MONGOL INVASION OF JAPAN: KUBLAI KHAN AND KAMIKAZEE WINDS

MONGOL INVASIONS OF JAPAN


Samurai ships

In the Kamakura period (1192-1333), Kublai Khan, the Mongol leader of of China's Yuan Dynasty twice dispatched joint fleets with Goryeo, a kingdom on the Korean Peninsula, in an attempt to subjugate Japan. In 1268, after having conquered northern China and Korea, Kublai Khan demanded that Japan submit to him. The Japanese refused. In November 1274, the Khan launched a fleet of 900 ships and 40,000 troops form Korea (by some estimates), which arrived at Kyushu's Hakata Bay (near present-day Fukuoka, Japan) a couple days later after overwhelming Japanese forces on the islands of Tsusima and Iki. [Source: Torao Mazia, National Geographic, November 1982]

The repulsion of this invasion and another one in 1281 were momentous events in Japanese history and complete fiascos for the Mongols and the Yuan Dynasty in China. According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “The campaigns had been launched because of the Japanese shogunate's refusal to submit to the Mongols after the arrival of Mongol ambassadors in Japan in 1268 and 1271. And after one of the ambassadors was harmed (a branding of his face), the Mongols felt that this act had to be avenged. In 1274, they organized their first expedition, which failed largely in part because of the weather. Still determined, the Mongols launched a second expedition in the summer of 1281 — this time much larger than the first — but were once again thwarted by weather: a terrible typhoon, in fact, that erupted and damaged the Mongol fleet enough to force them to abort the mission. The Japanese for their part believed that this typhoon was no accident — it was divinely sent — and they called it the "divine wind," or kamikaze. They were convinced that the Japanese islands were thus divinely protected and could never be invaded by aggressive outside forces.” [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu/mongols <|>]

During the the first Mongol invasion in 1274, more than 600 ships carried a combined Mongol, Chinese, and Korean force of 30,000 troops armed with catapults, combustible missiles, and bows and arrows. In fighting, these soldiers grouped in close cavalry formations against samurai, who were accustomed to one-on-one combat. Local Japanese forces at Hakata, on northern Kyushu, defended against the superior mainland force and the Mongols retreated back to China, some say because of a sudden typhoon. Kublai realized that nature, not military incompetence, had been the cause of his forces' failure so, in 1281, he launched a second invasion. Seven weeks of fighting took place in northwestern Kyushu before another typhoon struck, again destroying the Mongol fleet.

Websites and Resources


arms of stone

Good Websites and Sources: Scrolls of the mongol Invasion of Japan bowdoin.edu/mongol-scrolls ; Historic Spots of the Mongol Invasion yokanavi.com/eg/landmark ; 2010 Book on The Mongol Invasion of Japan historyofwar.org ; Myth of Kamikaze asianresearch.org .

Also check out: "Relics of the Kamikaze," by James P. Delgado, in Archaeology 56/1 (January/February 2003). The Mongol Invasion Scrolls site from Bowdoin College allows you to view individual scenes from a scroll depicting the Mongol invasions of Japan. Takezaki Suenaga, a warrior who fought against the Mongols in both 1274 and 1281, commissioned these scrolls recounting his actions.

Kublai Khan and the Yuan Dynasty Wikipedia Yuan Dynasty Wikipedia ; Mongols in China afe.easia.columbia.edu Mongols Wikipedia Wikipedia ; Mongol Empire allempires.com ; Ghengis Khan, National Geographic National Geographic.com ; Wikipedia Kublai Khan Wikipedia ; Kublai Khan notablebiographies.com

