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“Kamikazë” is one of the Japanese words that most English speakers know, and they use it to refer to a suicidally dangerous attack. This is taken, of course, from the name given to the missions in which young Japanese pilots flew planes loaded with explosives into American warships at the end of WWII. The Japanese word, however, means “kami wind”, and has a much longer history.

An important event in this history occurred in the late thirteenth century, when the Mongol Horde attempted to invade and colonise Japan. They sent an enormous fleet, with a vast army that the Japanese had no realistic chance of stopping. (In this, they were no different from anyone else at the time.) Thus, they resorted to prayer.

The prayers were answered. A storm scattered and sank the fleet, and the invasion of Japan failed.

This event was closely associated with Jingū, because the state had ordered prayers there for deliverance. After the deliverance, one of the subsidiary jinja, Kazë Jinja, was elevated to Betsugū, the highest rank of subsidiary jinja, and renamed “Kazahi no Mi no Miya”. “Kazahi no Mi no Miya” means “Sanctuary of the Prayers of the Wind of the Sun”, or perhaps “Sanctuary of the Prayers of the Day of the Wind”.

However, the link between kamikazë and Jingū goes back even further. The Nihonshoki, written in the eighth century, reports that when Yamatohimë brought the sacred mirror that embodies Amaterasu Ōmikami to the future site of Jingū, in Isë Province, the kami appeared to her in a dream, and expressed her wish to be enshrined there. In that oracle, she described Isë as the “land of the kamikazë”.

I am writing about this now because a week or so ago I had dinner with my co-workers at Jinja Honchō (for the first time in years…), and one of the topics that came up was their experiences at the Shikinen Sengū, the set of ceremonies held once every twenty years to rebuild the sanctuaries and replace the treasures at Jingū, and move the kami to the new sanctuaries. There are a lot of matsuri involved, but the two most important are those in which Amaterasu Ōmikami and Toyoukë Ōmikami are moved to the new sanctuaries at the Naiku and Geku, respectively. The most recent, and the one they were talking about, was held in 2013.

The transfer matsuri take place at night, in the forest, and they all reported that it was quiet, and the air was calm, as the matsuri progressed. Then, as the procession to transfer the kami began, a wind suddenly blew through the trees, dying down as the kami reached the new sanctuary.

That is what “kamikazë” is really about.

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