An Ill Wind: Our Kamikaze Flag

Posted by Peg Boettcher at


If all had gone according to plan, this somber memento of World War II would not exist. The young Japanese student pilot whose friends signed it as a good luck token would have folded it neatly and tucked it into his flight jacket. He would have climbed into his plane, perhaps a tsurugi designed especially for the mission by virtue of its having no landing gear – and tied on his victory headband.

He might have fought his fear by remembering what his commander had told him about the divine wind, the kamikaze. When the armies of Kublai Khan started across the sea to invade Japan in the thirteen century, a typhoon destroyed them. This pilot was told he would destroy invaders as the kamikaze had, and would give this life to stop the approach of an Allied Forces aircraft carrier.

What happened? Maybe the pilot was forced by engine trouble to return to base, where far from being treated as a war god, he was screamed at for being a coward. Perhaps he decided, as others had, not to sacrifice his life for a lost cause, and put the flag away. We have only the flag here, a reminder of a terrible time in that terrible war.

About the word
The Japanese commanders did not use the word kamikaze. They referred to the suicide attack group as Tokubetsu Kōgekitai (Special Attack Unit). Over 3,800 pilots were sent to die in this manner during the course of the war. Fewer than 20% of kamikaze attacks managed to hit a ship.

The legend
According to Japanese legend, Raijin, god of lightning, thunder, and storms called up the kamikaze (divine wind), to keep the Mongols from invading Japan. Raijin is an old god, one of the original Shinto deities, called kaminari (from kami “spirit” and nari “thunder"). For many centuries it was thought that the story was only a fable, but recent archaeological finds support the tale that a vast ancient navy went to a watery grave off the shores of Japan.

• Learn about the first kamikaze attack of World War II.
• Read about how the invading Mongol fleet was destroyed in the 13th century.

Peg Boettcher has been wrangling curios and working for Ye Olde Curiosity Shop since 2004.

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