Self-Immolation Tactics as Media Spin, Cultural Pretense and Strategic Initiative: Japanese and Jihadist Cases (A “companion reader” for Yuki Tanaka’s upcoming (Oct 10) Reischauer Institute lecture)

Next Monday (Oct 10), Professor Yuki Tanaka of the Hiroshima Peace Institute will be delivering a lecture at Harvard, under the auspices of the Reischauer Institute, titled “Japan’s Kamikaze Pilots and Contemporary Suicide Bombers: War and Terror”. Operating under the assumption (which may very well come back to bite me for a classic Roseanne Roseannadanna moment) that the content and main theses of Professor Tanaka’s lecture will be basically unchanged from his November 2005 Japan Focus article of the same title, I would like to post here a piece I have written that should be considered not necessarily a rebuttal of the professor’s positions, but rather, a companion reader it is hoped will add some perspective to the lecture. Before moving on to my piece, I would like to take the opportunity to wish Professors Tanaka and (moderator) Andrew Gordon the best of success with the lecture, and to express my regret that I cannot attend in person to enjoy the talk and participate thereafter in the stimulating discussions that will no doubt follow. So, without further ado…

Self-Immolation Tactics as Media Spin, Cultural Pretense and Strategic Initiative: Japanese and Jihadist Cases


“War is our best hobby,” a proud young mujahedin commander told British journalist David Blair in Peshawar, shortly after the 9/11 attacks. “The sound of guns firing is like music for us. We cannot live without war. We have no other way except jihad…The Americans love Pepsi-Cola, we love death”.[1] What a stinging little Information Age soundbite that is, I recall thinking the first time I read it, as clouds of asbestos-laced concrete dust and atomized human remains were still settling over downtown Manhattan. “We love death”! What chance did the rest of the world stand against fighters possessing such awe-inspiring primal überwarrior mojo?

A few years after my first sobering encounter with the “Pepsi” quote, I came across the line once again in a wonderfully incisive book by Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit titled – obviously with a tip of the hat (and perhaps a slight cock of the snoot) to the late Edward Said Occidentalism: The West in the Eyes of its Enemies (New York: The Penguin Press, 2004). But what I experienced upon reading the quote this time around was not shock and awe at the mujahedin commander’s paradoxically nihilistic yet triumphant contempt for my bourgeois frailty; rather, thanks in part to Professors Buruma and Margalit and my own research of the kamikaze subculture of the Asia-Pacific War, it was a spark of realization that the remark could just as easily have come from the text of a Japanese admiral’s pre-attack send-off speech to kamikaze pilots in 1945 or a passage of Ernst Jünger or Oswald Spengler as from the mouth of a media-savvy jihadi in 2001.[2] I found this notion somehow comforting – my bogeyman’s zeal rendered derivative and thus a bit pathetic now – but at the same time, it still disillusioned me; how many millions, I wondered, had marched (or sailed or flown) happily off to their deaths over the last century or two after having their heads filled with chauvinistic bunk like this, and how many other millions innocent of any such crusading fervor had been destroyed as “collateral damage” in the process? Would the carnage this century prove to be even worse?

Spin-doctoring self-annihilation with pie-in-the-sky rhetoric and posturing bluster is nothing new, of course, and is as old as the first religious war. But for the greater part of history, most wars – at least in the West – have been the preserve of comparatively small, professional military forces, fought with minimal civilian involvement. This all changed with the Industrial Revolution, however, when advances in transportation and weaponry lethality, the appearance of modern concepts of nationalism, and the advent of mass literacy combined to transform armed conflict into a high-volume human meat-grinder, necessitating the recruiting and maintenance of huge conscript armies of temporary citizen-soldiers in order to fight “total” wars not of lord-against-lord or even state-against-state but of population-against-population. Unlike previous eras of history, when soldiers fought for pay, pride, a lifestyle or simply the promise of full bellies, the new breed of literate citizen-soldier increasingly required inspiration in order to fight. Eventually, this triangular dynamic of technology-literacy-lethality reached a point of critical mass where humans began slaughtering each other not so much over concrete objectives or material needs as much as they did over abstract ideas with populist and emotional appeal – universal human rights; the preservation of cultural integrity against perceived “contamination”; class struggle; Aryan supremacy; capital “D” Democracy.[1]