Good Websites and Sources on the Samurai Era in Japan: Good Photos at Japan-Photo Archive japan-photo.de ; Samurai Archives samurai-archives.com ; Artelino Article on Samurai artelino.com ; Wikipedia article om Samurai Wikipedia Sengoku Daimyo sengokudaimyo.co ; List of Shoguns and Emperors of Japan friesian.com ; Samurai Women on About.com asianhistory.about.com ; Classical Martial Arts koryu.com ; Delphi Forums, Good Discussion Group on Japanese History forums.delphiforums.com/samuraihistory. Books: A good book on samurai culture is Miyamoto Murashi (1935), a novel by about a legendary swordsman by Eiji Yoshikawa. The film Last Samurai was based on Bushido-The Soul of Japan, written by Inazo Nitobe in 1899. The Lone Samurai by William Scott Wilson and Shogun by James Clavell are good reads. Vagabond is a popular 27-volume manga based on Miyamoto Musashi by the famous mangaka Takehiro Inoue. You can help this site a little by ordering your Amazon books through this link: Amazon.com. Films: Seven Samurai and Throne of Blood by Akira Kurosawa; The Last Samurai with Tom Cruise; Twilight of a Samurai, nominated for an Academy Award in 2004. Samurai scholar: Karl Friday at the University of Georgia.

Samurai Armor, Weapons, Swords and Castles Samurai Arms and Armor artsofthesamurai.com ; Armor from Clan Yama Kaminari yamakaminari.com ; Putting on Armor chiba-muse.or.jp ; Castles of Japan pages.ca.inter.net ; Enthusiasts for Visiting Japanese Castles (good photos but a lot of text in Japanese shirofan.com ; Good Photos of Thousand Warrior Procession at Japan-Photo Archive japan-photo.de ; Seppuku Wikipedia article on Seppuku Wikipedia ; Seppuku---A Practical Guide kyushu.com/gleaner ; Tale of 47 Loyal Samurai High School Student Project eonet.ne.jp/~chushingura and Columbia University site columbia.edu/~hds2/chushinguranew Sengakuji Temple is a modest temple dedicated to the 47 samurai who committed ritual suicide in 1702. Website: Japan Guide japan-guide.com ; Ninjas: Books: Secrets of the Ninja by Hiromitsu Kuroi (DH Publishing, 2003) and Ninja Attack! by Matt Alt and Hiroko Yoda. Good Websites and Sources: Iga-ryu Ninja Museum site iganinja.jp ; Wikipedia article on Ninjas Wikipedia ; About.com on Ninjas asianhistory.about.com ; Ninjas and Film illuminatedlantern.com

Japanese Swords Blade Diagrams ksky.ne.jp ; Making the Blades www.metmuseum.org ; Wikipedia article wikipedia.org ; Katana Swords coldweapon.org ; Tokugawa Art sanmei.com/en-us ; Nihonto nihonto.ca ;Seto Cutlery Sword Site setocut.co.jp ;Bushido Japanese Swords bushidojapaneseswords.com

Good Japanese History Websites: ; Wikipedia article on History of Japan Wikipedia ; Samurai Archives samurai-archives.com ; National Museum of Japanese History rekihaku.ac.jp ; Japanese History Documentation Project openhistory.org/jhdp ; Cambridge University Bibliography of Japanese History to 1912 ames.cam.ac.uk ; Sengoku Daimyo sengokudaimyo.co ; English Translations of Important Historical Documents hi.u-tokyo.ac.jp/iriki ; WWW-VL: History: Japan (semi good but dated source ) vlib.iue.it/history/asia/Japan ; Forums Delphi Forums, Good Discussion Group on Japanese History forums.delphiforums.com/samuraihistory ; Tousando tousando.proboards.com

Kublai Khan and the Mongol Invasions on Japan

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Kublai Khan

Kublai Khan was the grandson of Genghis Khan, who founded the Mongol Empire, which conquered much of Asia, Russia and parts of Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Kublai Khan extended the empire into Korea and Northern China. At the time he invaded Japan, he controlled the main part of the largest empire the world has ever known. Kublai Khan attacked Japan as he was still engaged in mopping up operations against the remnant of China’s Sung Dynasty. He attacked Japan because he needed resources and to show his power.

