I had always understood (as the etymologies in dictionaries told me) that the word kamikaze means ‘divine wind’ in Japanese, originally referred to the storms that hit the Mongol fleet in 1281 and saved Japan from invasion, and was later used to refer to Japanese suicide pilots during World War Two (the only sense in English). Now I learn (from Hippietrail) that this is misleading, that (according to feedback he’s gotten on Wikipedia) in Japanese the reading kamikaze refers only to the thirteenth-century event and for the suicide pilots the same characters are read shinpū… except that others say the correct Japanese term is tokkōtai. (Relevant Wikipedia discussion threads here and here.) I’m hoping my readers who are knowledgeable about Japanese will chime in here with more information.


  1. According to http://dictionary.goo.ne.jp/,
    Tokkoutai is listed as an abbrev. for tokubetsu-tokkoutai (roughly, “special attack forces”), a euphemism for WW-II suicide squad, with kamikaze listed as a synonym.
    A quick Google search came up with:
    kamikaze-tokubetsu-tokkoutai, and kaiten-tokubetsu-tokkoutai, and
    知覧 (chiran?)-tokubetsu-tokkoutai,
    My military history isn’t anywhere near good enough to understand what these groupings signified. I’m hoping there are Language Hat readers who understand these groupings…
    BTW, the dictionary also lists shinpuu as an alternate reading way way down the list, but my IME doesn’t cooperate when I try.

  2. The typical term used by the Japanese themselves is either kamikaze or the euphemistic tokkoutai. Shinpuu is indeed an alternate reading for the kanji for “god/divinity/spirit/etc.” and “wind” but is not used commonly.

  3. Shinpuu would probably be the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese words (shenfeng).
    A friend of mine says that even a well-educated Japanese cannot be sure how to read a passage of written Japanese (using kanji) aloud. The choice between Japanese and Sino-Japanese words is only the beginning of the problem.
    The Japanese seem to do everything in inefficient, but pleasing and interesting ways which are obligatory. A Japanese-American friend told me that she was taught the correct way to peel an orange and was expeted always to use that method.

  4. John, your example will be correct only if the method was inefficient. Was it?
    I never knew what is efficient and aesthetically pleasing method of eating kivi until Japanese classmate in college showed me (cutting the fruit in half and using metal teaspoon).

  5. My Kodansha Encylopedia of Japan (in English) has a one line entry for Tokkoutai (特攻隊) which simply points to the main entry, Kamikaze Special Attack Force (神風特別攻撃隊):

    (Kamikaze Tokubetsu Kougekitai or Tokkoutai) General name given to units of specially trained pilots who attacked Allied ships in suicide dives toward the end of World War II. Named for the kamikaze, or “divine wind” that had repelled the Mongol invasions of Japan in the 13th century…

    I was surprised to see “kamikaze” included in the name since I thought that “tokkoutai” was the term commonly used in Japan. But the entry for 神風 (kamikaze) in my J/E electronic dictionary also includes:

    神風特攻隊 (kamikaze tokkoutai) a kamikaze (suicide) corps; 神風運転手 a kamikaze [daredevil/reckless] (taxi) driver.

    The first two sites from a Google Japan search for 特攻隊 (tokkoutai) are:

    回天特攻隊 Kaiten Tokkoutai (the naval equivalent of the suicide plane, the kaiten was a one-man submarine packed with 1.7 tons of explosives).

    Tokkoutai Commemoration Peace Memorial Association 特攻隊戦没者慰霊平和祈念協会 (Tokkoutai Senbotsusha Irei Heiwa Kinen Kyoukai).

    So perhaps “kamikaze” is used in this context mainly for the benefit of non-Japanese.

    The “chiran” to which boo refers is almost certainly the Chiran air force base in southern Kyushu from which many of the kamikaze attacks were launched. A few years ago I visited the museum, which is called the Chiran Tokkou Heiwa Kinenkan (知覧特攻平和記念館) or Special Attack Force and Peace Memorial.

  6. The inefficiency refers to the writing system. In the case of peeling oranges, the peculiarity to me is that my friend was given to understand that good Japanese (and good people) all peeled their oranges exactly that way, and never any other way.

  7. John, when thing reaches perfection it can not be improved.

  8. I feel like John’s being remiss in failing to elucidate us on the proper orange peeling method. But, how is this different from any set and “definitive” system of manners. There are Proper ways to serve iced tea, after all, depending on where you’re from.
    In observation, while I’ve been living in Japan, I’ve seen every which way of peeling oranges, incidentally. Of course, I’m probably hanging out with the uncouth young.
    Turning to the Kojien, which while not the most comprehensive dictionary of the Japanese language, is the authority that trivia and news shows turn to when they want to point out an odd Japanese word….
    There are three entries for 神風 (kamikaze) proper.
    The first is the “wind caused by spirit/diety” meaning. Incidentally, this is the only meaning that the Kojien lists under the “shinpuu” reading. Also, when I went to the 漢字源, under the reading “shinpuu” I find “an unusually strong wind that a spirit/diety is said to have caused”. The kanji for wind is a bit different here, 神飆, but it shows that the idea exists in old Chinese texts.
    The second meaning is the English understanding of “kamikaze” as a “nickname” for the “commando troops” of World War 2. This meaning can also be found in the longer compound 神風特別攻撃隊 (kamikaze tokubetsu kougeki tai–literally “kamikaze special attack troop”).
    There’s a third meaning listed, which may come from English (I’ll check the æž— when the library opens again, I think, to see if it lists a language of origin), is “someone who drives without regard to their life.” The example given is カミカゼタクシー (“kamikaze taxi”).
    Incidentally, World War Two was not the first time in the last 150 years when the idea of the “divine wind” was used in service of nationalistic protectionism. In 1876, a group called the 神風連 (Shinpuuren), taking the edict against wearing swords as an excuse, attacked at night and killed a garrison of government troops. Since they eschewed guns for swords (honestly, if guns were good enough for the Sengoku daimyo… but then, just as well these lot were rather short-sighted), once the army had a chance to organize, they were rather quickly disposed of. Not so good against awake, armed opponents.
    As to whether 神風 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.