Once the front edge of human technological development entered what McLuhan calls the Electric Age[2], it was probably only a matter of time before someone pushed the “total war” formula of requirements for ever-improving combat effectiveness multiplied by ever-shriller and more effective ideological drum-thumping to its limits and came up with the idea of turning human bodies into munitions. Credit for setting this unhappy historical precedent must go to the Imperial Japanese Navy, which approved the development of special guided missile-like weapons starting in early 1944. Unfortunately for some 6,000 young Japanese men, this decision was made several decades before the advent of the silicon chip, a technological innovation that might have otherwise negated the need to employ the brains and bodies of humans as onboard guidance systems in flying bombs or manned torpedoes in lieu of computer technology yet to be invented. One wonders how many Yasukuni Shrine pilgrims see the bitter irony in this – if they even think of it at all – as they pay their respects to the souls of the kamikaze (hereafter tokkō[3]) dead, and if they do, how this colors the prevalent Japanese belief that, regardless of whether or not it was a flawed tactic used in a just or unjust war, tokkō can somehow serve as proof of the survival of “Japanese spirit” or yamato damashii – some primal, sacrosanct, immortal essence of Japanese masculinity – into the modern era.

One direction of historical discourse that tokkō hagiographers are less than eager to entertain is discussion of similarities between the Japanese tactic and modern day Jihadist suicide bombing (JSB)[4] – a topic raised on Japan Focus last November with a very thought-provoking article by Professor Yuki Tanaka. While, as I will explain below, the military/strategic circumstances of their respective conflicts, rules of engagement (if JSB can be said to have any) and emotional motivations are entirely different, the two campaigns have important ideological parallels.

One such parallel has been the tendency in both cases for the causes championed by the suicide bombers to be portrayed as Manichean struggles of romantic, underdog heroes against the forces of spiritually desolate, materialistic modernity – a definition resting on an unshakable conviction that “right” is stronger than “might” in a universe limned not by “what is” but by “what should be”. This mindset affords its adherents a kind of Gott mit uns faith that the spiritual momentum in their chosen conflict is favoring their side because of their professed (and dramatically demonstrated) willingness to destroy other human beings — and equally or perhaps even more important, destroy themselves as well in the process — in the pursuit of their noble cause. Unfortunately for the other residents of this planet who do not adhere to such beliefs, these qualities make this worldview relatively immune both to reason and compromise.

Conversely, the materialistic enemy’s very openness to and eagerness for parley – his predilection for logic, self-interest and self-preservation – is perceived as an Achilles heel and as proof of the spiritual bankruptcy not only of his cause but of his entire culture – even of the intellectual tradition of objective rationalism itself. The suicide bomber, on the other hand, sees his own eagerness to die in violent conflict – relishing the sting and frisson of combat more as blessing and birthright than as duty – as clear and incontrovertible evidence of his spiritual superiority and cultural vigor.

Dialogue along such lines was pervasive in Japanese military, academic, literary and even religious (both Shinto and Buddhist) circles in the thirty-odd years between the Russo-Japanese War and the Asia-Pacific War, and it is thus not surprising that it eventually reached the nation’s educational policy as well.[5] Whether Japanese thinkers of the era were prescient (or deluded) enough to foresee a need for self-immolation volunteers in the nation’s future military ventures is uncertain, but it is clear that their influence laid the intellectual and ideological groundwork vital to eventual popular acceptance of such tactics when the time to use them finally arrived in 1944. After decades of literary, artistic, cinematic and pedagogical treatments of the beauty of death in battle and the innate fighting spirit of the native son Japanese soldier – the yamato danji imbued with yamato damashii – it may not have been that challenging a conceptual leap for either the military rank-and-file or the general populace when the regime and mass media began talking more about joyously seeking death in battle than about merely facing it bravely (or, preferably, inflicting it upon the enemy).[6]

It is of interest – and probably far from coincidental – that since organized suicide bombing’s debut in modern warfare with tokkō, the tactic has been embraced most enthusiastically (if not exclusively) within cultural contexts in which dissent and cynicism towards authority have been traditionally held in low esteem. In such cultures, where gullibility and innocence are seen less as character faults than as indicators of a pure and virtuous heart, the “doubting Thomas” who asks to be convinced of the wisdom of a course of action before committing to it is not seen as someone exercising common sense but as a blasphemer, a harmony-disrupting troublemaker, or simply a cowardly ingrate to be excoriated by – if not altogether expelled from – the community.

