This blog is the transcript of a presentation I have given on this topic, through Laneway Learning in Melbourne, Australia – http://melbourne.lanewaylearning.com The presentation includes forty two images.
For thousands of years Japan was populated by numerous clans, all their members leading a largely hunter-gatherer lifestyle, and whose chieftains were constantly at war with each other. By 660BC one of these chieftains, Jimmu (photo 1,1a), emerged victorious over all others, and set up a power base on the main island of Honshu (photo2).
Jimmu was believed to be a descendant of the Sun Goddess Amaterasu (photos 2a,b,c), and became the first emperor (tennō) of Japan. It is from this figure, Jimmu, that the present imperial family claims a direct descent, a period of 2,680 years. Extending this far back in history, the Japanese archipelago was never invaded by hostile forces – something that occurred only at the end of WW2, in early August 1945.
However the Mongols, under Kublai Khan, for whom a description as charismatic would appear quite inadequate, made a concerted effort to do so on two occasions, in 1274 and 1281. Their failure left Japan with its blemish-free invasion record intact, for a subsequent 664 years.
There are a number of standout features of these major historical incidents, technologically, meteorologically and militarily. Let me give you a brief backgrounding, from both sides, to set the scene.
Earlier during the 13th century the Mongols had invaded Korea, which agreed to become a vassal state. Kublai was declared Mongolian leader, and in 1264 established his capital in what is now Beijing. He was looking to continually expand his empire, in whatever way was needed to achieve this objective.
In Japan the Imperial Court, with the Emperor at its head, was based in Kyoto. However actual power resided with whichever was the most powerful clan, at the head of which was the Shogun (Shikken). At this time, the Hōjō clan, based at Kamakura, about 45 km south west of Tokyo, was the most powerful, and the Shogun was Hōjō Tokimune [family name first](photo 3). Tokimune was the eighth Shogun.
Showing refined diplomatic skills, in 1266 Kublai Khan wrote a letter, in classical Chinese, the lingua franca of East Asia at the time, to the so-called ‘King of Japan,’ delivered by his emissaries. The letter is still in existence (photo 4).
Politely, but with a steely firmness, Kublai demanded that Japan also become a vassal state, under threat of future conflict. However the emissaries returned empty-handed. A second set of emissaries were sent in 1268, again returning empty-handed. Both sets of messages were seen by the Shogun and Emperor, but it was the Shogun’s decision to ignore the ultimatum that held sway. Otherwise, there was every possibility the Imperial Court may have acceded to Kublai’s demands, and set Japan off on a quite different path over subsequent centuries.
The Mongols continued to send demands, some through Korean emissaries and some through Mongol ambassadors, in 1269, 1271 and 1272, arriving at points along the coast of the north-western part of the main southern island, called Kyūshū. However each time the bearers were not even permitted to set foot on land.
The scared and worried Imperial Court suggested compromise, but had little say in the matter. The uncompromising shogunate – the word in Japanese is bakufu – ordered all those who held fiefs in Kyūshū, the area closest to the Korean Peninsula and thus most likely to be attacked, to return to their lands, and armed forces in Kyūshū were moved west, further securing the most likely landing points.
First invasion preparations
The Khan was willing to go to war as early as 1268 after having been rebuffed so many times, but his empire didn’t have the resources to provide him with a sufficient navy. As a consequence, in preparation he ordered the mass construction of hundreds of ships (photo4a) on Korea’s south-eastern shores, while the Mongols continued to demand Japan’s surrender.
First invasion (1274)
In 1274 the Korean-built fleet set out, with an estimated 15,000 Mongol and Chinese soldiers and 8,000 Korean soldiers (photo5.), in 300 large vessels and 400 smaller craft – quite a substantial flotilla. They landed on Tsushima Island on October 5, 1274 (photo6). Tsushima Island is to the north west of the northern part of Kyūshū, about midway between the 2 countries. The governor of Tsushima led a cavalry unit of 80 to defend the island, but he and his outnumbered unit were all killed in the engagement.
The Mongols and Koreans next invaded Iki Island (photo7), much closer to and virtually within sight of the mainland. There the Governor fought the invaders with about 100 cavalrymen, but they also were all killed. The invaders were getting closer.
More island hopping by the seemingly unstoppable Mongols ensued, with battles on Hirado, Taka and Nokono Islands, bringing the invaders within a few minutes sailing of what is now the city of Fukuoka, the capital of Kyūshū, a city of 1.5m, the eighth largest in Japan – and considered the most liveable city in Japan – perhaps the Mongols knew that(18a&b).
A few key strategic and historical factors were coming to bear at this time. Although much of North Kyūshū had been mobilized to confront the Mongols, the Japanese were inexperienced in managing a large force of fighters, a tactic they had hardly ever needed to employ, enabling this significant initial Mongolian progress. It had been approximately 50 years since the last major combat event in Japan, in 1221, leaving not a single Japanese general with adequate experience in moving large bodies of troops.
