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  • James Houser

August 15, 1281 - The Mongol Invasions of Japan

Updated: Jun 13, 2021

August 15, 1281. The Mongol Empire has conquered most of the known world – but even they have limits. Emperor Kublai Khan has sent a great expedition to bring the last independent East Asian ruler, the Japanese Emperor, to heel. The Japanese will fight for their homeland, but they will have an unexpected ally: the weather. Mongols, prepare to meet the kamikaze – the “divine wind.”


In the 1270s AD, the Mongols ruled the most powerful empire in human history. It stretched from Korea, China and Siberia west to the cities of Russia and the sands of Arabia. Great kingdoms in China, Persia, India, central Asia, Iraq and Russia had all fallen to the well-organized, disciplined hordes of Genghiz Khan and his descendants. The Mongols steamrollered almost anyone who dared to cross their paths, with a few exceptions. They had been unable to conquer the powerful Mamluks in Egypt, or subdue the recalcitrant kingdoms of Vietnam on their southern border.


The Mongols were dangerous and formidable opponents – but they could, in fact, be beaten by good leadership, clever tactics or guerrilla campaigns. The Egyptians and Vietnamese, though, were on the very fringes of the Mongol Empire. There was a much more interesting and urgent target right next door to the seat of Mongol power.


In 1259, Genghiz Khan’s grandson Kublai Khan established himself as the first monarch of the Yuan Dynasty in China. Unlike previous Mongols, who had preferred to rule as…well, Mongols, Kublai tried to synchronize the Mongol warrior ways with Chinese bureaucracy and administration. He was still in the process of conquering the rest of China, an uncompleted task from his grandfather’s days, and his rule was still resisted by the stubborn Song Dynasty in southern China. With Mongol supremacy in place over northern China and Korea, however, Kublai had a new problem: the epidemic of piracy in the East China Sea. It didn’t take long to identify the source – the as yet unconquered and isolated island nation of Japan. In 1268, Kublai sent envoys to the Japanese government, demanding submission and recognition of Kublai as their overlord. He made clear that the alternative was war.


What exactly did Japan look like in the 13th Century? I don’t think any of us want me to recount almost five hundred years of Japanese political history here, so I’ll be brief. The Japanese government *technically* revolved around an Emperor based in Kyoto, but this Emperor held almost no real power. Japan was in the hands of a warrior class that in 1185 had unseated the old Taira regents of the Emperor and had themselves declared Sei-I Taishogun, normally shortened as “Shogun”, a title which translates to “Barbarian-Fighting General.” Shogun was an artifact title from centuries beforehand, when a series of military commanders had subdued northern Japan.


But wait! It gets more confusing. The title of Shogun was held by the Minamoto clan, which had defeated the Taira regents, and was a hereditary title. Ever since the early 1200s, though, the shogun had his own Regent, usually from the Hojo family, and THEY governed Japan from the city of Kamakura near modern Tokyo. So power wasn’t in the hands of the Emperor, who was a puppet of the military dictator; it wasn’t even in the hands of the military dictator, who was a puppet of the Regent; and sometimes the Regent was too young, so he was in the hands of someone else. Everyone seemed fine with playing six degrees of Kevin Bacon with the actual power structure in Japan, so I guess it worked for them, but seriously, Kamakura-era Japan was a straight up Russian doll of “who controls who”. So who’s in charge? The Hojo regents. There.


The head of the bakufu, or military administration, in 1268 was Hojo Tokimune, 18 years old. Tokimune was a deeply religious Zen Buddhist and obsessed with honor and the warrior’s way. Tokimune knew he could not treat the Mongol threat lightly; the Japanese knew what had been going on over in Asia, so he made ready to fight. The Japanese response to Kublai Khan’s ultimatum would be…nothing. Silence. Infuriating, defiant silence. Every year, the Khan sent more diplomats with more demands for submission, but the Japanese officials who received the envoys simply refused to allow them to speak to the Emperor, his Shogun, or the Regent, and sent them back with no answer. No answer, of course, was an answer in and of itself. Kublai Khan ordered a fleet prepared. It would take years, but the Mongol Khan was determined to bend this pathetic little mountain kingdom to his will.


Hojo ordered his vassals in the western provinces – especially Japan’s southernmost main island of Kyushu – to call out their armies and prepare for invasion. Those lords with lands on the western coast were to have their forces patrol the beaches, and they would be supplemented by rotations from the other provinces to keep from wearing their men out. From the first rejection of the Mongol ultimatum to the first Mongol invasion, Hojo Tokimune and his bakufu pulled out all the stops to keep armies in the field – quite a political accomplishment for so young a regent.