Accordingly, there would seem to be a positive correlation between the extent to which a given society will be intolerant of dissent by individuals or minority factions and the extent to which said society/culture will be collectively tolerant of incompetent leadership. Decision-makers in such societies have the luxury of being able to demand and expect sacrifices from their constituents with an impunity unthinkable in more individualistic or cynically-inclined societies, requiring not much more to maintain the loyalty of these constituents than effective propaganda and careful provision for the warm, comforting glow of communal belonging. Within communities thus delineated, there is no worse fate to suffer than that of the outcast, and it is fear of just such a fate – much more than simple coercion or fear of punishment – in deadly combination with the aforementioned “cultural pretense” that can make the acceptance of an abomination like organized suicide bombing possible on a societal level. This concept is key to explaining why suicide bombing can emerge from – and enjoy wide support in – some societies or cultures and not in others. Many modern day commentators on suicide bombing – Noam Chomsky and the late Susan Sontag soon come to mind – see the phenomenon as a reaction to oppression, marginalization and poverty inflicted upon the developing world through the policies of the industrialized powers. But if this motivational model were valid, how would it account for the conceptualization of suicide tactics by the Japan of 1944-1945 – itself a highly literate, industrialized, imperialistic world-class power that, although temporarily rocked back on its heels and backed into a strategic corner at the time, was still a society and culture far from anyone’s definition of “oppressed” or “marginalized”? Moreover, if oppression, marginalization and poverty were sine qua non motives for suicide bombers, does it not seem likely that the world – particularly in developing (and mercilessly exploited) areas such as Latin America, Africa and South/Southeast Asia – would have long since been awash with angry people strapping on explosives and blowing themselves up? That such global chaos has not come to pass – at least not yet – is indicative that something other than socio-economic or political factors is at work in creating and psychologically sustaining the phenomenon of suicide bombing, and I am tempted to point the finger of blame at bad ideology.


Another factor that makes suicide bombing possible – and very attractive to the military commander or insurgent leader possessing such operational capability – is the unfortunate fact that it works. The tactic is extremely effective, not only because it is difficult to defend against, but also because it is terrifying from the perspective of the targeted population, particularly so if its collective worldview is structured around cultural values by which something like suicide bombing would otherwise be unthinkable. These two factors – operational effectiveness and the sustained psychological burden of stark, revulsed terror on the part of the target – make a suicide bombing campaign potentially winnable by the side willing to resort (or stoop) to such horrific means to an end. Japan’s high command gambled a nation’s survival on as much in 1945, hoping that tokkō would demonstrate Japanese resolve to its enemies and convince them of the futility of attempting to invade and occupy the home islands, thus preserving the kokutai polity and saving, it was hoped, millions with the sacrifice of thousands.[7] Emperor Hirohito’s personal intervention in the form of his decision for Japan to surrender to the Allies brought an end to the experiment before the theory could be tested to its limits.

Today’s Jihadists are also staking the future of their movement on the concept of the winnable suicide campaign, aiming to cow the West into concession after concession until the balance of first regional and then global power is tipped to make possible the establishment of a putative Dar al Islam Caliphate. Though these wagers may seem like rash long shots, there is method in the madness: recent history presents the example of a suicide bombing insurgency winning considerable political gains for Sri Lanka’s Tamil minority a few years back, and it could be argued as well that suicide bombing was the decisive factor in compelling Israel to cede the Gaza Strip to the Palestinian Authority in 2005.[8] In any case, the lesson is clear: all that is required for a victorious suicide bombing campaign are the willpower to initiate and stay the course, a steady supply of volunteers for attacks, quavering will to resist on the part of the opponent, and a basic understanding and appreciation of the fundamentals of asymmetrical warfare.

