from a Japanese source, and it’s easy to imagine the propaganda value of the allusive “kamikaze” over “shinpū”.

  5. Languagehat?
    Oh for god’s sake. And this isn’t the first time this kind of thing has happened. Funny, I did feel a faint niggling of the sort that usually leads me to search my archives, but it was late and I was tired…
    On the other hand, the older thread, though interesting and amusing (orange-peeling?), didn’t actually answer the question; the most expert respondent said:
    As to whether [kamikaze] was used contemporaneously, and how, that would probably require some newspaper archive, and other primary source documents. While the kanji might have been used as is, there’s a chance that one might find furigana in some instances.
    So maybe, four years later, I’ll be able to get an answer…

  6. And if Azuma’s second citation is correct, it certainly seems that the [kamikaze] reading was indeed used by the Japanese during the war. Thanks! Now if I only knew how to correct the Wikipedia article in a convincing enough way it wouldn’t get reverted…

  7. Just to offer a minor point that hasn’t been stated yet, ‘kamikaze’ is the native Japanese reading of the characters 神風, while ‘shinpu’ is the Japanese rendering of the Chinese pronounciation–in the same way that ‘harakiri’ is the native pronunciation and ‘seppuku’ is the Chinese-based proniunciation.

  8. caffeind says

    Probably the same people who insist you have to say Fujisan, not Fujiyama.

  9. I was briefly one of those people, until I woke up and realized I was speaking English, not Japanese. (I also used to be one of those annoying people who insisted the new century doesn’t begin until the ’01 year.)

  10. Azuma scooped me. That’s the story I’ve heard repeated multiple places, and like Azuma says the idea that the pronunciation “kamikaze” wasn’t applied to these units by the Japanese themselves is completely ridiculous, given the fact that the native Japanese “kamikaze” was the one that all Japanese knew, and the obvious referent.
    To be charitable, the Wikipedia author who wrote that part may have meant “the Japanese GOVERNMENT” or something similar. I’m sure that official sources were careful to use the official pronunciation right up until the surrender, and beyond. (In fact I hear that at Yasukuni Shrine they still use it.)
    My hypothesis-summary: The official name, which used the Sino-Japanese pronunciation for prestige or other reasons, was rejected by the non-official community of Japanese speakers, who stuck with the pronunciation they already knew. When allied forces picked up on the term, the version they picked up was the one commonly in use. Using this in an official context would indeed arguably be a mistake, if your goal was to represent accurately the official Japanese terminology.

  11. This reminds me of the “Raymond Luxury Yacht”/”Throat-warbler Mangrove” controversy of recent years. And frightfully so.

  12. OK, I’ve made the appropriate changes to the Wikipedia article; we’ll see if I get… shot down! Hahahaha… I slay me! (Like a kamikaze pilot!)

  13. Hi, I have discussed this issue with my Japanese wife and her father, a retired teacher of history at a private Shinto high school. Essentially, they confirm Azuma’s position without knowing the details of the change from shinpu to kamikaze. However, they confirm (my father-in-law was a college student whose draft notice came in August of 1945) that kamikaze was the common term during the war and that is was consciously chosen in order to bring to people’s minds the repelling of the Mongol invasions.
    Anyway, thank you to LanguageHat and to the other commenters for making this one of the most interesting and intelligent blogs.
    Steve Green
    Oiso, Japan

  14. Thanks very much, Steve! It’s great to get that kind of confirmation.

  15. ROY BELMONT says


  16. Azuma scooped me too. I got up at 8 this morning here in Japan to see that a good answer was found. All I can add to the mix is that the “Nihon Nyuusu” Number 232 seems to have been been shown from late October to early November in 1944. (The Japanese Wikipedia entry does not provide the year of the “Nihon Nyuusu” broadcast in question.)
    It is very common in Japan for something to have an official name, and then a nickname using an alternative reading of the kanji or a some other shortening. This feels like that kind of thing to me. The Wikipedia entry also mentions the popularity of the “kamikaze” pronunciation as a contributing factor to its continued use after the war.

Speak Your Mind