Response to "Did Zen philosophy create the Kamikaze?"

November 17, 2014

One of my readers, Will Baird, read the “Did Zen philosophy create the Kamikaze?” article in this past week’s newsletter, and, being a History buff, had a strong reaction to the article. Thus, he asked that I make his well though-out and well informed response available for my readers, as I have done below.

History as Clickbait

      In his article “Into nothingness” Christopher Harding asks, “Did Zen ideas create the kamikaze?” Challenging what he describes as “clichés of unthinking ultranationalism,” Harding describes several ways the men chosen for kamikaze missions voiced their displeasure, and asserts that rather than accept their superiors’ “vacuous slogans,” these pilots sought higher intellectual guidance– but that these Zen thinkers also sent them to their deaths. I found this piece to be terrible history. In fact, given its provocative subtitle, posing a question to challenge the “cliché” explanation of kamikaze, and its ultimate incoherence, I would label the piece “history as clickbait.” I won’t go as far as to question Harding’s own motives in writing the piece, but I do think it is positioned less with good history in mind than it is focused on generating page views.

      Harding’s failure has two components, methodological (his choice and use of sources) and interpretive (the actual structure of his argument). Methodologically, Harding fails to sufficiently support his claims with textual evidence. Intellectual history, more than any other historical study, relies on a close and thorough reading of texts. Aeon is not a history journal, and long quotations from philosophical texts would be unreasonable in the context of an online magazine. Yet Harding fails even to name the texts from which he presumably draws his understanding of Kitaro Nishida and Hajime Tanabe’s philosophies. This makes it difficult to assess the accuracy of Harding’s explanations of their thought.

      Harding’s methodological shortcomings bleed over into his interpretive failures– critical to his argument that “Zen ideas” caused kamikaze tactics is the idea that Nishida and Tanabe were representative of Zen thought in this period. Yet Harding is unclear on how exactly the philosophies being put forward by Nishida and Tanabe were Zen, other than by calling the men “Zen practitioners.” Harding does not define “Zen” or give examples of traditional Zen philosophy that mirror Nishida and Tanabe’s work. In fact, neither even uses the word “Zen” in the few quotes he provides. The one block quote we are given from Tanabe does not appear to be Zen at all. It seems to perfectly echo the larger religious nationalist rhetoric of the time: “By serving the honourable callings of the Sovereign as the one person whose person brings together God and country, you will share in the creation of the eternal life of the state.” Is that really the most Zen quote Harding could find from Tanabe? If so, either the classification of Tanabe as a Zen philosopher or the relevance of Tanabe’s support for kamikaze to his Zen thinking is highly questionable.

      Even if we accept the classification of Nishida and Tanabe as Zen, Harding’s interpretation of their influence is insufficient to prove Zen a causal factor in the rise of kamikaze tactics. For Zen philosophy to be considered simply a contributing factor in the rise of kamikaze, one would have to prove that at least the military decision-makers, if not the pilots themselves, had been exposed to these arguments. To prove causality, we would like to see the military leaders, and possibly the pilots themselves, citing Zen arguments in their own reasoning in support of the tactics. Harding notably provides us with no insight into the decision-making process of the Japanese military’s upper echelons, where responsibility for kamikaze ultimately lied. The closest he comes is proving that some pilots had been exposed to Nishida and Tanabe’s ideas, grossly insufficient evidence to conclude that Zen philosophy caused the Japanese military to incorporate kamikaze into its strategy.

      You have hopefully been convinced that Harding’s argument that Zen philosophy created the kamikaze is at best incomplete, if not entirely baseless. I do not need an alternative explanation of why kamikaze came about in order to prove the wrongness of Harding’s argument, but having that reason gives a sense of satisfaction, so we will humor ourselves. In evaluating what caused Japanese kamikaze tactics, a reasonable question is, were they necessary? To the Japanese, they seemed to be. The Special Attack Unit, as the kamikaze forces were called, was not formed until late 1944, well towards the end of the war. This was after a series of major naval defeats, including one rout so lopsided that it was nicknamed the “Great Marianas Turkey Shoot.” With the United States quickly approaching the main Japanese islands, something had to be done to stop the advance. Moreover, the Special Attack Unit was not the only example of the Japanese government resorting to such desperate measures– Rear Admiral Kurihara Etsuzo, in a speech to a group of Japanese youth in 1945, praised the Special Attack Corps’s “spiritual attitude,” saying that “[w]hen every Japanese subject is made fully aware of the fact that to die for the Emperor is to live, then will the Japanese people bring tremendous power into play and greatly add to the Nation’s war power. I believe that the greatest war result of the War of Greater East Asia will be the permeation of the Special Attack spirit into the hearts of the entire nation.”1 Indeed, the Japanese government produced propaganda asserting that civilians who gave their lives in defense of the Emperor would be enshrined at Yasukuni, to which the Emperor himself paid yearly respects. References to bushido, the samurai warrior ethic, were also common in exhortations that Japanese– both the kamikaze and the common people– give their lives for the war effort. So, we have the Japanese facing critical losses, with the Americans at their doorstep; major figures in the Japanese military classifying kamikaze as an expression of devotion to the Emperor; and citations of bushido, a warrior philosophy in which honorable death, including suicide in the face of surrender, was a key component.2 The explanation of kamikaze as an outgrowth of religious state nationalism, in response to continued American victory and the imminent invasion of the main Japanese islands, seems reasonable.

      Calling Japanese nationalism a “cliche,” Harding dismisses the argument without real criticism. Nationalism as a state religion was an incredibly strong force in Japan at this time– dismissing it out of hand as Harding does is unjustifiable. Trying to shoehorn Zen philosophy into wartime Japanese nationalism is an unnecessary and unconvincing complication. Why did leading thinkers like Nishida and Tanabe argue in favor of kamikaze? Like many other Japanese leaders at the time, I think it can be explained by fear or fervor– they either worried what would happen to them if they refused to endorse the state’s actions, or allowed themselves to be caught up in the extremist rhetoric of the state. Violent suicide is not a Zen ideal. The combination of wartime necessity and pre-existing nationalist thought is a sufficient explanation of the kamikaze phenomenon.

1. David C. Earhart (2005) Kamikazefication and Japan’s wartime ideology. Critical Asian Studies, 37:4.
2. G Cameron Hurst III. Death, Honor, and Loyalty: The Bushido Ideal. Philosophy East and West, 40:4.

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