According to Japanese folklore, Mongolia’s greatest historical figure, Genghis Khan, was a Japanese warrior who fled to Mongolia in the late thirteenth century. [Source: Peter Hessler, The New Yorker, July 16, 2001 ~~]

Pamela Toler wrote in Wonders & Marvels: “Japan had expected the Mongol invasion for years. In 1266, Kublai Khan, the new Mongol emperor of China, sent envoys to Japan with a letter addressed to the “King of Japan”–a title guaranteed to offend the Japanese emperor. The letter itself was equally unpalatable. The Great Khan “invited” Japan to send envoys to the Mongol court in order to establish friendly relations between the two states–code for the tributary relationship China habitually imposed on its neighbors. The letter ended with an implicit threat: “Nobody would wish to resort to arms.” Both the largely symbolic imperial court at Kyoto and the military government at Kamakura, which had controlled Japan since the late twelfth century, chose to ignore the khan’s overtures.” [Source: Pamela Toler, Wonders & Marvels +++]

Kublai Khan attacked Japan while the Mongols were still engaged in mopping up operations against the remnants of the Song Dynasty. He attacked Japan because he needed resources and wanted to demonstrate his power. Toler wrote: “For several years Kublai Khan was distracted by more immediate concerns: subduing the newly conquered province of Korea and his war against the Song dynasty of southern China. It was 1274 before the Mongol emperor turned his attention to Japan once more.” +++

Background of the Mongol Invasion of Japan

Japanese relations with China had been terminated in the mid-ninth century after the deterioration of late Tang China and the turning inward of the Heian court. Some commercial contacts were maintained with southern China in later centuries, but Japanese pirates made the open seas dangerous. At a time when the Shogunate had little interest in foreign affairs and ignored communications from China and Koryo (as Korea was then known), news arrived in 1268 of a new Mongol regime in Beijing. Its leader, Khubilai Khan, demanded that the Japanese pay tribute to the new Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368) and threatened reprisals if they failed to do so. Unused to such threats, Kyoto raised the diplomatic counter of Japan’s divine origin, rejected the Mongol demands, dismissed the Korean messengers, and started defensive preparations. [Source: Library of Congress *]

According to “Topics in Japanese Cultural History”: “At that time, the Mongols were completing their conquest of China and had also intimidated the Korean kingdom into becoming their allies. Mongol leader Kubilai Khan first sent envoys to Japan in 1266 to demand that Japan become a tributary state of the Mongol empire. The aristocrats at the imperial court were terrified of antagonizing the powerful Mongol leader and probably would have agreed to the demand. When Kubilai’s envoys reached the bakufu, however, Regent Hojo Tokimune (1251-1284) rejected their demands with scorn. Subsequent Mongol envoys received similar treatment. [Source: “Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University figal-sensei.org *~*]

What was Kubilai Khan’s motivation? According to Thomas D, Conlan: Surviving records suggest . . . that the Mongols were in fact preoccupied with political hegemony, for such rhetoric pervades their diplomatic missives; the accumulation of wealth seems to have been perceived as a function of this dominance that deserved little explicit attention. Indeed, an aura of absolute supremacy permeates their diplomatic discourse, which when coupled with their military offensives, led many to conclude that they intended to bring the whole world under their domination. [Source: In Little Need of Divine Intervention: Takezaki Suenaga’s Scrolls of the Mongol Invasions of Japan, translated by Thomas D. Conlan. (Ithaca: East Asian Program, Cornell University, 2001), pp. 255-6.]


Mongol ships


First Mongol Invasion of Japan (1274): the Story

Pamela Toler wrote in Wonders & Marvels: “ On November 2, a fleet of 900 ships sailed from Korea with over 40,000 men, including Chinese, Jurchen, and Korean soldiers and a corps of 5,000 Mongolian horsemen. The invasion forces landed first at the islands of Tsushima and Iki, where the local samurai were overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of their attackers. [Source: Pamela Toler, Wonders & Marvels +++]

“With the intervening islands secured, the Mongols moved on to the Japanese mainland, landing at Hakata Bay on November 19. The Japanese were waiting for them, alerted by the news from Tsushima and Iki. When the Mongols landed, the twelve-year-old grandson of the Japanese commander-in-chief fired the shot that was the traditional opening in a samurai battle: a signaling arrow with a perforated wooden head that whistled as it flew to draw the attention of the gods to the deeds of bravery about to be performed. The Mongols responded with raucous laughter. +++

