Kamikaze (神風): literally, “God wind,” but more commonly translated as “Divine wind.” Kami is the Japanese word for “god,” “spirit,” or “divinity,” and kaze translates as “wind.” The word kamikaze originated as the name of major typhoons in 1274 and 1281 that dispersed and destroyed Mongolian invasion fleets under Kublai Khan which otherwise would have most likely defeated Japan at that time. However, Kamikaze has been forever negatively morphed in meaning due to the incomprehensibly suicidal Japanese actions against the Allies in World War II, many of which occurred right here in Okinawa. But this latter context certainly doesn’t apply to our current-day experience with typhoons and their still-divine winds in Okinawa.
The word typhoon comes from the Cantonese word tai feng, meaning “great wind” and when pronounced sounds very close to “typhoon.” A typhoon is defined as a tropical cyclone in the western Pacific, where these storms generally track in a westward and northern direction and occur most frequently in the western Pacific region of East Asia that includes the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, southern China, South Korea, southern Japan, Guam, the Marianas Islands and parts of Micronesia. It is essentially the same thing as a hurricane occurring in the west Atlantic and the eastern Pacific. Similar storms in the Indian Ocean are called tropical cyclones. Ones that strike Australia are NOT called willy willies contrary to popular belief (and I hate to burst your and my bubbles), which are nothing more than a small dust devils that often occur in parts down-under. Cyclone is a catch-all phrase which describes all low-pressure systems over tropical waters and includes typhoons and hurricanes.
The typhoon season here is very similar to that back home and lasts from the early summer to early autumn (June to November), often coinciding with the monsoon season in Southeast Asia and the wet season in eastern Japan. An average of 2.6 typhoons make landfall on the four major islands of Japan annually since record-keeping began in 1951, while on average 10.3 approach within 180 miles of the coast each year. Twelve named typhoons in this part of the Pacific are considered “many,” while eight or less is considered “few.” Rarely is there a year without landfall, with a record 10 making landfall in 2004. Landfall on the relatively tiny island of Okinawa occurs at three times the rate of any other prefecture of Japan! In fact, Okinawa lies right in the heart of “Typhoon Alley.” It gets hit by an average of seven typhoons a year. It is customary that the finances of the families of Okinawan fishermen are in the name of the wife in case the fisherman go out to sea and don’t return, historically a common occurrence, but a seldom modern occurrence due to modern weather-forecasting and storm warning.
Living with typhoons on Okinawa is a completely difference experience than surviving storms back home. Often there are literally back-to-back storms threatening the coast, and Category 3, 4, and even 5 “super typhoons” are more common and commonly encountered here. We have lost track of the number of named storms we’ve dealt with in just the eight weeks we’ve been on-island; we are either at seven or eight, with the next due here this week sometime on Wednesday or Thursday. Oh, and there is another depression out there just waiting to be named….
BUT, given this what Americans would consider a threat, the reaction of the Okinawans is calm and subdued to that of America; even the military here doesn’t “panic” over a strong storm barreling down on their people and bases like they do back home. Here there simply does not exist the pervasive culture of fear and the media-driven frenzied-panic to which Americans mindlessly prescribe and react without any critical thought. The Okinawans learned long ago that they must learn to live with the furious side of nature, rather than react to threats and the effects of such storms.
While the Okinawans utilize a wide variety of talisman to help ward off evil and offer protections from damaging typhoons, they also utilize construction techniques that have, for centuries, offered much better shelter than that of many areas of the modern west. Starting in the mid-19th century, culturally centered construction customs helped to defeat the threat of such storms, and still today include heartily tiled roofs adorned with protective shisa statues (lion-like dog creatures that ward off evil spirits and are omnipresent in Okinawa), and a stone wall and high deeply rooted trees for protection against damaging winds.
More modern construction codes here are deceiving; while structures look bland and unappealing, it is only because they are designed to withstand both earthquakes and typhoons at the same time. This means that structures are poured concrete with rebar reinforcement attached to strong, deep foundations. Modern roofs are flat concrete slabs. Windows are generally barred, not to defeat crime, but for protection from wind-borne missile hazards. And, by law, homes are required to have a certain capacity of roof-mounted gravity-fed water storage, which provides for families even when water and power are not available from the authorities. And due to the harsh climate here and proximity to wind-driven salt-laden air, painting becomes a secondary concern, giving many homes and apartment buildings a rather dingy external appearance. They are, however, every bit as nice on this inside as we would expect to find anywhere in middleclass American.
However, unlike back home, in Japan and Okinawa more damage is almost always caused by heavy rains (and resulting floods and landslides) than by the winds or storm surge. This, in relation to huge swaths of the America eastern seaboard and gulf coast, is opposite in experience and effect. Japanese-centric flood prevention measures, improved planning and construction and storm and flood warning that began in earnest in the 1960s have dramatically reduced the number of people killed in typhoons. Even the most destructive storms today – including Super-Typhoons (Category 5) – rarely kill more than a dozen people. By contrast, typhoons even in America still can take hundreds of lives. There is an obvious and blatant lesson to be learned here….
The most interesting result of these types of construction practices? Our sizeable condo building – at 5 floors situated not 20 meters from the East China Sea coastline – actually moves when strong typhoon winds strike just right. That’s right – glasses rattle, and the floor literally moves. The building is actually on rollers or tracks to help defeat the transmission of earthquake energy. It is an eerie feeling indeed to have such a large structure shift beneath your feet!
I wish our friends and family could see the rationale and grounded approach to nature that is part and parcel of the culture in Okinawa. Acknowledge nature, respect her, and learn to live more in harmony with your surroundings. But do not FEAR nature. I’m convinced it’s part of the Okinawan secret to enhanced longevity (and to their less stressful quality of life); not just because they in large part survive storms relatively unscathed, but that they fail to freak like the American populace does at the slightest perceived threat from inclement weather.
Change your longitude next summer, and come visit us in Typhoon Alley. You’ll go home with a much-improved disposition about life. And perhaps, just maybe, you’ll see the beauty of the divine wind inherent in such magnificent machinery of nature, especially if Mother Nature decides to bowl a Turkey!
- Super Typhoon (190 MPH Winds) Heading For Japan (infiniteunknown.net)
- Super Typhoon Francisco Update #8 (weatherngayon.wordpress.com)
- Another typhoon rages in the Pacific (globalnews.ca)
- Super typhoon on course for Japan – Winds up to 190 mph, could soon be Category 5 storm – “May follow Typhoon Wipha’s path” … “Developed in a similar area” (VIDEO) (enenews.com)
- WEATHER UPDATE AS OF October 20, 2013 at 12:21PM BY WESTERN PACIFIC WEATHER (weatherngayon.wordpress.com)