Kamikaze: some supplementary thoughts.

Halfway through a PiXL session on Friday, I checked my work emails. I was concentrating (honest!) but I always seem to have a little corner of my mind checking in on the faculty and/or Twitter. To my delight, I found that Beatrice Garland had emailed me. The. Beatrice. Garland. I’m not embarrassed to be star-struck. It was amazing. I practically forced my phone into @xris32’s hand – look! Read it! – and then furiously wrote @tillyteacher a note: “the actual Beatrice Garland has sent me an actual email!”

Beatrice Garland had replied to an email I sent her last week. I had been thinking over some of the sound patterns in Kamikaze and emailed her about it. The response she sent was actually about the context of the poem, with links to a wonderful video (shared below) and more information on the pilots.

This blog is about my teaching of the poem thus far, details of Beatrice Garland’s correspondence with me and a few more bits I’ve been thinking about since teaching it. I’ll be covering the poem with Y10 before half-term and I am already looking forward to it. I haven’t bothered to include a whole poetry analysis here – there are loads of resources already available in the public domain.

The background.

I didn’t go into too much detail with my students on this one – just the basics of the kamikaze and the notion of shame. Essentially, I used the following information for this (I’m including it here as a quick copy and paste might be of use to other teachers):

A kamikaze was a Japanese suicide pilot in World War 2. Their aircrafts were loaded with explosives and sent on missions to fly into enemy warships. Inevitably, the pilot would die in these attacks.

Kamikaze pilots were given intensive training prior to their suicide missions. As well as explaining the daily physical punishment which the kamikaze pilots were put through, Wikipedia explains that “Pilots were given a manual which detailed how they were supposed to think, prepare and attack. From this manual, pilots were told to “attain a high level of spiritual training.” These things, among others, were meant to put the pilot into the mindset in which he would be mentally ready to die.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kamikaze#Training)

Interviews with surviving kamikaze soldiers.

Beatrice Garland sent me this link to a Guardian article on Kamikaze pilots. It includes an 8 minute video, which I will show my Y10, although if you prefer to just use the written article, rest assured it covers the same ground. The wonderful thing about the video is that it’s an interview with two real kamikaze pilots, now in their later years, discussing their experiences.

She also sent me the kamikaze soldiers’ oath, with which she commented “very salutary, to see how demanding the precepts they had to swear to.” I totally agree; it is illuminating to see how the expectations placed on these men:

A soldier must make loyalty his obligation.

A soldier must make propriety his way of life.

A soldier must highly esteem military valour.

A soldier must have a high regard for righteousness.

A soldier must live a simple life.

Kamikaze – a precursor of today’s suicide bombers.

Remember that AO3 requires that pupils show understanding of the relationships between texts and the contexts in which they were written. That’s the AO in its entirety and for this paper, it’s worth 7.5%. Unless you subscribe to the New Criticism movement (briefly – context has no relevance to the literature and the novel/poem/play is a world in its own right), then you’ll see the value of understanding this poem in context. There is value in reflecting on our own existing knowledge of the world, which I would argue cannot be disregarded when reading a work of literature. Additionally, we can gain a deeper understanding of the significance of a literary work if we consider the political, social and historical context. Perhaps we can gain a better understanding of our own contexts through our understanding of the poem.

So, for the sake of the Assessment Objectives or for one’s own approach to literary texts, the context in which Kamikaze was written can be reflected upon. Garland notes that the willingness for individuals to die for their beliefs is nothing new and we still witness such events in contemporary times. This should help hugely with making links between the poems.

I cannot say this as succinctly as Beatrice Garland, so here’s what she said on this area:

“They were of course the precursors of today’s suicide bombers, prepared to die for what they believed in.   But there have been individuals willing to do that throughout history, even though we tend to think of it as a modern phenomenon. The young men driving lorries into crowds are virtually identical, with rather less technology at their disposal:  they know they will die at the end of it.”

The concept of shame, the cultural context and Bushido.