“It was an omen of how the day’s battle would proceed. Both armies depended on their archers, but their fighting styles were dramatically different. The Japanese were accustomed to fighting in small-group or individual combat, seeking out worthy opponents by shouting a verbal challenge. They fired single arrows aimed at specific targets. The Mongols advanced in tightly knit formations and fired their arrows in huge volleys. Their movements were accompanied by roaring drums and gongs, which frightened the Japanese horses and made them difficult to control. When the Mongol forces pulled back, they fired paper bombs and iron balls that exploded at the samurais’ feet–something the Japanese had not seen before. Seriously outnumbered and baffled by the invaders’ tactics, the Japanese were not able to hold the beaches. By nightfall, they had retreated several miles inland. Instead of pressing forward, the Mongolian forces returned to their ships for the night. +++

The Mongol army, which fought as a mass, fought against 6,000 or so Japanese samurai and gokenin (armed retainers), who fought as individuals and allowed the Mongols to push 16 kilometers inland. No one is sure why the Mongols returned to their ships. Perhaps they were nervous about Japanese reinforcements, or maybe about the weather,

Some historical records insist the Mongol navy was overtaken by a ‘storm” that sunk 200 ships, took 13,500 lives and forced them to retreat to China. According to these accounts an unseasonable storm struck the Mongol fleet, dashing its ships against the rocks. With their ships smashed and about one-third of their force dead, the Mongols withdrew. The Japanese hailed the storm as a divine wind (kamikaze), sent by the gods to protect them.” Some say, no such storm occurred. The ships simply returned home because the wind had changed direction.


Mongol Invasion by Kawashima Jimbei


First Mongol Invasion of Japan: the Facts

According to “Topics in Japanese Cultural History”: “In 1274, Kubilai Khan finally resorted to force, sending from Korea an armada, which landed an invasion force numbering about 30,000 soldiers according to traditional accounts (some accounts put the figure as high as 90,000). Because each side greatly exaggerated the number of enemy soldiers in its own records (during and soon after the invasion period), one should be skeptical of such a large figure. [Source: “Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University figal-sensei.org *~*]

Conlan has carefully examined both Mongol and Japanese military capabilities and concludes that each side consisted of perhaps 2,000 - 3,000 soldiers in 1274. Regarding overall military capabilities: “Surviving sources suggest that military parity existed between the Mongol invaders and the Japanese. Although the Mongols enjoyed naval superiority, they lacked sufficient forces to occupy northern Kyushu and accordingly avoided close confrontations with the Japanese defenders.” [Source: “In Little Need of Divine Intervention,” p. 265.*~*]

“It is hard to say with certainly how the Japanese forces fared in the initial battles on 1274, in part because the Mongol force did not have sufficient solders to conquer and hold much territory even under ideal conditions. Working against the defenders was the superior weaponry of the Mongols. More important was that the Japanese defenders, while sufficiently numerous, consisted of a collection of local warrior bands with little or no central organization. Each warrior band--or individual warrior--sought to maximize its own glory in the hope of receiving rewards from the bakufu. Many, therefore, avoided areas of the battle where the Mongols were strongest and Japanese defenders most urgently needed. Instead, they tended to hold back while seeking places where they could score a relatively easy "victory" in the sense of taking Mongol heads or being witnessed killing Mongol invaders. *~*

“In any case, not long after the Mongols landed, they departed. The traditional account blames the departure on serious storms that arose suddenly, causing the Korean sailors manning the fleet to persuade the Mongols to leave or risk disaster. But the likely cause was not a storm per se, but a sudden reversal of the wind direction. Mongol commanders had come to know that their numbers were insufficient, and the change in wind direction facilitated their sailing back to the continent." (In Little Need of Divine Intervention, p. 267.)

Mongols and Japanese Prepare for a Second Invasion


Japanese wall

After the retreat, Kublai Khan prepared to attack Japan again. During the seven year interval between the battles the Mongols ordered the Koreans to build new ships and prepare a large army for the invasion. A Mongol ship from that period found by archeologists was 230 feet in length, twice as big as any European ship used at that time. In the meantime, Japanese built a massive three-meter-high, 20-kilomterlong wall around Hakata Bay in six months, recruited samurai from around the archipelago and trained local fishermen and traders to be fighters. Kublai Khan sent envoys, asking the Japanese to submit but again they refused and executed the khan’s ambassadors.