In addition, the style of warfare that was customary within feudal Japan involved single combat, one-on-one, even on large battlefields, so confronting a massed attack was a new experience for them. The purpose of the Japanese one-on-one form of battle was basically to test the individual’s skill, something the Japanese like to do as a way of putting into practice their copious amounts of training, rather than just achieving victory on the battlefield.
In addition, and very importantly, the Mongols possessed foreign weapons which included superior long-range armaments, including their unique short composite bows with poisoned arrows, fire arrows, bow-launched arrows with small rocket engines attached, and gunpowder-packed exploding arrows and grenades, with ceramic shells thrown by slings to terrify the enemy’s horses. This extensive range of superior weaponry all easily gave them the upper hand in open land combat (photos8&9).
On 19 November the Mongol forces finally landed in Hakata Bay, the bay on which Fukuoka is located – the equivalent of landing at Beaumaris. A number of fierce battles ensued in the Hakata Bay area (photo10), but tellingly, all Japanese victories. With these their first defeats, the Mongols returned to where their vessels were moored, to regroup and prepare for a new attack.
But then Mother Nature began making her presence felt. As dusk set in, heavy rainfall and strong winds indicated a typhoon was approaching, weeks after the typhoon season usually ended. As a consequence, the Mongol ship captains requested soldiers re-embark in order to avoid the risk of being marooned on Japanese soil, where they would be more prone to attack.
By daybreak, only a few ships had not set out to sea. All those that had, in excess of 200, were sunk by the typhoon and all their occupants drowned.
The Japanese boats (photo10a, 10b) were swifter and more manoeuvrable than those of the Mongols, enabling the samurai to approach and board the remaining Mongol ships under cover of darkness (photo11). In the small confines of the ships the Mongols, trained as cavalrymen and horse archers, were unable to use their bows and arrows effectively, and this skill was neutralised.
But the Japanese attackers had problems too. Their long, thin swords got stuck and snapped off in the thick, boiled leather armour of the Mongols (photo12). Nevertheless, the samurai held sway, and killed most of the Mongols on the remaining boats.
The attempt to invade Japan by the previously all-conquering Mongol army, highly successful in its initial island-hopping stages, and with the potential to achieve its objective once enough of its troops were securely on land, had been thwarted, largely through the timely intervention of a typhoon – timely, that is, for the defenders. It was pure luck for them that the weather had turned bad, in fact very bad, at this precise moment in the sequence of battles.
In reviewing the Hakata Bay fighting, the samurai subsequently re-evaluated their swords, which led to the invention and spread of the now-famous shorter and thicker katana – which is now the Japanese word for sword – in the late 13th century and into the 14th (photo13).
Events leading up to the second invasion
Having seen what lengths the Mongols were prepared to go to to take over their country, the Japanese didn’t believe this was the last they’d seen of them. Starting the following year, 1275, the Shogunate increased efforts to defend against an expected second invasion. In addition to better organizing the samurai of Kyūshū, they ordered the construction of defensive structures at potential landing points, including forts and a large 2 metre stone wall at Hakata Bay (photo13a-16). A coastal watch was also instituted (photo17).
After the failed invasion, Kublai Khan again tried a takeover by peaceful means, dispatching five Korean emissaries to Kyūshū in September 1275, with orders to refuse to leave without a reply.
Hōjō Tokimune, still Shogun, responded by having the emissaries sent to Kamakura and then beheaded (photo18). Of course Kublai Khan wouldn’t accept this as a no, and again in July 1279 five more emissaries were sent, and also beheaded, this time in Hakata, without travelling in Japan at all. By now the Emperor and Imperial Court were certain of another invasion, and this expectation was soon to be met.
Second invasion (1281)
In the spring of 1281, the Mongols sent two separate forces. This time they showed they really meant business. An impressive armada of 900 ships containing 40,000 troops set out from Korea, while a much larger force of 100,000 sailed from southern China, in 3,500 ships. The Mongols’ plan called for an overwhelming coordinated attack by the combined fleets, remembering well that the Japanese were poorly trained in countering and repelling attacks by large groups of invaders.
Part of the fleet first landed in Tsushima, in late May, but suffered heavy losses and was forced off the island. In early June another part of the fleet landed on Shika Island (photo18a), within clear view of Hakata Bay. The Japanese were heavily outnumbered, but using the coastal fortifications and attacking fiercely were able to repulse the invaders, who retreated by sea to nearby Iki Island (photo18b), nowadays just a short ferry ride from Fukuoka.
In late June a Japanese army of approximately 10,000, comprising warriors from three clans, began an all-out attack on Iki Island, within a few days forcing the Mongols to abandon the Island and withdraw to nearby Hirado Island (photo18b).
But there was no peace for them there either. The tactic now employed by the attacking Japanese, in early July, was to target the Mongolian commanders, as a result of which around 100,000 Mongolian troops were left virtually leaderless (photos18c,d).
Despite these setbacks, the Mongols, with their huge numerical advantage, were still a highly potent force, well able to successfully gain a foothold on the nearby mainland, and from there rapidly move inwards, making full advantage of their modern weaponry and proven styles of open field battle. Further, as proven invaders, they were well placed to take advantage of Japan’s inexperience in effectively gathering large numbers of fighters in single locations, as that kind of massed forces had really never before been needed in Japan – except for the previous Mongol attack seven years earlier.
