Japan Orders Kamikaze Attacks Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Faced with dwindling military resources and an overwhelming Allied advantage in manpower and material, Japan turned to suicide tactics—principally kamikaze planes—in an attempt to regain momentum in World War II. Kamikazes did not reverse Japan’s fortunes in the war, but suicide missions were demonstrated to be an effective weapon against a superior foe.

Summary of Event

In mid-July, 1944, the Japanese military was reeling from two recent major defeats. Hundreds of planes were lost during the Battle of the Philippine Sea (June 19-20, 1944), crippling Japan’s ability to counter Allied naval and air power. The fall of Saipan (July 9, 1944) gave the Allies an airbase from which B-29 Superfortress bombers could reach Japan and devastate the Japanese homeland. A vast Allied advantage in resources, coupled with Japanese shortages in material, fuel, and experienced pilots, forced Japanese military strategists to adopt desperate tactics to check the Allies’ advance: They ordered organized suicide attacks. Kamikaze attacks World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];kamikaze attacks World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];aerial assaults World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];naval battles [kw]Japan Orders Kamikaze Attacks (Oct. 20, 1944) [kw]Kamikaze Attacks, Japan Orders (Oct. 20, 1944) [kw]Attacks, Japan Orders Kamikaze (Oct. 20, 1944) Kamikaze attacks World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];kamikaze attacks World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];aerial assaults World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];naval battles [g]Southeast Asia;Oct. 20, 1944: Japan Orders Kamikaze Attacks[01260] [g]Asia;Oct. 20, 1944: Japan Orders Kamikaze Attacks[01260] [g]Philippines;Oct. 20, 1944: Japan Orders Kamikaze Attacks[01260] [g]Japan;Oct. 20, 1944: Japan Orders Kamikaze Attacks[01260] [c]Military history;Oct. 20, 1944: Japan Orders Kamikaze Attacks[01260] [c]World War II;Oct. 20, 1944: Japan Orders Kamikaze Attacks[01260] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Oct. 20, 1944: Japan Orders Kamikaze Attacks[01260] Arima, Masafumi Nimitz, Chester W. Ōnishi, Takijirō Ugaki, Matome

On October 13 or 15 (accounts vary), Rear Admiral Masafumi Arima (posthumously promoted to vice admiral)—an early advocate for suicide attacks—purportedly crash-dived his plane into the aircraft carrier USS Franklin. Franklin (ship) Arima’s act, extensively propagandized by the Japanese media, stimulated the Japanese High Command to approve the formation of the first military units dedicated to suicide attacks, which the Japanese termed “special attack units” (tokubetsu kōgeki tai; usually abbreviated to tokkōtai). This term applied to any type of suicide attack unit, on land, air, or sea.

Vice Admiral Takijirō Ōnishi, a strong proponent of suicide weapons, organized the first special attack unit in the Philippines a week after Arima’s attack. Approximately two dozen naval pilots, stationed on the Philippine island of Cebu, volunteered on October 20, 1944, to be part of Ōnishi’s newly named shinpū tokubetsu kōgeki tai, or “divine wind special attack unit.” This was the term that was to be applied to air corps tokkōtai.

Many Japanese characters have two different pronunciations, the On-reading and the Kun-reading. The latter is used most often for stand-alone words, while the former is more frequently used when the character is combined with other characters to form a compound word. “Kamikaze” is the Kun-reading of the character whose On-reading is “shinpū.” It is the Japanese word for “divine wind” and referred initially to a typhoon that destroyed a planned Mongol invasion of Japan in 1281. The word “kamikaze” was incorporated into other languages, in which it came to refer to all of Japan’s World War II suicide attacks, whether airborne or not. The Japanese themselves prefer tokkōtai.

Vice Admiral Ōnishi launched the first organized kamikaze attack on October 25, 1944, in support of the Japanese naval offensive during the Battle of Leyte Gulf Leyte Gulf, Battle for (1944) . Jibakutai (suicide pilots) damaged several Allied ships that day, and the St. Lô St. Lo (ship)[Saint Lo (ship)] became the first aircraft carrier sunk by kamikazes. Within a week, subsequent kamikaze attacks had damaged several Allied carriers and dozens of other ships.

Before the base of kamikaze operations was moved from the Philippines to Formosa (Taiwan) in mid-January, 1945, nearly one hundred Allied ships were damaged by kamikazes, including sixteen that were sunk. In the three months of operations in the Philippines campaign, kamikaze planes sank or damaged more American ships than in all previous Pacific theater battles combined, including the attack on Pearl Harbor.

The initial Allied response to the kamikaze attacks during the Philippines campaign was shock, followed by concern. A U.S. report on the Philippines operation estimated that approximately 27 percent of kamikazes hit ships, and nearly 3 percent of those ships struck by kamikazes sank. Admiral Chester W. Nimitz ordered the complete censorship of news about the kamikazes. The news blackout was not lifted until April 12, 1945, the day that President Franklin D. Roosevelt died. Because of the president’s death, scant media attention was given to news of the kamikaze attacks.

The Allies devised a threefold strategy for combating the kamikaze threat. First, Allied aircraft attacked potential kamikaze planes before they could reach their targets, bombing Japanese airfields and forming intercepting screens of fighters (combat air patrols). Second, Allied ships increased their antiaircraft effectiveness by adding more and better antiaircraft guns and by shooting projectiles into the water in order to create water spouts that would blind and swamp low-flying kamikazes. Third, screens of radar picket ships (primarily destroyers) were set off from the main body of ships in a fleet. Their task was both to provide early warning to the fleet proper of kamikaze attacks and to siphon off kamikazes from the more valuable and vulnerable targets in the main fleet. The destroyers proved to be tempting targets for kamikaze pilots.

