In the days following the recent terrorist attacks in Paris, people in Japan have expressed virtually universal sympathy for France and its residents. What has them more divided, though, is the frequent use of the word “kamikaze” in describing the incident.
Out of the seven attacks that took place on November 13, four of them involved suicide bombers. Among the headlines used by French media and bloggers to describe the tragedy were:
“Une des explosions provoquée par un kamikazes”
“A Nation, le kamikaze s’est fait sauter en passant la commandes”
“Attaques à Paris : l’une des explosions près du Stade de France provoquée par un kamikaze”
Even if you’ve never taken a French class, it’s easy to spot that one of those words is Japanese in origin. “Kamikaze” also showed up in some English-language reports.
“…three brothers may have been part of the eight-strong ISIS kamikaze terror squad.”
“…this is the first time France suffers kamikaze attacks.”
This set a debate in motion among Japanese Internet users as to whether or not the term is appropriate in this context. To many in the West, the kamikaze of World War II, Japanese Imperial military pilots who purposely crashed their planes into enemy ships, are simply their earliest linguistic reference point for suicidal attackers. From that standpoint, the writers of the above media dispatches would argue that the term definitely applies to what happened in France.
To many in Japan, though, “kamikaze” specifically indicates the country’s World War II pilots in the Tokubetsu Kogeki, or “Special Attack” squadrons, as the kamikaze groups were euphemistically dubbed and remain more commonly referred to as within Japan. Given the widespread denouncement of the Paris attacks, no one in Japan was happy to hear them described as “kamikaze attacks,” although specific negative reactions varied from individual to individual.
As is always the case when discussing the lingering specters of World War II, even tangentially, there was a cry of outrage from a certain fringe of Japanese society.
“Wow, I’m amazed that they could say something so dumb with no misgivings.”
“You can’t differentiate between indiscriminate attacks and those aimed at a specific target? For shame, Westerners. For shame.”
“The kamikaze did what they did to protect the country. Terrorism is the meaningless targeting of civilians.”
“The Japanese government should protest this usage of the word.”
Not everyone reacted with such indignation, however. Others were more measured in their dissent, offered alternatives, or even expressed reluctant resignation.
“Tactics targeting military opponents and terrorism which targets civilians shouldn’t really be viewed as the same thing.”
“Can’t you just call them suicide bombers?”
“From their point of view, everyone who blindly throws their lives away is the same, so it can’t be helped.”
“Even if the word isn’t not being used in connection to Japanese people, it still makes me sad.”
There were even some Japanese commenters who, without debating the linguistic matters themselves, argued that parallels could be drawn between suicide bombers and the Tokubetsu Kogeki pilots.
“Well, it’s not like their real nature is different.”
“The right wingers are all pissed off online, but really there’s not any difference between the two groups.”
One history-savvy commenter even took a moment to recall the fact that much of the Japanese military propaganda during World War II invoked the supposed divinity of the emperor.
“Brainwashed soldiers carrying out suicide attacks organized under the pretext of serving a god? Um, yeah, that’s applicable to both groups.”
It’s a sobering reminder of the reprehensible things that can happen when people lose sight of the value of human life.