After the first Mongol invasion the Japanese placed the entire country on a wartime footing, with every able-bodied man was engaged in constructing shoreline fortifications and given military training. According to “Topics in Japanese Cultural History”: “Neither side believed that the 1274 encounter had been decisive. The Mongols attributed their initial failure simply to insufficient manpower, while the Japanese, uncowed by the Mongols, initiated preparations for an invasion of Korea in order to belatedly aid anti-Mongol forces. The first Mongol force withdrew, but Kubilai had certainly not given up. He sent several more envoys and threatened a much larger invasion force if Japan did not capitulate to Mongol demands. The bakufu response was as firm as ever, and Hojo Tokimune ordered fortifications built in northern Kyushu, the area most likely to be attacked in the second invasion. The bakufu also ordered warriors from all over Japan to mobilize and serve guard duty in Kyushu on a rotational basis.” [Source: “Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University figal-sensei.org *~*]

The Japanese army on Kyushu consisted of 100,000 regulars and 25,000 reserves. The Japanese didn't have much of a navy---their seamen were afraid of going too far away from the coast so local pirates were hired. The pirates were good at harassing the Yuan forces. For protection the Mongol, Chinese and Korean ships were chained together in long lines to make it harder for the pirates to board them.

The Japanese weapons and armor---bows and arrows, spears, swords, wooden shields and samurai style armor---were inferior to the poisoned arrows, maces, lassos, javelins, bombs filled with black powder, catapults and bronze helmets used by the Mongols.

One of the more unusual finds in the underwater archeological excavation of Kublai Khans fleet were bricks. The Mongols built onboard forges for blacksmiths to use in making horseshoes and repairing weapons. Some of the bricks, some scholars have speculated, may have been brought along to build shrines to celebrate a Mongol victory. [Source: Torao Mazia, National Geographic, November 1982]

Second Mongol Invasion of Japan in 1281


Mongol helmet

According to “Topics in Japanese Cultural History”: “It was not until 1281 that the second invasion force set sail for Japan. This force was much larger, about 140,000 in traditional accounts. More realistically, however, says Conlan: "It remains doubtful that even as many as ten thousand invaders attacked a reinforced Japanese contingent of several thousand men in 1281.” (In Little Need of Divine Intervention, p. 264.) Although the second invasion force was much larger than the first, Japanese defenses and coordination were also much better.” [Source: “Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University figal-sensei.org *~*]

Thomas Hoover wrote in “Zen Culture”: “As expected, in the early summer of 1281 the Khan launched an invasion force thought to have numbered well over 100,000 men, using vessels constructed by Korean labor. When they began landing in southern Kyushu, the samurai were there and ready, delighted at the prospect of putting to use on a common adversary the military skills they had evolved over the decades through slaughtering one another. They harassed the Mongol fleet from small vessels, while on shore they faced the invaders man for man, never allowing their line to break. For seven weeks they stood firm, and then it was August, the typhoon month. One evening, the skies darkened ominously in the south and the winds began to rise, but before the fleet could withdraw the typhoon struck. In two days the armada of Kublai Khan was obliterated, leaving hapless onshore advance parties to be cut to ribbons by the samurai. Thus did the Zen warriors defeat one of the largest naval expeditions in world history, and in commemoration the grateful emperor named the typhoon the Divine Wind, Kamikaze. [Source : “Zen Culture” by Thomas Hoover, Random House, 1977]

According to “Topics in Japanese Cultural History”: “Since the time of the first invasion, Japanese laborers had erected a massive stone defensive wall along the coast of Hakata Bay (part of present day Fukuoka City, which is straight up from Nagasaki on the northwestern coast of Kyushu). This wall proved quite effective in containing the Mongol forces that did manage to come ashore. Japanese strategy, however, called for preventing as many from landing as possible by keeping the relatively large Mongol ships under constant attack by small, maneuverable vessels that could strike swiftly from any angle. This strategy also worked well, and only a relatively small number of the invaders ever landed. [Source: “Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University figal-sensei.org *~*]