The destruction of most of the Japanese fleet during the Philippines campaign, combined with the success of the suicide-attack strategy, compelled the Japanese significantly to expand the kamikaze program in early 1945. For the air campaign, they constructed simply built one-way planes called Tsurugi Tsurugi (aircraft) and piloted rocket-propelled bombs called Ohka Ohka (piloted bombs) (the Allies termed them Baka, meaning “fool”). Ironically, the first successful Ohka attack—the sinking of the USS Manert L. Abele Manert L. Abele (ship) —occurred on the day the news blackout on the kamikaze attacks was lifted. Kamikaze planes were also used to attack high-flying B-29 bombers, whose missions over the Japanese homeland were flown at altitudes beyond the range of Japanese antiaircraft guns and fighter planes. However, the heavily armed B-29s, being smaller and faster than warships, proved to be much more difficult targets for kamikaze pilots to hit.

The kamikaze program expanded beyond airplanes. The maritime kamikaze campaign included fukuryu (frogmen), kaiten (human guided torpedoes), kairyu and koryu (two and three person midget submarines, respectively), and navy shinyo and army maru-ni (small speedboats). All were designed to deliver explosive payloads to Allied ships.

Japan launched several kamikaze attacks during the Battle for Iwo Jima (February-March, 1945), but the largest kamikaze assault was reserved for the Battle of Okinawa Okinawa, Battle of (1945) (April-July, 1945). Vice Admiral Matome Ugaki, directing kamikaze operations from Kyūshū in the Japanese homeland, ordered ten kikusi—“floating chrysanthemums,” or massed kamikaze assaults—interspersed with smaller sorties during the Okinawa campaign. The first kikusi, launched on April 6, 1945, was the largest kamikaze onslaught in history, consisting of approximately 355 planes. The attack resulted in the sinking of ten American ships and damage to many others. By the time the last kikusi was completed on June 22, 1945, 36 American ships were sunk and 368 were damaged, primarily by kamikazes. This destruction constituted the worst American naval losses in history for one campaign. Nearly 2,000 kamikazes were destroyed during the campaign.

On August 15, 1945, Japanese emperor Hirohito announced the surrender of Japan to the Allies, officially ending the kamikaze program. However, there are reports of suicide attacks against the British and Soviets later that month. The two main proponents of kamikaze missions ended their lives on the day of the emperor’s address: Vice Admiral Ugaki perished leading the last kamikaze attack; Vice Admiral Ōnishi committed ritual suicide.


It is estimated that the Japanese launched nearly three thousand kamikaze sorties from October, 1944, until the end of the war. Those air raids exacted a frightening toll on Allied navies: an estimated five hundred ships were damaged and another sixty ships were sunk. The cost in Allied lives was in the neighborhood of ten thousand killed and about the same number wounded. Kamikazes proved to be Japan’s most effective weapon against the Allied navies.

The Okinawa kamikaze offensive convinced Allied leaders that an invasion of the Japanese homeland would be met with suicide attacks on a scale that would dwarf the Okinawa campaign. In fact, the Japanese had reserved tens of thousands of suicide weapons of diverse kinds to meet an expected Allied invasion of the Japanese islands. Japanese military officials hoped that the frightening cost exacted by suicide tactics would dissuade the Allies from invading Japan and lead to more generous offers of peace. Instead, the prospects of facing a Japanese nation mobilized in the kamikaze spirit played a role in the American decision to unleash an even more frightening weapon on Japan, one that brought the war to a swifter conclusion: the atomic bomb. Thus, World War II ended with the world learning about the power of weapons of mass destruction, as well as the power of suicide tactics against a superior foe. Kamikaze attacks World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];kamikaze attacks World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];aerial assaults World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];naval battles

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Billingsley, Edward B. The Emmons Saga: A History of the USS Emmons (DD457-SMS22). Lincoln, Nebr.: iUniverse, 2005. The former captain of the Emmons retells the story of his ship, which was sunk by five kamikaze planes during the battle for Okinawa. Original version updated with commentary and photos about the rediscovery of the Emmons by divers in 2001. Photographs from 1940 to 2006, military records.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Chara, Paul J., and Kathleen A. Chara. “Posttraumatic Stress Disorder Among Survivors of a Kamikaze Attack.” Psychological Reports 89 (2001): 577-582. Article examines the psychological effects manifested by the survivors of the USS Emmons more than a half century after the ship was sunk by kamikazes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lamont-Brown, Raymond. Kamikaze: Japan’s Suicide Samurai. London: Rigel, 1997. Good introductory overview of the kamikaze program. Black-and-white photographs, glossary of pertinent Japanese terms.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Leckie, Robert. Okinawa: The Last Battle of World War II. New York: Viking, 1995. Former World War II Marine veteran examines the Okinawa campaign, emphasizing the perspective of the average combatant. Includes several chapters on kamikazes. Black-and-white photographs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sheftall, Mordecai G. Blossoms in the Wind: Human Legacies of the Kamikaze. New York: NAL Caliber, 2005. Surviving kamikaze pilots provide insight into the mind-set and experiences of being a suicide weapon. Black-and-white photographs.

World War II: Pacific Theater

Central Pacific Offensive

Battle of the Philippine Sea

Superfortress Bombing of Japan

Battle for Leyte Gulf

American Flag Is Raised at Iwo Jima

Okinawa Campaign Meets Stiff Japanese Resistance

Atomic Bombs Destroy Hiroshima and Nagasaki

Categories: History