I started to reread a pretty old mystery of Thomas Harris, “The silence of the lambs,” which I once gave up reading because of difficulty of understanding the narrative studded with technical jargons of abnormal psychology, entomology, police and security terms, and so many idioms and slangs unfamiliar to me.

I was interested to find an apparently Japanese-origin classic word, "banzai," not "bonsai," being used in the following passage, in which Ardelia Mapp, a roommate of Clarice Starling, a trainee of FBI Academy at Quantico who is the heroine of the story gives an advice to Clarice not to skip the next day’s Criminal Code exam:

“Mapp had made the Law Review at the University of Maryland while working at night. Her academic standing at the academy was number two in the class, her attitude toward the book was pure banzai.

"You're supposed to take the Criminal Code exam tomorrow and the PE test in two days." – ibid. P.121.

OCD (10th ed.) at hand defines “banzai” as; exclaim: 1. Japanese battle cry. 2. A form of greeting used to the Japanese emperor.

We Japanese stand up and shout “banzai” when watching TV featuring the scene Japanese baseball (women’s soccer) team wins the world baseball (women’s soccer) games. We also use “banzai” for the meaning of “total surrender” in association with the gesture of banzai holding up and down both hands when crying “banzai.”

However, neither of OCD definition and our notion of “banzai” seems to relate with the usage of “banzai” in the above quote - Her attitude toward the book was pure banzai. It appears to me “banzai” is used in the meaning of “extraordinary” or “super” there.

Google Ngram indicates that the word “banzai” first appeared in circ. 1900 and its usage peaked in 1950 just after the end of the Pacific War. Its usage is low at 0.000036177% level in 2000 as against 0.0019679775% of “extraordinary”.

What does “banzai” mean in the above context? Is it commonly used in that way?

  • What does the abbreviation you mentioned in "OCD definition" stand for?
    – Erik Kowal
    Commented Sep 13, 2014 at 3:11
  • @Erick Kowal. I mean Oxford Concise English Dictionary. Commented Sep 13, 2014 at 3:56

5 Answers 5


To expand on the "battle cry" usage, Wikipedia has the term Banzai charge.

A Banzai charge is the term used by the Allied forces to refer to Japanese human wave attacks mounted by infantry units. This term came from the Japanese cry "Tenno Heika Banzai" (天皇陛下萬歲?, "Long live the Emperor"), shortened to banzai, specifically referring to a tactic used by Japanese soldiers during the Pacific War. Banzai charges had some successes at the ends of battles by overcoming soldiers unprepared for such attacks.

A human wave attack is an attack where masses of people attack, hoping to overwhelm the opponent even if they suffer great casualties themselves.

Japanese soldiers in World War 2 had a reputation for being very fearless or reckless. The kamikaze attacks would be an example of this, but as another example, Australian Prime Minister John Curtin described the Cowra breakout of Japanese POWs as showing a "suicidal disregard of life".

As an example of "banzai" being used in everyday English, Garfield shouts "banzai!" whenever he launches an attack.

I assume that Mapp must have been very fearless or reckless in trying to what she was trying to do. Or to put it another way as suggested in the comments by Frank, Mapp must have had total comittment to the book.

  • It's still a puzzle to find someone's attitude to an inanimate book being described this way.
    – Erik Kowal
    Commented Sep 13, 2014 at 3:14
  • @ErikKowal I don't know whether she's writing the book, or merely reading it.
    – Golden Cuy
    Commented Sep 13, 2014 at 3:17
  • Good point. I tried to locate the original text on Google Books, but GB doesn't seem to know about it.
    – Erik Kowal
    Commented Sep 13, 2014 at 3:19
  • 2
    You don't think the author might mean total commitment, given that Banzai became synonymous with suicide attacks rather than it's literal meaning.
    – Frank
    Commented Sep 13, 2014 at 3:22
  • 4
    As I read the quote, Mapp is said to be an extraordinary student who can manage to make the Law Review (whatever exactly that is) even while working a nighttime job, and whose commitment to her studies (= the book) is pure, frenzied, intense application, attacking them like a human wave attack and letting nothing stand in her way. Commented Sep 13, 2014 at 10:07

To Americans, term "Banzai," is familiar from WWII movies showing fanatical bayonet charges by Japanese soldiers. Mapp's attitude toward the Criminal Code book was not to be worried -- as most students were -- about how many details it might contain, or how much material needed to be memorized. Instead, she approached the book with an all-out attack -- the equivalent of a Banzai charge. She disregarded the difficulty of the book, and dove right in.


To refer to an earlier thread (Where does the phrase "balls to the wall" come from?), she went balls to the wall in her studying.


"Banzai" attacks in World War II were "suicide" attacks, and a student with a "banzai" attitude toward books or courses has an attitude best described in English as "do or die."

Some relevant lyrics from a song from the World War II movie, Casablanca:

"It's still the same old story
A fight for love and glory
A case of do or die."


A banzai attack relates to the charge done by Japanese soldiers during WWII. This tactic involved soldiers mounting bayonets to their rifles and charging into to fray. This attack was usually done at the command of a high(er) ranking Japanese troop who would yell the infamous phrase. The full phrase is "Tennōheika Banzai" generally translating to "Long live His Majesty the Emperor."

I personally would only use "banzai" when referencing that type of attack (or a greeting by the Emperor of Japan which is the secondary definition). "Her attitude toward the book was pure bonzai" is a strange sentence. I can't seem to find it being defined as an adjective anywhere except on Dictionary.com. There it's defined as "leading to likely or inevitable death; suicidal." So unless her attitude toward the book was less than substandard, that usage is incorrect.


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