“The fighting went on for about two months, with Japanese defenses holding but no major battle having been fought. The lack of a major battle should not suggest a lack of savagery. For example: “The defenders’ desire for vengeance had been inflamed by the brutal occupation of the outlying islands. The Mongols murdered most men and cruelly pierced the center of the palms of captured women and tied them to the sides of the ships. . . Suenaga [a Japanese warrior] and his cohorts coolly killed most sailors and soldiers captured on the high seas.” (In Little Need of Divine Intervention, p. 270.) Then, quite suddenly, a typhoon came through the area and destroyed much of the Mongol fleet. The typhoon ended the invasion, and the battered, greatly reduced remnants of the Mongol force sailed back to Korea.” *~*

Kublai Khan Attacks Japan in 1281

In one of the greatest naval assaults ever Kublai Khan attacked Japan in 1281 with 4,400 ships and tens of thousands of Korean, Chinese and Mongol troops. In contrast, the famed Spanish Armada that attempted to invade Elizabethan England contained only 130 ships and 27,500 men and the D-Day invasion force that stormed the beaches of Normandy included about 8,000 ships and 175,000 soldiers.

Pamela Toler wrote in Wonders & Marvels: “The Mongols launched a two-pronged attack against Japan, with a combined fleet of almost 4,000 ships and 140,000 men. The Eastern Army sailed from Korea on May 22; the Southern Army sailed from southern China on July 5. The two fleets were to meet at Iki and proceed together against mainland Japan. The Eastern Army subdued Tsushima and Iki in early June. Instead of waiting for the Southern Army to arrive, they moved on to Hakata Bay. [Source: Pamela Toler, Wonders & Marvels +++]


fighting at Hakata wall


“Japan had used the intervening years to build earth and stone fortifications along the coast of Hakata Bay. When the Mongols arrived, Japanese defenders repulsed the attack from a secure position behind the defensive walls. When the Mongols retreated, the Japanese took the war to them, using small boats to attack the Mongosl at night. After a week of fierce fighting, the Eastern Army retreated to Iki Island to await the arrival of the Southern Army. +++

“The two Mongol forces rendezvoused in early August. On the evening of August 12, the Japanese attacked, using the “little ships” tactic that had been successful before. The Mongols responded by linking their ships together to create a defensive platform. The battle continued through the night. At dawn, the exhausted Japanese retreated, expecting a decisive attack and the subsequent invasion of the mainland. Instead the Mongol ships, still linked together, were caught in a typhoon that dashed the ships against each other and the shore. When the typhoon subsided, the surviving ships headed out to sea, leaving thousands of stranded soldiers behind them to be massacred by the Japanese. +++

Fighting During the Second Invasion by the Mongols

The Mongols sent two fleets: a large Chinese one with 3,500 ships and 100,000 troops, and a smaller Korean-Mongol one with 900 ships and 10,000 troops. The two fleets were supposed to rendevous at Iki island but that didn’t happen. The Korean force captured Iki and moved on without waiting for the Chinese force.

The Mongols apparently had no knowledge of the massive wall built by the Japanese. The Korean-Mongol force landed directly in front of it, with the Japanese there waiting for them. Fighting in cramped quarters along a narrow coastline robbed the Mongols of their most successful tactic---the lightning cavalry charge that had routed the finest armies of Asia and Eastern Europe---and forced them back on to their ships.

The Japanese counterattacked the Mongol ships. Samurai warriors lept onto the decks of the enemy ships and fought with the crews. Burning ships were sent into masses of enemy warships. The Korean-Mongol force retreated to Iki Island.

Kamikaze Wind Saves Japan

After being held up the larger Chinese contingent finally arrived and attacked the Japanese on the island of Takashima. Fighting there lasted forseveral weeks. The Japanese and Chinese-Mongol engaged in closely-contested battles around Hakata Bay and neither side was able to gain a clear advantage.



The Mongols attempted to break the morale of the Japanese army with brutality. The hands of Japanese women were pierced with a knives and they were tied to the bows of ships with ropes strung through their wounds.

At the end of July, as the Mongols were preparing to invade mainland Kyushu, the Emperor of Japan and other high-ranking officials prayed to the gods for help. As if their prayers were answered, a "divine wind" known as a kamikaze, kicked up and halted the Mongol invasion. An estimated 4,000 ships were sunk and 100,000 lives were lost.

