The term kamikaze
for "divine wind
dates back to the two Mongol invasion
s of Japan
the 13th century, both instigated by Kublai Khan
The first attack in 1274
had 40,000 Mongol warriors with 900 ships
against 10,000 defending Japanese, but a severe
hit the area immediately after the
Mongol army had landed, causing heavy casualties and
aborting the invasion. The second wave of the attack
followed in 1281
, with no less than 140,000 Mongol
invaders in over 4000 ships facing a mere 40,000
Japanese, but the fleet did not even get a chance to land before a freak typhoon
hit, drowning most of the army
and scattering the remnants in disarray. Before World War II
, these were the only attacks
ever on the Japanese mainland, and the accompanying
fortuitous acts of nature -- promptly dubbed kamikaze
-- were taken
by the Japanese as proof
of the gods' protection
for their country.
In pre-WW2 era of State Shinto,
the divine winds became a part of the official mythology
of the country, used for indoctrination of students and soldiers.
Thus, when in the desperate last days of the war
the Japanese Air Force created the
Tokubetsu Kougekitai ("Special Attack Force")
for organized suicide attacks on enemy ships,
the first mission (October 25, 1944)
was dubbed Shinpuu, the on-yomi
(Chinese) reading of the characters kamikaze;
this name was adopted for use in later attacks as well.
Still, this was not a formal designation for the corps,
and the Japanese public knows them best under the abbreviated name Tokkoutai. The pilots themselves are known simply as tokkou tai'in, "special force soldiers".
Despite public perception to the contrary, the Tokkoutai pilots were trained pilots who volunteered for the job, although some brainwashing and psychological pressure were undoubtedly involved.
Before the creation of the formal organization
there had already been spontaneous suicide attacks, where
wounded pilots or pilots with heavily damaged aircraft
had opted to intentionally crash into the enemy
in order to take them out as well, instead of dying in
vain. According to Lieutenant Onishi, who came up with
the idea, the Tokkoutai was not intended as an efficient means of warfare, but it was hoped that it would
prove a strong psychological
weapon that would inspire the Japanese and
demoralize the Allies.
And while some training was still needed, no actual
combat skills were necessary for suicide missions.
All types of Japanese aircraft were used for
tokkoutai operations, usually modified simply by
adding a large quantity of explosives to the nose,
which in some later models was detachable.
Even gliders were modified into
suicide assault craft, named Ohka
("Cherry Blossom") by the Japanese but more
aptly renamed by the Americans as
Baka Bomb (baka being Japanese for
"idiot"), since they were launched from lumbering
bombers that were quite easy to shoot down.
Estimates of casualties vary by an order of magnitude
depending on the source.
According to the US Navy's research,
a total of 1228 aircraft
with 2198 men on board were lost by the Japanese Air Force after October 1944, although it is not clear how many of these were actual suicide attacks. In total, they succeeded in sinking 34 ships
and damaging 288, killing 738 people and wounding approximately 1300 in the process. After initial devastation during
the Philippine campaign, Allied ships soon learned to use heavy armor and anti-aircraft guns to better defend themselves against suicide attacks. Prior to surrender, the Japanese had prepared over 5000 aircraft for additional tokkoutai strikes.
Japanese suicide attacks were not limited to the air force, as military tactics in ground assaults often verged on or outright were suicidal. The Japanese also developed a weapon known as kaiten, a human-controlled torpedo used to destroy enemy ships, but this never really got out of the testing phase.
Should you ever end up in Tokyo, be sure to
check out the Yushukan (War Memorial Museum)
in the grounds of the Yasukuni Shrine,
which has many exhibits related to the tokkoutai
and their naval counterparts, including many letters
written by suicide pilots, an Ohka glider
and an unused kaiten human
torpedo. Pictures of these can be found at the shrine's
website, www.yasukuni.or.jp/english/, under the "Yushukan" link.