  9. Off-topic, but I’m curious as to why the kanji in boo’s post and mine are rendered correctly whereas kristina’s turned into gibberish. I seem to recall this has happened before.
    Looking at the source code I see that the kanji in boo’s and my posts have been converted to Unicode entities but kristina’s have not. And yet the character set is specified as “charset=iso-8859-1” (that’s the Latin 1 character set).
    On my own blog, which uses the UTF-8 character set, Japanese text is not converted to Unicode entities (which is better since it allows searches in both English and Japanese — and any other language, I imagine, although I only use those two).
    Does anyone have any idea what’s happening? As in: why the conversion to Unicode entities and also why not for kristina’s Japanese text?

  10. Kamikaze Taxi was a term first popularized in the Japanese mass-media in the 1950s when reckless driving was common in an attempt to maximize mileage (hence revenue) in the under-regulated taxi industry.
    Complete story (in Japanese):
    Speaking of how these nuances change when words get borrowed, a few months ago I was in a midtown eatery with my (Japanese) wife who asked me to explain one of the menu items: “Kamikaze Burger”.
    She wasn’t offended, just extremely puzzled. I guess humor doesn’t travel.

  11. I have to admit I’m puzzled too.
    kristina: Thanks for the detailed explanation!

  12. 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 headbands can have other motivational slogans, equivalent to American slogans like “Remember Pearl Harbor!”
    See hachimaki with slogans like ‘Victory’, ‘Success’, or ‘Fighting Spirit’.
    There is nothing intrinsic in kamikaze that suggests suicide, but there is a strong suggestion of a devastating air attack on shipping. It would be slightly more surprising if the submarine Kaiten (‘return-heaven’ [‘to’ or ‘from’?]) Tokkoutai (‘Special Attack Squadron’) wore hachimaki with ‘kamikaze’ written on them, although the original kamikaze did destroy ships at sea.
    See 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’. And “Ohka” in the article is like to translate ‘cherry blossoms’, which in samurai culture connote the transience of life, therefore death, but not necessarily suicide.
    To end off on a lighter note: I’m sorry, but the Chinese reading of kamikaze–shinpuu–just makes me think of heavenly fart. Perhaps more appropriate for a deadly gas attack, though not a suicidal fart!

  13. I guess if you eat a kamikaze burger you’re taking your life into your own hands. (Or diving heedlessly into your plate, nose-down.)
    I guess in Midtown, then, you could go eat a Kamikaze Burger and take a Kamikaze Taxi home to recuperate.

  14. Jonathon; the Hat’s page is served as ISO-8859-1, the principal character set designed for Western Europe and the Americas. The HTTP specifications don’t give details on how non-ASCII characters are to be encoded when sent as form data–the obvious way is to treat them as non-printable ASCII characters, and send them as %AB, where AB is the hexadecimal encoding of the character’s code in that character set.
    Since Kanji can’t be encoded in ISO-8859-1, this doesn’t work–there’s no character code to convert to hexadecimal. So what the various browsers do when someone types Kanji (or Kana, or Amharic) varies; Internet Explorer sends &#N;, a HTML encoding of the corresponding character. This happens to work for Language Hat’s page, because the posted form data is getting displayed as HTML, but would break for, as an example, sending the data as an SMS to someone’s phone.
    The Right Thing to do is to serve all your web pages as UTF-8, an ASCII-compatible variable-length Unicode encoding. That way every character in Unicode can sensibly be entered into your forms, and no more jumping through hoops will be necessary.

  15. Aidan, thanks for the explanation, particularly for the details about how IE sends the HTML character entities (I assume that Firefox does the same, since my earlier comment — including kanji — was rendered correctly).
    However, I’m still wondering why that occurred with boo’s and my comments but not kristina’s.

  16. I looked at Kristina’s mojibake. It appears that the values were UTF-8 but interpreted as UTF-7 for some reason. Does that make sense?

  17. They’re UTF-8, I don’t see any relation to UTF-7. Wonder what browser kristina posted with. IE will normally convert characters outside the page charset to numeric character reference entities, as happened with some of the earlier comments.

  18. LH: Why not set the encoding to UTF-8? Is there some concern that this will mess up older entries? It should be fairly trivial to change the default encoding in MT, I don’t use MT anymore but I remember that JD has instructions on how to do this somewhere on his web site.

  19. I’ll ask my computer guru about it. Myself, I can barely manage to post and delete spam. When I was taking computer classes, Fortran was state-of-the-art.

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