Kamikaze (you know, the 'crash plane into boat' thing) is, for Japanese learners like myself, initially a very confusing word. In Japanese it's 神風, 神 meaning god, gods, divinity, etc. And 風 means wind, or things related to wind (it can also mean 'style' but that's not important.)

Thus, you get 神風, or 'Divine Wind', referring to the two typhoons that twice saved Japan from Mongol invasion. The Japanese saw America and friends as 'invaders' (despite Japan having attacked first...), and thus the kamikaze pilots saw themselves as performing an act symbolically similar to the aforementioned typhoons.

That said, it's not called 神風 in Japanese, it's called 特攻 or Tokkō (special attack), with a squad of pilots being called a 特攻隊 or Tokkōtai (special attack squad).

So ya, why exactly did the more English speaking ally powers pick up kamikaze as a loanword rather then tokko, when that's what it was actually called?

3 Answers 3


It's possible we adopted the term Kamikaze because that's what we heard from the Japanese themselves. The term was apparently used by Tokyo Rose on her broadcasts to the American troops.

The book Lucky Lady: The World War II Heroics of the USS Santa Fe and Franklin,By Steve Jackson, states she declared the Japanese had a new

"superweapon...the kamikaze...the divine wind".

This broadcast was dated Nov 25, 1944. The term was what the GI's and sailors heard over their radios, in English, not the full unit designations. And that's what stuck in their minds.

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    "her"? The article you're linking to itself points out that there was no one person "tokyo rose" refers to; That was just a name for english japanese propaganda broadcasts.
    – Cubic
    Jul 10, 2018 at 11:05

In English, nobody has the power to decide which words get used. It's purely a matter of what people decide to use. Textbook authors have a bit of influence, but only a bit. Journalists, broadcasters and authors of popular fiction often popularise new words or expressions.

The Wikipedia page reckons that Imperial Japanese Navy special attack units were called shinpū tokubetsu kōgeki tai (神風特別攻撃隊, "divine wind special attack units"), where Shinpū is the Chinese-based pronunciation of the characters that are also pronounced "Kamikaze."

I suspect, but cannot prove, that "Kamikaze" got used because it sounded more interesting than "Tokkō". It's also more obvious how to pronounce "Kamikaze" to English-speakers, who are often uncertain how to treat unfamiliar accented characters. This is because English has loanwords from lots of different languages, with different pronunciation rules.

  • Cool, thx! Also the 'ō' is often just dropped by English speakers, hence Kyoto and Tokyo aren't written Kyōto and Tōkyō.
    – Tirous
    Feb 14, 2017 at 23:03
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    I'm not sure "kamikaze" is all that easy to pronounce. If you'd never seen or heard the word before, you'd probably imagine it had only three syllables, either rhyming with "Amy daze" or "hammy daze". Feb 15, 2017 at 18:01
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    I didn't say they'd be getting the pronunciation right ;) Feb 15, 2017 at 18:50

Headlines! Kamikaze sounds like "kill crazy", easier to remember and more violent sounding (and exactly how I remember remembering it as a kid).

Newspapers, newsreels, and radio were the propagandists of the time and to heighten fears and ignite the fervor for war (and profit to weapons companies and others tied to the military) the easiest to remember and most fearsome word was used. Today anyone not toting Western financial interests is labeled "terrorist"; it's simple, catchy, and carries emotional gravitas. Basically Kamikaze was the best term for marketing the war.

Around the same time we had Crazy Commies, the Kremlin, Castro's Cuba, Korean Commie Gooks. Just seemed like a fad for all those "k" or hard "C" sounds.

Maybe also to do with how the lungs press out the K sound, more vigorously than other letters except those that our favorite expletives begin with that share a big harsh sound F---, Sh--, G--dammit, C---. Also, from personal experience in restaurants, dishes beginning with "K" sell better. Take a special that isn't selling, change name to begin with K - it works for about 30% better sales, not huge difference but consistent. Basically same rules mentioned for swear words apply to entrees.

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