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The Kamikaze

What is the background to the “Divine Wind” that was believed to protect Japan from invaders?

The Kamikaze – the Divine Wind – is a legend in Japan that the gods awoke to protect the country from the attacks of the Mongols under Khubilai Khan. On two occasions, 1274 and 1281, enormous fleets from China and Korea were launched with the intention to invade and conquer Japan. On both occasions, the invasion were repelled though the resistance of the Japanese troops and, for the second invasions, the long wall built by hard working Japanese peasants to protect the land and the privileges of the rich. The meteorological data are sparse but it is also widely believed that, on both occasions, powerful storms blew up to destroy the Mongol fleets. Evidence has emerged from the marine archaeological sites that there certainly was a storm for the second invasion attempt – fragments of Chinese-built ships and those aboard them have been brought up to the surface. These fragments indicate a much lower level of workmanship than is customary for the junks of the past, which are generally considered to be marvels of technology. Further, the many Korean ships have not been found to have sunk, indicating that they had escaped the storm (bearing in mind the historical evidence that the invasion did take place and the Koreans were involved). When the storm struck, the ships apparently were all tied together for stability. Only those able to cut themselves loose and run for the open seas were able to escape.

In the years that followed, the legend of the Kamikaze was slow to emerge and gain strength. Initially, the focus of the Japanese people was on the sacrifices they themselves had made and the valour of their samurai warriors, who should therefore be rewarded by the temporal rulers for their efforts. At that time, consequently, there was less emphasis on the role of the supernatural.

However, as time went by and especially when Japan began to become a modernized and highly militaristic state, the legend of the Kamikaze began to be seen as more important. Artists (state-sponsored and otherwise) began to use the iconography to help bolster the concept of Japan as a divinely-supported nation with a destiny mandated by heaven. The concept intensified with the progress of the Second World War and the desperate attempt to use suicide bombers to protect Japan against the advance of an enemy fleet –it had, after all, been 700 years since Japan had been menaced by the threat of invasion and that called for any form of resistance – well, that is not strictly true for the policy of suicide attacks was controversial and the information about them suppressed for fear or widespread disquiet. Japanese state agencies have traditionally found it wise to keep as much information to themselves as possible.

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