If the JSB vs. U.S.-led Dar al Harb (a.k.a. “the West”) contest is superficially viewed as a David and Goliath match-up with one side armed with rocks and homemade bombs and the other with F-16s and spy satellites, one might be tempted to call the fight unfair, and, if unfettered by partisan allegiance or squeamish disposition, even cheer for the apparent underdog. After all, no one can argue that an Islamic Jihad commander’s Mercedes sedan or a Fallujah carbomb factory stand much of a chance against Hellfire missiles fired from American-built attack helicopters. But then again, what chance do Jerusalem (or London) bus commuters or waiting lines of Baghdad police recruits stand against backpacks stuffed with Semtex and rusty nails, or skyscrapers full of office workers against hijacked airliners turned into guided missiles? In asymmetrical warfare – of which the current JSB phenomenon is a textbook example – relative technological advantage or the size of an opposing force is largely irrelevant, and as every successful insurgency from the American Revolution to the Vietnam War has shown, strategic initiative almost always lies with the more operationally fluid and flexible combatant unencumbered by the stodgy organization and logistical baggage attendant to conventional warfare.

Japan’s unwieldy wartime bureaucracy was not particularly well-suited to this type of campaign; right to the bitter end, its stodgy institutional orientation rendered its military a force that, with the notable exception of its use of suicide tactics, was every bit as “conventional” as its Allied enemy, and thus unable to explore its assymetrical warfare options fully. But JSB operations such as the Palestinian Intifada and Al Qaeda’s campaign in Iraq suffer no such organizational hindrances. In these latter conflicts, the options of the conventionally stronger side – due largely to moral and political factors (i.e. simply bombing flat the area from which the offending attackers operate is an untenable option) – are limited to tit-for-tat reactions to attacks perpetrated at the time and place of the suicide bombers’ choosing. For the Imperial Japanese Army and Navy of 1944-45, lack of sufficient conventional military means to continue resisting the Allies was a weakness that necessitated the use of suicide tactics; in the case of the JSB cause, however, a similar lack of conventional military means to resist the enemy in open battle is not a handicap, but rather, a strategic advantage.


Unlike the case of JSB’s enemies today, there were no moral, political or tactical limitations on Japan’s enemies as the Asia-Pacific War entered its endgame phase in 1945 (the dropping of the atomic bombs shows us that much). The commanders of the Allied forces drawing a noose around Japan’s neck were contemplating – and in the case of strategists like Curtis LeMay and Chester Nimitz, actually taking concrete steps toward – the physical annihilation of the Japanese state (if not the nation itself).[9] The Japanese, in turn, understandably fearing the worst, responded with a desperation not entirely disproportionate to the threat they were facing, considering their inability at this point to stop the Allied advance through conventional means and, just as critically, considering their inability/unwillingness to surrender. A resort to suicide tactics under such circumstances, while still an abhorrent option, should at least be understandable as an absolute last-ditch measure undertaken through a tragic concatenation of factors, namely, a long ideological gestation period, obstinacy and bureaucratic incompetence (i.e. inability to reverse a course of action once taken) at high command levels, and mass hysteria fueled by the collective dread of impending extinction.

That said, one wonders if JSB’s promoters and apologists can legitimately claim that their campaign is, like tokkō, an act of defense: is there any “existential threat” today posed by the West vis-à-vis modern Islam – the world’s fastest growing religion – or for that matter, even by Israel vis-à-vis the Arabic-speaking community currently residing in the Palestinian Authority territories, whose population is increasing with vigorous fecundity, and for whom obesity is a chronic public health crisis?[10] If so, where are all the starving, besieged Palestinians, Saudis, Syrians or Jordanians, or the carpetbombed and firestorm-ravaged Muslim cities whose nightly obliteration under some merciless Western juggernaut – as in 1945 Japan – might provide at least some semblance of understandable rationale for suicide bombing? The absence of such threats suggests that JSB is not the collective burnt offering of a desperate community fighting a rear guard action and preparing for a worst-case scenario of collective suicide. Rather, it is obvious that the operant motivation is a hot/cold mélange of ressentiment-inflamed desire to inflict pain on a hated cultural Other, and a cleverly crafted and calculated political manipulation of these emotions on the part of its strategists, i.e., the Jihadist ideologues who have been rallying the disaffected faithful of the Islamic world and stage managing the West’s nightmares for the last five years.