So, safe on the calm coastal waters in their hundreds of ships, the Mongols regrouped and bided their time. With their superior numbers, more technologically advanced weaponry, and more highly developed fighting methods, they would still have had every reason to be supremely confident of ultimate victory.
Then, in mid-August, this time unseasonally early, you guessed it, a typhoon was raging along its unpredictable path towards Kyūshū. The Mongols had nowhere to go. If they landed, or even came close to land, they were in danger of being boarded, or attacked by the fast-moving Japanese vessels, full of samurai with their deadly katana swords. If the Mongols set sail for deeper waters, there was no knowing what their fate would be, as the path oncoming typhoons take could only have been guessed at in those days (photos 18e,f).
Over 100,000 Mongol troops, in hundreds of flimsy wooden ships, were sitting ducks for a ferocious act of Mother Nature, with winds of well over 200 kph, about to strike them in full force (photo19,19a). And strike they did, continuously and relentless, for two days from the 15th August, wiping out the vast majority of the vessels and their hapless occupants (photos20&21).
The most serious threat to Japan’s sovereignty in many millennia, and as it turned out, a further 664 years, had been averted. Whilst in anticipation of this second invasion attempt the Japanese had made some efforts to build fortifications and marshal their troops, acts never before required or undertaken in the country’s history, there seems little doubt the Mongols would still have been able to land tens of thousands of fighters, and have a very good chance of working their way inwards and northwards, to the two seats of power in the central region of the main island of Honshu. This is one of the great what-ifs in Asian history.
As a postscript to the Mongol losses, it is now believed the destruction of their fleet was greatly facilitated by the fact that most vessels were hastily constructed flat-bottomed Chinese riverboats built in Korea. Such vessels, unlike ocean-going ships that have a curved keel to prevent capsizing, were difficult to use on choppy high seas, let alone during a massive typhoon.
From this second and equally fortuitous Act of God, the Japanese named the typhoon Kami Kaze, God’s wind, or divine wind, and from thence believed that their God, or gods, would forever protect them from invasion. And in fact it, or they, did, for one week shy of the 664 years, until the power and proven devastation of atomic weaponry convinced even the most fanatical of Japan’s military, that surrender to the Americans in early August 1945 was unavoidable.
A few observations
From a military perspective, these two failed invasions by Kublai Khan were the first of only three instances when the samurai fought foreign troops rather than amongst themselves; the others being the Japanese invasions of Korea (1592–98) and the 1609 Japanese invasion of Ryukyu, the Okinawa region now part of Japan. Not only that, it was the first time samurai clans actually fought for the sake of Japan itself (photos22&23).
The invasions also exposed the Japanese to an alien fighting style. Their manner of fighting involved first calling out by name someone from the enemy ranks, and then attacking in single combat. But the Mongols took no notice of such conventions. They rushed forward as a group, grappling with any individuals they could catch and killing them.
The Mongol method of advances and withdrawals accompanied by bells, drums and war cries was also unknown in Japan, as was the technique of Mongolian archers, shooting arrows en masse into the air rather than long-ranged one-on-one combat.
The Mongol invasions are an early example of gunpowder warfare. One of the most notable innovations was the use of explosive bombs, either thrown by hand or fired from catapults. This early use of gunpowder was confirmed in the year 2000 when multiple shells of these bombs, still containing gunpowder, were discovered in an underwater shipwreck near Hakata Bay (photo24).
As noted earlier, the typhoon that destroyed much of the second invading force was quite early in the typhoon season. But even more so, the typhoon that saved the Japanese in the first invasion occurred in late November, well after the Pacific typhoon season normally ends. Normally you’d be looking at around mid-October for that.
These two instances of untimely, nation-saving typhoons perpetuated the Japanese belief that they would never be defeated or successfully invaded, which remained an important aspect of their foreign policy right up to the end of World War II.
These seemingly miraculous Acts of God also mark the first use of the expression kamikaze, Divine Wind – God’s intervention through the weather. Regrettably this expression is better known from its use in the last few months of WWII, to describe the young pilots forced to unnecessarily sacrifice their lives for Emperor and country. In fact, far from these pilots being a divine wind, their futile efforts represented a last gasp from a fanatical military coterie, and a disgraceful hijacking of a hallowed expression, that originated, care of the Mongols, in the latter 13th century (photos25-27).
As for the Mongols, after the death of Kublai his successor, Temür Khan, also unsuccessfully demanded the submission of Japan. Nevertheless, the Mongols and the Ashikaga shogunate of Japan made peace in the late 14th century, 100 years later, during the reign of the last in the Khan dynasty. Long before this though, there had been stable trade in East Asia under the dominance of the Mongols and the Japanese.
It could possibly be said something similar occurred in the decades following the end of the Pacific War of WWII – namely, that rather than gaining control of countries throughout South East Asia by force, as Japan had sought to do during the 1930s in the so-called Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, it achieved much of the power and status sought then, by trade and other economic means during the 1960s, 70s and 80s. An example of the futility and pointlessness of war.