Japanese accounts at the time reported that “a person could walk across from one point of land to another on a mass of wreckage.” Kublai Khan never sent an invading force to Japan again. A planned invasion in 1286 was called off. The Japanese launched some raids, more piratical than military, against Korea and China. The victory for the Japanese ensured their security, solitude and belief they were protected by the gods. Japan escaped foreign occupation and its territory was not threatened again until World War II, six and a half centuries later. Toler wrote: “Japanese chroniclers cited the winds as proof that the gods themselves protected the island. The idea of “divine winds” (kamikaze) that protected Japan against invasion remained an important element in Japanese political mythology as late as the Second World War.” +++

Divine Intervention and the Mongol Attacks

While the Japanese military government (bakufu) was busy with military preparations, the imperial court had mobilized all of Japan’s shrines and temples to offer prayers and perform religious rituals to ward off the invaders: Kyoto and not Kamakura took the lead in mobilizing the gods. The court ignored the initial Mongol missives of 1266, but began enacting esoteric rituals of destruction against foreigners (ikoku chobuku) during the third month of 1268, shortly after establishing the precedent for such rituals to be performed on a national scale. . . . After the 1281 invasion, the court (and the retired sovereign Kameyama in particular) took the most active role in cursing the Mongols. The Kamakura bakufu belatedly promulgated prayers in eight of Japan’s sixty-six provinces in 1283 and did not apparently start issuing nationwide prayers throughout Japan until 1290. [Source: “In Little Need of Divine Intervention,” p. 273.)

According to “Topics in Japanese Cultural History”: “The court made the plausible claim that the typhoon was the result of these prayers and proof that Japan was a land specially favored by the deities. The typhoon that destroyed the second Mongol invasion force is the origin of the word "kamikaze" ?? (also pronounced shinpu in premodern times). Kamikaze literally means "divine wind." One should not, however, read too much into this idea of Japan as favored "land of the gods." This idea was prominent in elite court circles from the late Kamakura period onward, but it does not indicate popular nationalism. [Source: “Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University figal-sensei.org *~*]

Conlan points out in the context of the extensive account provided by a local warrior: Nowhere in Takezaki Suenaga’s account can one uncover evidence of a “national” consciousness whereby “Japan” existed as a transcendent entity worthy of defense. Although Takezaki Suenaga explained in his audience with the high-ranking bakufu official Adachi Yasumori that normal ‘rules’ of precedent did not apply when fighting foreign invaders, he stated so in order to convince Yasumori to grant him rewards that otherwise did not appear to be forthcoming. Rather than fighting for the defense of Japan, personal and familial goals—the desire to be first to charge, to have an audience with his lord, and to receive ample rewards—propelled him to risk his life in battle. Even his grim determination to behead as many enemy as possible stemmed from the need to have proof of his “valor” than to extract revenge from foreign invaders. [Source: “In Little Need of Divine Intervention,” p. 271.)

Impact of the Mongol Invasions on Japan

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Chinese ships sailing home
For the Japanese, according to “Topics in Japanese Cultural History”: “The Mongol Invasions of 1274 and 1281 were a major turning point in the history of the Kamakura period. On the surface, it appeared the bakufu had won a great victory against the vast Mongol empire. It was certainly the case that the bakufu provided excellent leadership in the crisis. [Source: “Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University figal-sensei.org *~*]

Although Shinto priests attributed the two defeats of the Mongols to a "divine wind" (kamikaze), a sign of heaven’s special protection of Japan, the invasion left a deep impression on the Shogunate leaders. Long-standing fears of the Chinese threat to Japan were reinforced, and the Korean Peninsula became regarded as "an arrow pointed at the heart of Japan." The Japanese victory, however, gave the bushi a sense of fighting superiority that remained with Japan’s soldiers until 1945. The victory also convinced the bushi of the value of the Shogunate form of government. [Source: Library of Congress *]

The Mongol war had been a drain on the economy, and new taxes had to be levied to maintain defensive preparations for the future. The invasions also caused disaffection among those who expected recompense for their help in defeating the Mongols. There were no lands or other rewards to be given, however, and such disaffection, combined with overextension and the increasing defense costs, led to a decline of the Kamakura Shogunate. Additionally, inheritances had divided family properties, and landowners increasingly had to turn to moneylenders for support. Roving bands of ronin further threatened the stability of the Shogunate. *