In your teaching of the poem, you may have identified the shame brought upon the family when the father comes home, having abandoned the kamikaze directive. It occurred to me that our understanding of shame may have shifted over time and does not necessarily transcend cultural contexts. My pupils understand ‘shame’ as little more than ‘embarrassment’ – some came up with ‘embarrassment mixed with guilt’. Shame, in western cultures, is also understood to be a particularly negative experience. In western culture, shame is something private, something experienced and processed internally. This was not quite the same for the kamikaze soldiers. In order to understand the poem (especially the character of the pilot and his wife), it is helpful to consider this concept within the cultural context. We now look to the Bushido code.

The samurai code of Bushido is one place we can look when seeking answers for the origins of the kamikaze. Some cite ‘obedience to authority or sheer peer pressure’ (Hollway, 2016) as alternative reasons for the soldiers’ willingness to fly these suicide missions, but the Bushido code is interesting to look at here, especially when considering the concept of shame. In Premodern Japanese samurai culture, ‘the notion of shame [was] a powerful public concept even while rooted in the innermost depth of an individual’s dignity.’ (Ikegami, 2003). Shame was a desired quality for both the samurai and kamikaze soldiers. There was honour in feeling shame and therefore a belief that defending one’s honour would enable the pilots to undertake the kamikaze missions. Linguistically, ‘shame (haji) in Japanese can also represent the private passive emotion related to concerns for one’s social reputation’ (ibid.). Shame is tied up with pride, dignity, and honour. In order to approach this poem, we need to understand that the soldiers felt shame, lived with shame and that they were chosen for kamikaze missions because their deep desire to preserve their honour and dignity meant that they were likely to undertake these missions.

Lastly, the sounds.

Look at the first three stanzas of the poem. I’ve highlighted some of the fricative sounds below. Fricatives are sounds which are formed in the mouth by air being forced through a small space. The physical position of the mouth (tongue position, tongue movement, soft palette position etc.) determine the exact sound produced, but for simplicity, we’re looking at sounds like /f/ (as in fin), /v/ (as in vision), /ð/ (as in this), /θ/ (as in thin), /ʃ/ (as in should) and /ʒ/ (as in measure). This list is not exhaustive; if you want to know more, start with looking at the International Phonetic Alphabet online.

There seem to be a lot of fricatives here. A disproportional amount, in fact. Of course, you don’t need to equip GCSE students with the phonological details that I’ve just laid out, but perhaps the following ideas may be of interest to you or your students: the sounds brought about the buzzing noise of a plane prior to take-off for me. The sounds evoked an unpleasant, anxiety-filled sensation – like that feeling when you can’t concentrate because something’s lurking in the background. The fricatives almost hiss at you; they’re unpleasant to listen to and they echo the uncomfortable mood of the poem. There are 18 /f/ sounds in the first three stanzas and none in the last two. Maybe the silence he’s subjected to after returning home is reflected here.

Students rarely write well about the effect of alliteration. However, it’s possible for them to comment on any repeated sounds and what these evoke for them. I hope this has given you some points for reflection.

Here are the first three stanzas with relevant sounds highlighted. That’s all for now.

(Apologies for the errors in formatting below – I’m aware of the missing stanza breaks. I’m trying to get it sorted!)

Her father embarked at sunrise with a flask of water,

a samurai sword in the cockpit,

a shaven head full of powerful incantations

and enough fuel for a one-way

journey into history

but half way there, she thought,

recounting it later to her children,

he must have looked far down

at the little fishing boats

strung out like bunting

on a green-blue translucent sea

and beneath them, arcing in swathes

like a huge flag waved first one way

then the other in a figure of eight,

the dark shoals of fishes

flashing silver as their bellies

swivelled towards the sun


Chilton, J.M. (2012) “Shame: A Multidisciplinary Concept Analysis.” Journal of Theory Construction & Testing. Vol. 16 Issue 1, p. 5

Hollway, D. (2016) “Divine Wind” Aviation History Vol. 26 Issue 3, p. 48

Ikegami, E. (2003) “Shame and the Samurai: Institutions, Trustworthiness, and Autonomy in the Elite Honor Culture.” Social Research. Vol. 70 Issue 4, p. 1351-1354.