In 1274, Kublai finally began to assemble his force off the coast of Korea. Though some of the troops were Mongol, of course, many of the foot soldiers were Chinese and almost all the seamen were local Koreans. As many as 900 ships were put into the sea, along with 40,000 foot soldiers for the great invasion of Japan. It is uncertain whether this was meant to be a full-scale attack or an advance force. Either way, the Mongol invasion force left Korea on November 2, 1274, headed for the coast of Japan to launch the first great attack on the last great Asian kingdom left standing.


The first battles of the invasion of 1274 took place on the small Japanese islands of Tsushima and Iki, where the heroic and suicidal defense of the small samurai clans became a touchstone of Japanese legend. The defense of Tsushima became so famous that one of this year’s most popular video games, “Ghosts of Tsushima,” is based on this struggle, which engendered more rage than admiration from the invaders. Nevertheless, the Mongols crushed the Japanese resistance on these islands and made for Kyushu, with their fleet appearing off Hakata Bay on November 18.


Hakata Bay is the only really good landing site in southwest Japan, so it was obvious where the Mongols would attempt their invasion of Japan. The Mongols still managed to land and capture the town of Hakata, but were soon embroiled in a fight with the local samurai forces. The samurai attacked early instead of waiting for reinforcements, and quickly found themselves outmatched by the veteran invaders. Samurai military culture in the 1200s, with almost no wars to fight or gain experience with, emphasized individual combat and the skill of the lone swordsman. This was in sharp contrast to the battle-tested and well-developed Mongol way of war, which relied on formation tactics, barrages of missiles from horseback, and the use of field artillery. The Mongol invaders of Japan used very early gunpowder weapons, such as catapults that fired exploding bombs and quite possibly some of the first cannon ever used in warfare.


The First Battle of Hakata Bay turned out to be inconclusive. Although the samurai army was dismayed and stunned by the battle proficiency and frightening weapons of the Mongol army, they nevertheless caused a significant number of casualties through their cavalry charges and heroic resistance. When the samurai force withdrew from the battlefield into their prepared defenses, the Mongols did not follow. They had expended too much of their ammunition, had suffered too many casualties, and were well aware that Japanese reinforcements were on the way. They decided to spend the night onboard their ships – resting, rearming, and preparing for a second attempt.


This turned out to be a mistake. A gale blew up on the night of November 18 that caused many of the ships to sink or be scattered across the coast of Kyushu. Almost one third of the invasion force was lost, and the Mongol generals, unused to the cruel whims of the Sea of Japan, were stunned by their harsh treatment at the hands of the weather. The Mongol flotilla returned home to Korea, and the Invasion of 1274 was over.


Whatever celebration the Japanese may have been inclined to make was muted. They knew that the Mongols had not been defeated by Japanese arms, but by the weather; furthermore, the bakufu knew that the Mongols would return. Hojo Tokimune predicted that Kublai Khan would not take this defeat lightly – he would only come back harder and stronger next time. The Japanese absorbed the mistakes and lessons of the first invasion and began to work overtime to prepare for the next Mongol attack. Japan was extremely lucky; very few peoples got the chance to learn from their mistakes against the Mongols, and very few people got a second chance against a Mongol invasion.


The Japanese predicted correctly that Hakata Bay would be the most likely site for a rematch, and began to fortify the area. Not only did they post more troops and build more fortresses, they also built an enormous sea wall that stretched across all the most likely invasion beaches. The building of the great sea wall of Kyushu became a major Japanese public effort, with the promise of great rewards for those who made a contribution to defeating the Mongol invasion. The Japanese also built hordes of small attack boats to strike back against the large junks used by the mainland invaders. The Japanese waited…and waited…and waited.


The Mongols didn’t invade immediately after their first defeat for two reasons. The first was that Kublai Khan was much more involved in crushing the last remnants of the Song Dynasty in southern China, and he devoted most of his military resources to that struggle. The second reason was that the Koreans needed to replace their ships and crewmen, which had suffered badly in the first invasion. It took time to build a new invasion fleet, and the effort ended up consuming almost all the seaworthy timber and trained mariners in Korea.


The second Mongol expedition would top out at a whopping 4400 ships with almost 130,000 soldiers, this time broken into two groups: the Eastern Army coming from Korea, and the Southern Army coming from the coast of China. They would unite at Tsushima and sail for Kyushu. The campaign plan was the same as in 1274, the only difference being that the forces were much, much larger. After seven years of preparation – and seven years of the Japanese waiting – the invasion was set for summer of 1281.