Unlike tokkō, JSB is not a tactic of panic and desperation, but one of vengeance, spite and lest we forget, self-aggrandizement (or, if the reader prefers, self-empowerment). Unlike the uniformed tokkō pilot, told by superiors that he could not expect to survive the war in any case and that he might as well make his death meaningful in the defense of his homeland,[11] the civilian JSB volunteer is under no legal or military obligation to die for or even to take up the cause, and can walk away from his or her personal jihad to return to the mundane safety of non-combatant obscurity anytime he or she pleases. Yet despite this tempting and reasonable opportunity to “choose life”, the Jihadist movement is nevertheless capable of annually fielding hundreds or even thousands of volunteers for JSB (e.g. foreign suicide bombers in Iraq) happily forfeiting not only that safe (if not very romantic) self-preservationist option, but also foregoing what should otherwise for “resistance fighters” be the more logical traditional tactic (as used by “conventional” Iraqi insurgents) of “plan, strike, run away, live to fight another day.” Why? Because JSB is not an act of soberly yet resolutely approached duty undertaken in the defense of homeland and loved ones, nor is it a “resistance” to anything – it is a grand gesture of self-apotheosizing passion experienced within the giddy thrill of attacks carried out in a quest for both mortal and afterlife glory. The difference between this motivational package and that of the young Japanese men recruited for tokkō units sixty year ago could not be greater.


In my view, the most salient difference between tokkō and JSB is that the former, while plainly misguided and horrific, was at least carried out with the intent of ending a war and saving a nation; the latter, on the other hand, has from its inception been a campaign of pure aggression that has created and continues to foment and expand a (possibly endless) conflict where none previously existed. This crucial dichotomy (and the moral implications thereof) makes it difficult to equate tokkō and JSB beyond the most general conceptual commonalities, and beyond the historical notion that both phenomena have been the consequences of disastrous responses to the challenges and compromises necessary for peaceful co-existence on this increasingly small and crowded planet.

M.G. SHEFTALL is an associate professor of Media and Cultural Studies in the Graduate School of the Faculty of Informatics of Shizuoka University in Hamamatsu, Japan and a PhD candidate at the Graduate School of Asia-Pacific Studies, Waseda University. He has been researching tokkō culture and wartime operations and postwar tokkō memorialization since 2001, and is the author of Blossoms in the Wind: Human Legacies of the Kamikaze (New York: NAL Caliber, 2005).

[1] Modris Eksteins places the date at 1914. See Eksteins, M., The Rites of Spring (Boston/New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1989).

[2] See McLuhan, M., Understanding Media (New York: Pocket Books, 1964).

[3] Tokkō is an abbreviation of tokubetsu kōgeki or “special attack”, a Japanese wartime euphemism for suicide attacks and still the phrase most commonly used by Japanese to refer to what the rest of the world knows as “kamikaze”.

[4] I use the word “Jihadist” rather than “Islamic” or even “Islamist” here to distinguish a modern era radical military and political movement from the 1,300-year-old religion. The term is inclusive of Palestinian suicide bombing, on the definitive grounds that the Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades groups most directly responsible for suicide attacks in the Palestinian resistance campaign refer to the Intifada struggle as jihad, and they have operational, logistical and political ties with Jihadist movements in other regions. See for more information on the Jihadist movement. Other sources of links and further information on Jihadist organization and doctrine are the useful (if somewhat politically slanted) websites of IslamistWatch and author Robert Spencer is another useful site. A Palestinian resistance perspective is viewable in English at

