Mongol Invasion of Japan

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.

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.  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.

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.

mongol fleet destroyed in a typhoonSeriously 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. A successful attack the next day seemed inevitable, but that evening 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.

Seven years later,  Kublai Khan tried again. 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.

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.

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.

2 Comments

  1. Jane on September 22, 2015 at 11:34 pm

    Riveting! I know so little about oriental history. Thanks.

    • pamela on September 23, 2015 at 1:01 am

      One of my goals is to make sure we all spend more time on non-western history.

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