For the Mongols in China, according to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “The Japanese expeditions “were extremely costly and weighed heavily upon the Mongol rulers in China. And a 1292 expedition against Java, also a disaster, only served to further weaken the Mongols' resources and resolve. Though this time the Mongols actually managed to land in Java, the heat, tropical environment, and parasitic and infectious diseases there led to their withdrawal from Java within a year. Similar problems afflicted the Mongols in all their attacks and invasions into mainland Southeast Asia — in Burma, Cambodia, and in particular, Vietnam. Though they initially succeeded in some of these campaigns, the Mongols were always forced to withdraw eventually because of adverse weather and diseases. It would seem that the Mongols simply were not proficient in naval warfare and did not have much luck in this part of the world. And with each failed campaign, vast sums were expended, and the empire was further weakened.” <|> [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu/mongols <|>]

Impact of the Mongol Invasions on Japanese Warfare

Thomas Hoover wrote in “Zen Culture”: The Japanese had, however, learned a sobering lesson about their military preparedness. In the century of internal peace between the Gempei War and the Mongol landing, Japanese fighting men had let their skills atrophy. Not only were their formalized ideas about honorable hand-to-hand combat totally inappropriate to the tight formations and powerful crossbows of the Asian armies (a samurai would ride out, announce his lineage, and immediately be cut down by a volley of Mongol arrows), the Japanese warriors had lost much of their moral fiber. To correct both these faults the Zen monks who served as advisers to the Hojo insisted that military training, particularly archery and swordsmanship, be formalized, using the techniques of Zen discipline. A system of training was hastily begun in which the samurai were conditioned psychologically as well as physically for battle. It proved so successful that it became a permanent part of Japanese martial tactics. [Source : “Zen Culture” by Thomas Hoover, Random House, 1977 <>]

“The Zen training was urgent, for all of Japan knew that the Mongols would be back in strength. One of the Mongols’ major weapons had been the fear they inspired in those they approached, but fear of death is the last concern of a samurai whose mind has been disciplined by Zen exercises. Thus the Mongols were robbed of their most potent offensive weapon, a point driven home when a group of Mongol envoys appearing after the first invasion to proffer terms were summarily beheaded. <>

Yuan Dynasty Fleet Ship Excavated Off Japan


arrows of the Mongolian army

In October 2011, it was announced that the wreck of a military ship, believed to be from the Yuan dynasty fleet that tried to invade Japan in 1281, had been found in Imari Bay off Matsuura, Nagasaki Prefecture. Discovered near Takashima island, the ship is believed to have gone down during the Battle of Koan in 1281, according to Prof. Yoshifumi Ikeda, an archaeologist with University of the Ryukus. Ikeda leads a team searching for ships that sank during failed Mongol invasions. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, October 25, 2011]

The Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “Pieces of Yuan ships, anchor stones, cannonballs and other relics had been found around the island, but the latest discovery was the first time a nearly intact ship's hull has been excavated. Part of the ship's hull was found last year about one meter below the seabed, about 20 meters to 25 meters underwater, south of the island.

“The team of researchers began a full excavation projectin September 2011 and discovered a keel, 15 meters long and 50 centimeters wide, and many wood planks on both sides of it. The planks were 15 centimeters to 25 centimeters wide, 10 centimeters thick and one meter to 10 meters long, and are thought to be parts of the ship's hull. Both sides of the keel were painted gray. Pieces of Chinese ceramics were found above parts of the hull, and bricks unique to China were also found. Based on this evidence, the team concluded the ship was from the Yuan fleet. Based on pieces connected to the keel, the team estimated the ship was at least 20 meters long.

“About 100 pieces of Chinese ceramics and at least 300 bricks, believed to have been ballast, were found scattered around the site. The pieces include what Japanese called tetsuhau, a kind of explosive shell used by Yuan dynasty soldiers. Tetsuhau are depicted on a Japanese picture scroll made in the late Kamakura period.”

Image Sources: University of Washington, Brooklyn University, Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Samurai Archives samurai-archives.com; Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University figal-sensei.org *~*; Asia for Educators Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, afe.easia.columbia.edu ; Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Japan; Library of Congress; Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO); New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; Daily Yomiuri; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek, Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.

Last updated September 2016

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