[5] Brian Daizen Victoria’s Zen at War (New York: Weatherhill, 1997) and Zen War Stories (London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2003) are the definitive texts on organized Buddhism’s collusion with Japanese militarism and ultranationalism of the 1930-1945 era. Ben-Ami Shillony’s Revolt in Japan; the Young Officers and the February 26, 1936 Incident (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1973) also contains several informative passages about the influence of Zen thought on Japanese militarism, especially on the more fanatic fringes of the Imperial Army. The Russo-Japanese War era text Nikudan (lit “Bombshell of Flesh” or, in its English title, Human Bullets), by Imperial Japanese Army Lieutenant Sakurai Tadayoshi (Tokyo: Teibi Publishing, 1907; translated by Masujiro Honda and Alice M. Bacon) is a classic and historically very important early exposition on what could be termed “modern Bushido romanticism” and its concomitant disdain for opponents less than eager to sacrifice their lives for their cause. Readers interested in the subsequent interwar evolution of this line in Japanese military thought are urged to consult Peattie, M.R., Ishiwara Kanji and Japan’s Confrontation with the West (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1975); Yoshida, Y., Nihon no Guntai (Tokyo: Iwanami Shinsho, 2000), and Humphreys, L.A., The Way of the Heavenly Sword: the Japanese Army in the 1920’s (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1995)

[6] One interesting example of propaganda from this “transition period” was a two-part series of articles in the Asahi Shimbun titled Tokubetsu kōgeki tamashii (“The Spirit of Special Attack”), which featured commentary by such notable academicians as Mito School kokugaku Confucian studies scholar Takasu Yoshijirō of Nihon University, and bushidō scholar and Hagakure expert Furukawa Tetsushi of Tokyo University.

[7] Vice Admiral Ōnishi Takijirō, first commander of tokkō units in the field, told assembled VIPs at Imperial GHQ in August 1945 that the required sacrifice would be considerably steeper at “twenty million.”(Statement of Former Foreign Minister Shigenori Togo, 17 May 49, p.41, Center for Military History, cited in Frank, Downfall: The End of the Imperial Japanese Empire (New York: Random House, 1999), p.311. The scene has been dramatized in several Japanese films over the years, most notably in Aa, kessen kōkūtai (“Ah, Air Corps of the Decisive Battle”)(Tōei Studios, 1974) and Nihon no ichiban nagai hi (“Japan’s Longest Day”) (Tōhō Studios, 1967).

[8] Robert A. Pape’s Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism (New York: Random House, 2005) offers a sobering assessment of the effectiveness of modern suicide bombing campaigns.

[9] There were the firebombing air raid campaign against Japan’s population centers and naval blockade of Home Islands, respectively. For readers interested in learning more about this aspect of the Asia-Pacific War, I recommend Richard B. Frank’s Downfall: The End of the Imperial Japanese Empire (New York: Random House, 1999).

[10] A recent study by Palestinian doctors revealed obesity rates of 59% for adult men and 25% for adult women in the Gaza and West Bank Palestinian communities.

[11] Said speeches invariably beginning with the phrase “Dōse shinu nara…” (“As long as you are going to die…”)


  1. dear sir,

    I would like to ask for your permission to publish this article in my Mailing list: This is a mailing list on Japanese Study by Indonesians. I happen to be the moderator of this mailing list. This mailing list aims to foster the growth of Japanese studies and to enhance the networking between the experts of Japanese studies in Indonesia.

    I’ve read your excellent article, and I think this will be a useful addition to us. We need this kind of article to further our knowledge on Japan and to ignite debates between ourselves. I really hope that you will give us the permission. You can contact me at the given email address. I do hope that you’ll grant me the permission.

    Dipo Siahaan

  2. Hello Dipo.

    I am delighted that you have found my essay of interest, and that you wish to use it as a discussion point with your colleagues.

    You most certainly have my permission to post it on your mailing list.

    M.G. Sheftall

  3. Thanks a lot for this, Sheftall-san.

    I will be attending Tanaka’s talk tomorrow, and hopefully I will have time to post something about it here on Frog in a Well afterwards.

  4. Thank I may have mentioned this (experiencing deja vu) *shudders* but I’m reminded of a statement I read upon visiting the Kamikaze Peace Museum (misnomer) that they were likened to “modern samurai”.



  5. The advantages of spinning the kamikaze legacy as “modern samurai”(as opposed to, for example, “young men destroyed as a result of multigenerational, society-wide spiritual mobilization for total war”) should be fairly obvious from an “establishment history” perspective, yes? (especially when considering just how much of this modern day “establishment” is prewar and wartime carry-over).

    Culturally exceptionalist “feel-good” value from a populist perspective is also clearly at work in this depiction.

