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Kamikaze: Power and Conflict Analysis

Kamikaze, written by the London-based poet Beatrice Garland, was published in 2013.

Kamikaze pilots were specially trained Japanese pilots who were used towards the end of World War II. Once they had exhausted their weapons, they flew their planes on suicide missions into enemy ships. Oftentimes, they were intended as human-guided missiles from the start, using their planes as weapons in last-ditch efforts to halt enemy naval forces.

At this time, the Japanese saw it as a great honour to serve their country this way. The tradition of death instead of the shame of defeat or capture was a big part of Japanese military culture.

The Japanese word kamikaze is usually translated as “divine wind”.

Poem Summary

A woman tells her children about her father setting out on a kamikaze mission. She speculates that, halfway through the flight, he looked down at the fish and small boats in the sea. This might have triggered memories of his childhood with his brothers when they used to go fishing together.

The woman then reveals that he didn’t complete the kamikaze mission but came home instead. Her father’s wife and neighbours shunned him because of the shame of not completing his mission. Eventually, even his children stopped talking to him. The woman imagines that he must contemplate whether he made the right decision.

The poem’s key message:

The poem looks at the conflict between national patriotism and individual self-preservation. It makes the reader question whether it is better to sacrifice oneself for one’s country or try to stay alive.

Language

  • Images are used to show the honour associated with a kamikaze mission. The father “embarked at sunrise”. This is significant because Japan is called ‘the land of the rising sun’, and so it shows a sense of national pride in the mission. It is also called a “one-way journey into history”, showing the eternal glory that such a mission brings.
  • Garland uses adjectives to highlight the beauty of the sea and its surroundings. The daughter of the kamikaze pilot imagines the “green-blue translucent sea”, the “pearl-grey pebbles”, and the “loose silver of whitebait”. These calm and serene descriptions contrast the violent mission that the pilot is on. The daughter imagines that seeing these scenes of beauty changed his mind and made him want to keep living.
  • Some of the descriptions of the fish have military connotations. The movement of fish shoals “like a huge flag” might symbolise the nationalistic motivations behind the combat. They are also described as “flashing silver”, which could allude to the Samurai swords that the Japanese used in wars. The fishing boats are “strung out like bunting”. Bunting is often used for celebration, particularly for a victory in war. This juxtaposition of violent and peaceful images perhaps made the pilot choose the beauty of nature over fighting.

Structure

  • The first five stanzas present the daughter’s interpretation or imagined account of her father’s experience on the aborted kamikaze mission. It is all written in one long sentence, reflecting that this story is being told orally.
  • The final two stanzas show what happened in the years after he returned. The experience has changed him profoundly and he is shunned by the community.

Form

  • Most of the poem is in the third person, past tense. It is from the daughter’s perspective rather than the father’s. The father has not told her about his experience, so it is left to the daughter to speculate on why he chose to turn back.
  • The last two stanzas shift to a first-person narrative, with the daughter directly addressing her children. It is direct speech, indicated by being in italics.

Themes

ThemeAnalysis
The power of natureThe daughter speculates that nature’s beauty changed her father’s mind about completing the kamikaze mission. She describes nature with pretty images such as the “green-blue translucent sea”. She imagines the father linked these with a more innocent childhood spent at sea with his brothers. By remembering happier times, he changes his mind about killing himself for his country.

Another aspect of nature’s power is evident when the tuna in the sea is described as “the dark prince, muscular, dangerous”. This creates a threatening image of the tuna compared to the smaller fish. Perhaps the pilot would see parallels between this and his mission. It could make him decide he doesn’t want to kill people like a “dangerous” fish that consumes other fish.
Sadness and lossAlthough he returned alive, the shame brought to the father for not completing his mission means he is treated “as though he no longer existed”. The daughter’s tone is sad as she recounts how they “learned to be silent” around him and that he was “no longer the father we loved”.

The concluding lines suggest that, emotionally and socially, he didn’t truly survive the mission. The daughter thinks he must wonder “which had been the better way to die”. His shame means that he is treated as if he had died. The honourable version of him no longer exists.  
Individual experiencesThe poem is about an individual soldier’s experience and how his thoughts and feelings conflict with the orders of the national army. At the beginning, he is described as “full of powerful incantations”. Incantations are magic spells, giving the impression that the national propaganda has brainwashed him. However, seeing nature and remembering childhood memories brings back his sense of individuality.

Ironically, even though this is a personal story for the pilot, he does not tell it. This emphasises how the pilot has been shunned – he cannot even tell his own story, but must be silent instead.  

Key Quotes to Learn

QuoteWhy is it important?
“full of powerful incantations”The image of “incantations” (spells) implies that the kamikaze pilots are under the spell of national propaganda. This is what persuades them to sacrifice their lives for the national cause.
“the dark shoals of fish flashing silver”The fish are described in colourful, pretty images, reminding the pilot of nature’s beauty. The “flashing silver” contrasts this beauty with fighting involving Samurai swords.
“which had been the better way to die”The shame brought upon the man is like death. It is perceived by the community that the honourable man he once was no longer exists.

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