Kamikazes: What Were They? Who Were They And How Did They Sign Up For This?

By Grace Taylor
Japanese kamikaze putting on his forehead bandeau with rising sun, Pacific war, 1944–1945 colorized document. (Apic/Getty Images)

By fall 1944, the Pacific theater of World War II had slipped out of Japan's control, they had lost a huge percentage of their trained pilots, and the dwindling supply of aircraft that they had left were proving ineffective against Allied forces. The Land of the Rising Sun began taking increasingly drastic measures to maintain a defensive position, and on October 25, 1944, they resorted to a practice unthinkable to most of the Western world by employing suicide bombers, A.K.A. kamikaze strikes, against the Allied warships in the Battle of Leyte Gulf.

How Did We Get Here?

Prior to World War II, Japan had never been successfully invaded by a foreign power. When the Mongols got close in the 1200s, they were taken out by a freakishly lucky series of typhoons, which the people of Japan regarded as a type of "divine wind," or kamikaze, meant to save them from foreign subjugation.

Japan also has a long history of ritual suicide. Since the ancient era of the samurai, ritual suicide, or seppuku, was a fairly common practice, either as a means to preserve one's honor or avoid capture on the battlefield. Being captured by an enemy was simply not an option to many Japanese soldiers, and mass suicide was common among soldiers and civilians alike when faced with the possibility. In a particularly brutal case during the Battle of Okinawa, the Home Guard handed out grenades so the locals could go out quick and easy, and many jumped to their deaths from the Laderan Banadero cliff during the long Battle of Saipan, believing American forces would rape and torture them when caught.