    That said, I must admit to referring, in print, to Japan’s surviving war veterans as “Japan’s last samurai”, but this was intended to be in the dignified but melancholy context of a proud, romantic and doomed breed vanishing forever, whereas the Chiran qualification of “modern” samurai is clearly libidinally juiced (i.e. iconography of vigorous, beautiful young men brimming with potent yamato damashii, as opposed to old men in their twilight years, pining about the old days “when-men-were-men”), implying the possibility of current or future revitalization (or re-mobilization, if you prefer) of this “spirit”. The difference is significant, I think.

  6. A very interesting and thought-provoking article, but I must raise two important differences. The ‘kamikaze’ were using an unorthodox military tactic against military targets — warships — in a declared war. The JSB attacks civilians at random. (It could be argued that the kamikaze was different only in degree from, sy an American soldier attempting a mission that, even if it succeeded, would most likely end in death.)

    Furthermore, the PURPOSE of the kamikaze was to demonstrate the willingness to ‘die rather than surrender’ of the Japanese soldier, and by extension, the Japanese citizenry. It was in fact the death that was important, and not the damage caused, which, I understand, perhaps incorrectly, was relatively minor. But for the JSB, the purpose is to cause maximum damage. The use of a suicider, I would argue, is merely incidental, that if the people sending out the JSB could create the same damage with the same or lesser expense and without the use of a suicider, they would gladly do so. (I treat, sadly, the loss of a particular life, that of the suicider, as a relatively minimal cost.) Has Osama been able to come up with a plan in which he could have taken control of the plane from the ground and flown it into the towers, is it likely that he would have abandoned it to choose instead the use of the hijackers?

  7. Prup (or Jim),
    First, thanks for you interest in my article and for your comments.
    To address a couple of the points you raise:

    ACTUAL DAMAGE?: the kamikaze campaign was extremely damaging for the Allies in terms of both material and human cost; some 15,000 sailors killed or wounded, over two hundred ships damaged and about thirty sunk. Psychological effect was equally impressive (or horrific, if you prefer) — during the peak of kamikaze activity as part of the battle for Okinawa, the U.S. Navy saw higher rates of personnel incapacitation due to what was then referred to as “combat fatigue” (what we’d call traumatic stress disorder today, or what military doctors during World War One called “shell shock”) than in any American command in any service branch and in any other conflict. The JSB types, I’d imagine, verily salivate just thinking about possessing such havoc-wreaking potential. God help us all if they ever get it…

    OSAMA AS TACTICAL PRAGMATIST vs KAMIKAZE AS IDEALISM: Prup, here I’m tempted to say that I’d read the situation as being neatly opposite; I think kamikaze came about as a desperate (but entirely pragmatic, if in a particularly paradigm-shattering way) solution to a fairly hopeless military picture to which a legitimating/valorizing ideology was hastily applied (and backdated to putative samurai ethics, although as I note in my article, systematic socialization for self-sacrifice in military contexts beyond the “norm” for other imperialistic/industrialized societies at the time had been going on in Japan for at least a generation or so by the time the first kamikaze flew). In other words, all the mysticism and self-Orientalizing imagery was afterthought to the more pressing needs of planting bombs on the elevators of American carrier decks with better accuracy than the Imperial Navy had been enjoying to date. Of course, once a certain psychological snowball effect accelerated between high command, the Japanese mass media, rank and file morale and public sentiment, the whole kamikaze thing, as history shows, took on a nightmarish life of its own, so to speak (and this was the point where psychological effect of kamikaze upon: 1) Allies, in a deterrent sense; and 2) home population, for “spiritual mobilization”, perhaps became more important than military goals of sinking ships).

    For JSB, on the other hand, it has always been my impression that the effect of the “willingness to die” gesture on targets (civilian and/or military) has been a primary operational concern — with the capacity of suicide tactics for the sowing of maximum “ontological horror”, if you will, being the major attraction of this type of tactic. In a 9/11 context, the whole martyrdom mojo/buzz (and subsequent recruiting potential for same) the Jihadist cause has since enjoyed would have been lost if Osama had had something like cruise missiles (or remote control override to send the airliners into the buildings). Same number of “enemy dead”, but immeasurably less ideological/propagandistic bang for the buck.

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