L'Ombre de l'Olivier

The Shadow of the Olive Tree

being the maunderings of an Englishman on the Côte d'Azur

11 July 2006 Blog Home : July 2006 : Permalink

Kamikaze and Seppuku

My wife tends to get annoyed at French news reporters who refer to suicide terrorists (such as those who struck in India today or in London last year) as "kamikazes". I'd never really thought too much about it, beyond realizing that kamikaze (神風) is the word for "wind from the gods" and initially referred to the storms that according to legent destroyed the Mongol invasion fleets in 1274 and 1281*. The nuts who ran Japan in the 1930s and 1940s adapted this legend for the creation of the tokkotai  suicide squads who were supposed to stop the American invasion forces in 1944/45 but while I recognized that this was clearly a brutal borrowing of an otherwise decent historical event I did not really consider what else might be involved.

Now however Japundit's Ampontan has a truly fascinating post about a book on the unfortunates who, contrary to western stereotypes, rarely volunteered to be part of the tokkotai. The book seems to be a bit of a curate's egg, and the Japan Times review of it seems to be worse, but the post is a must read and Ampontan also links to a truly excellent site called Kamikaze Images which also reviews the book, pointing out certain errors, and has an excellent essay on current Japanese thinking amongst many other fascinating documents.

There is without doubt a significant portion of Japanese thought that finds the idea of suicide in war or for honour to be one worth celebrating. Although it has some odd aspects, in many ways I think it is not much different from the "he laid down his life that we might live" of christianity, and certainly the idea of the warrior sacrificing himself to save his clan/army/country is common worldwide as is the related concept of the person who seeks justice no matter that it may result in his own death. This no doubt explains why many westerners appreciate the story of the 47 ronin
There is also a sort of respect for the "gallant loser" aspect to it as well. I don't say it is completely explicable; for example, I find rather morbid the seppuku re-enactment in Aizu Wakamatsu at the grave site for the Byakkotai which is a popular tourist attraction.

The militirists of the Meiji/Taisho/Showa era Japan certainly twisted honour and respect to suit their own purposes, but while they may have frequently mistreated civilians and sent their juniors out on suicide missions, they embraced suicide more as a way to fight to the death (e.g. the pointless last cruise of the Yamato recently made into a movie) than as a way to inflict terror on others. Today it seems to me that this has now been turned into a sort of morbid sentimentality at the lives cut so tragically short by self-inflicted death and a fascination for what they thought and so on. It seems to me that the tokkotai are regarded in Japan in a similar way to the way Texans regard the defenders of the Alamo and hence if you see the Kamikaze fighters of WW2 as part of that honourable warrior tradition then it makes a lot of sense to reject the hijacking of the name by a bunch of terrorists who bear no resemblence to your samurai ancestors.

*It is entirely possible that in reality shoddy shipbuilding and cautious commanders also contributed to the defeat of the invasion.

I despise l'Escroc and Vile Pin