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School children offer flowers as a kamikaze pilot takes off for a final flight

A Japanese kamikaze pilot takes off on a suicide mission during World War II.

dlisbona on Flickr.com

Kamikaze: A Japanese pilot from World War II, trained to crash his plane into an Allied ship or aircraft carrier. Also the suicide attack itself. The term is now used in English as a shorthand for suicidal or reckless behavior.

This tactic was a mark of desperation. When the tide of the Second World War in the Pacific began to turn against Japan, military leaders sent some of the most talented pilots on kamikaze flights. However, Japanese traditions, such as the samurai code of bushido, state that suicide is preferable to living in defeat - perhaps making the fate of the kamikaze pilots somewhat more bearable.

The original kamikaze, however, had nothing to do with aircraft. When Kublai Khan ordered two invasions of Japan, in 1274 and 1281, both of his armadas were destroyed by typhoons. These powerful storms became known as kamikaze, or the "divine winds," because it was believed that the gods had called up the typhoons to protect Japan.

The word comes from the Japanese roots kami, "the gods," plus kaze, "wind."

Pronunciation: "kah-mih-KAH-zee"

"Many young college students were called up to defend Japan in her hour of need; some of them, unfortunately, were forced to act as kamikaze pilots."

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