Saturday, December 4, 2010

Kamikaze - The Divine Winds of Japan

We are all familiar with the word “kamikaze” used as a reference to the large group of young Japanese men that formed the world’s first suicide pilot squadrons during World War 2. Kamikaze pilots flew their aircraft, usually packed with explosives, into allied ships operating in the Pacific Ocean during 1944 and 1945 in an attempt to inflict maximum possible damage at the expense of the life of the pilot.

The kamikaze squadrons inflicted a large amount of damage on allied shipping but were too late to change the course of the war.

However the term “kamikaze” was not originally used to describe suicidal military action but was in fact used many centuries earlier to describe two famous meteorological events that occurred when the Mongol warlord, Kublai Khan twice tried to invade Japan using formidable naval armadas.

Portrait of Kublai Khan, circa 1265 (Image from Wikipedia Commons - click to enlarge)

The first time, in the year 1274, the Mongol fleet was smashed by a typhoon, with an estimated loss of one in three ships and more than 10,000 warriors drowned.

Kublai Khan tried again, seven years later, in the year 1281, this time with part of his fleet successfully landing in Hakata Bay where they were fought off by Japan’s Samurai warriors. However the Mongol fleet was reinforced by a much larger naval force some two months later and it seemed that the Japanese would be overrun.

Then, amazingly, another typhoon blasted across the area, this time doing far more damage than had been seen in 1274. Some 3000 ships were sunk with thousands of invading Mongols drowned. Kublai Khan gave up the idea of a Japanese invasion after this disaster.

Depiction of the loss of the second Mongol fleet in the typhoon of 1281. This was painted by the Japanese artist Kikuchi Yosai in 1847. (Image from Wikipedia Commons - click to enlarge)

The Japanese had twice been saved from invasion by the mighty blasts of typhoons, and these storms were thereafter named “Kamikaze”, or “Divine Winds” that had been sent by the Gods to save their country.

Tropical revolving storms are called “hurricanes” in the Americas and this is from the Mayan storm God “Hunrakan”, although the Caribs also had their God of Evil named “Hurican”. Throughout the far-east, including Japan, they are known as typhoons, and this is derived from the Chinese “tai fung” meaning “great wind”. However there is also an Arabic word “ tufan” meaning a sudden or violent storm, and this, in turn may be related to the ancient Greek word “tuphon”, meaning “father of the winds”.

In India, Australia and Bangladesh these storms are known as tropical cyclones.

It has been estimated that since 1850 alone, more than two million people from around the world have died as a result of tropical revolving storms, but the actual figure is probably far higher as records are incomplete and probably inaccurate.

Typhoon "Jelawat" nears the coastline of Japan in June, 2006. (Image courtesy of NASA - click to enlarge)

In the case of Kublai Khan however, typhoons smashed his military ambitions, and his fearsome Mongol armies, all-conquering through China and Korea, were never able to capture Japan.

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