The Eastern Army landed on Tsushima on June 9 and Iki on June 14, with the results virtually identical to those of 1274: brave but futile resistance to the invaders. The Eastern Army soon got word that the Southern Army was way behind schedule, and rather than wait for these huge reinforcements decided to go it alone. They rolled up to Hakata Bay and on June 21 saw the gigantic wall that had taken the Japanese so many years to construct. In a depressingly obvious move that someone on the Japanese side should probably have predicted, the Mongols searched for a place where the wall WASN’T and…landed there. So much for the wall.


The Japanese were not demoralized by this move, and the initial Mongol assault was met by wave after wave of determined Japanese attacks that foreshadowed the banzai charges of World War II. Unlike in World War II, these charges were tactically effective, and prevented the Mongols from breaking out of their shallow beachhead. The wall did end up coming in handy after all, since it limited the Mongols to landing in only one spot and reduced their fearsome mobility.


That night, the Japanese small boats rowed out amongst the invasion fleet and wreaked havoc, heavily armored samurai climbing on board the Mongol vessels to chop through the poorly armed seamen. Night strikes on the Mongol fleet killed so many commanders and officers that the Mongols were forced to withdraw their fleet to Tsushima, where they finally rendezvoused with the Southern Army on August 12. The Japanese were really in trouble now; it was looking more and more like the Mongols, even if they had been stopped twice, were set to overwhelm the stubborn defenders of Hakata Bay.


As these invasions had been going on, Hojo Tokimune and his Zen Buddhist priests had been making long and heartfelt devotions to the ancient gods of Japan for deliverance from the invader. Tokimune feared that cowardice would rot the Japanese war effort from within; after consultation with his Zen Master Mugaku Sogen, he came to the conclusion that the merging of Buddhist philosophy with warrior spirit would save Japan. This new combination – a merging of traditional samurai codes with the Zen belief system – might never have taken hold in Japan the way it did, if not for what happened next.


The full combined Mongol fleet was on its way to launch a third, and probably ultimately triumphant, assault on Hakata Bay when a massive storm came howling out from nowhere on August 15, 1281. This sudden typhoon smashed across the Straits of Tsushima, chopping the sea into a fury for two days. The Mongol navy and its tens of thousands of troops were unprepared and at the mercy of the winds and waves. Within 48 hours, almost the whole fleet was sent to the bottom, with thousands of soldiers left adrift on pieces of wood or washed ashore. The Japanese defenders killed anyone who made it to the beaches, and many were isolated on the islands were they could be picked off at the leisure of the samurai. The Mongol fleet lost almost every ship; only 200 ships returned to the mainland of the over 4,000 that had set out, and the casualty rate approached 90 percent. It was possibly the greatest disaster at sea since the great Roman fleet sank in 255 BC.


Thus ended the second – and as it turned out, last – Mongol invasion of Japan. Kublai made motions at another attempt, but the Korean shipbuilding industry was ruined by the disaster, and the Chinese ships were needed for invasions of Vietnam. Mongol pride was hurt, since the Japanese survived to defy them, but other than the loss of men and material the Japanese victory inflicted no lasting damage on the Mongol Empire.


The defeat of the Mongol invasions had far more long-term implications for Japan. The enormous effort and expense of stopping the Mongol invasion had exposed deep political rifts within the Japanese government. After the death of Tokimune – an able politician and unifying force – these rifts would fracture into yet another series of civil wars that would not really end until the triumph of Tokugawa Ieyasu in 1615. Ironically, the victory over the Mongol invasions did more damage to the Japanese government than the Mongol government.


The Japanese victory also meant that Japan would remain on its own trajectory, isolated from East Asia and even from the world, until Commodore Perry’s expedition forced it to open its gates in 1853. This isolation also gave Japan a somewhat unearned sense of invulnerability. It became an article of religious faith that Japan could never be invaded, that the gods would prevent any invader from stepping on its shores with their “divine wind” – which translates to the Japanese word *kamikaze.* Just as the gods had stopped the Mongols with their typhoon, so too would their protection stop any other invading barbarians.


Come 1945, this would all take a much more sinister tone. Hojo Tokimune’s well-meaning Buddhist warrior code had evolved into the rigid and cruel “bushido.” Japanese attempts to recreate the “divine wind” turned into the kamikaze pilots, young men browbeaten into suicidal air attacks against American ships. Finally, the Japanese belief that their homeland could never be invaded would lead them to hold out far, far longer than was wise – until the United States introduced a divine power of their own.


There is such a thing as victory disease.


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