When Mongols Met Samurai: The Two Failed Mongol Invasions of Japan
Throughout time, there are a few instances where the weather became a determining factor in the outcome of a battle. The Mongol invasions of Japan in 1274 and 1281 AD have often been cited as salient examples of this phenomenon. Many attest that on each occasion the Japanese were handed victory by the gods, who sent two destructive typhoon storms to exterminate both Mongol incursions. A closer examination reveals this is only part of the truth, and that the effectiveness of the samurai as a fighting force, and their role in these glorious victories, should not be ignored or overlooked.
The Mongol Invasion of Japan: From Korea to Rich Japan?
By the middle of the 13th century, and thanks to the conquests of Genghis Khan and his descendants, the Mongolian empire had become the largest ever in history, stretching from Hungary in the west to the rocky coasts of eastern Siberia. In 1259 the grandson of Genghis Khan, Kublai Khan, acceded to the throne in China, and sought to continue the expansionist drive of his forebears, this time to the east in Korea, China, and Japan.
After decades of forays, the Mongols finally established firm control over Korea in 1270, when they crushed the last stronghold of rebels, who fled to the remote Jeju Island in the southern part of the country. By 1273, the Korean crown prince was married to Kublai’s daughter, and although the Mongols appeared initially to be fair overlords, this impression quickly changed as Kublai assumed command of Korean military resources, to be used in the coming conflict.
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The Khan and his advisors had set their sights on Japan, their eastern island neighbors, and dreamed of conquering its rich and resource-laden lands for a variety of reasons. Gold had first been discovered in Japan in 749, when 39 kilograms (86 pounds) of the prized mineral had been mined in order to craft the Great Buddha statue of Todaiji Temple. Over the years, this had gradually given the kingdom a reputation as a land of extraordinary wealth. Marco Polo, the famous Venetian traveler who served Kublai Khan from 1273 to 1292, related how this was a primary concern for the avaricious Mongol leader:
“When tidings of its great richness were brought to the Great Khan - that is the same Khubilai who now reigns - he declared his resolve to conquer the land.” (Travels of Marco Polo as cited in Turnbull, p. 10)
Moreover, by conquering such an affluent enemy, the Khan’s rule would be further legitimized. Dissenting voices to the Khan’s leadership were common, as he was a Mongol emperor crowned in China, leading many to speculate he was unsuitable for the position.
The Mongol invasion of Japan also had the additional benefit of weakening the remnants of the Song Dynasty, the previous rulers of China, who the Khan was fighting to extinguish at the same time. The kingdom of Japan was extremely friendly with the Song, who had such a presence in the Japanese city of Hakata that they even had a “China-town” where Chinese merchants could comfortably engage in the business of enriching the Song coffers. Such an invasion would punish Japan for their alliance and weaken the economic lifelines of the Song, who were close to collapse after a major defeat in 1265 in the Sichuan province of China.
Encapsulating all these smaller motivations was the simple Mongolian desire to conquer the known world, a feat they had begun centuries earlier during Genghis Khan’s reign. Japanese Zen priest Togen Eian noted this in 1270, and believed the Mongols needed Japanese military might to achieve such a lofty aim:
“Once Japan’s warriors are under their control they will be able to conquer China and India. The country of the Mongols would direct strategy, while Japan would fight in the field of victory. With the strength combined, no country could resist.” (A Letter Concerning the Mongol Threat as cited in Turnbull, p. 11.)
The Japanese samurai Suenaga facing Mongol arrows and bombs during the first Mongol invasion of Japan in 1274. (土佐長隆, et al. / Public domain)
The 1274 Mongol Invasion of Japan from Korea
Although Kublai Khan and his Mongolian hordes were accomplished soldiers on the battlefield, their knowledge of the sea and naval warfare, required for an assault on Japan, was very limited. Following the annexation of Korea, the Khan ordered his new Korean subjects to build him a vast navy in order to transport his armies across the Yellow Sea. The Koreans constructed for him 300 large ships and 400 to 500 smaller ships to carry a force comprising of 20,000 Chinese and Mongolians and 14,000 Korean warriors and sailors. The numbers were enormous - William the Conqueror, the French subjugator of Britain, had only brought 5000 men with him to the Battle of Hastings in 1066.
The Khan, eventually forced to turn to military measures, had desperately tried to convince the Kamakura shogunate, the military shogunate of Japan who had the final say in matters over the Japanese emperor, to submit to his rule in the preceding years by sending a series of unsuccessful diplomatic missions.
In 1266 the Khan had implored the Japanese emperor, who he characterized as “the ruler of a small country,” to submit to his dominion, without any luck. In 1269, after another failed overture, the Khan resorted to the unusual tactic of kidnapping two Japanese, showing them the glory of the Mongol palaces, and returning them to Japan. He still received no response. Until 1272 the Mongols would send another four delegations. In an omen of what was to come, the mission of 1267 was scuppered by bad weather, and the Mongol ambassadors were forced to return to Korea.
The Japanese samurai legions that were assembled to counteract the Mongol threat only numbered 10,000, putting them at a significant disadvantage. In addition, the Mongolians were better equipped with weapons such as slings and crossbows which had twice the range of Japanese equivalents and were armed with poisoned projectiles. It was even reported that they possessed explosive shells made with gunpowder, the first appearance of this type of weapon on record.
When the Khan’s armies first disembarked on some small islands near the northwest coast of Kyushu, they obliterated the Japanese forces. The Mongol’s next landed on the beaches of Kyushu, entering the opulent trade city of Hakata, and, unleashing a torrent of destruction and fire they razed it to the ground.
The samurais, who had very little experience fighting the Mongols, were weakened by their “bushido” fighting code, which favored one-on-one fighting. The Mongols didn’t follow the “bushido,” and preferred to attack in units and swarm the samurais. Japanese samurai Takezaki Suenaga, in his Mōko Shūrai Ekotoba, reported how himself and three of his comrades were unhorsed and injured by a furious Mongol charge, and were only saved by a late Japanese counterattack.
The marauding Mongols looked to have the upper hand, but as night settled over the cinders of the burnt citadel, the Korean naval commanders made the unusual decision to return their soldiers to the ships in order to return back to the Korean peninsula.
The principal theory argues that the Koreans (part of the Mongol alliance) sensed a coming storm and predicting calamity they made the intelligent call to save themselves and their comrades with a prompt retreat. Some evidence points to the existence of a great storm. Their passage back to the frontiers of the Mongolian empire was in no way smooth, with one Mongol ship running aground at the Shiga split and their occupants quickly reprimanded and executed by the Japanese. Several other Korean ships were discovered abandoned and wrecked on the high seas at the same time, and according to a Korean chronicle around 13,000 of the invaders perished in an attack that was subsequently branded a disorderly failure.
On the other hand, some historians have contended that there was no storm, and that the Mongols, despite their advantages, were soundly beaten on the battlefield by the samurais and compelled to run when things were not going their way. A Japanese monk reported there was rain, as he needed to find a cloth to cover the Buddha statue he was attempting to save from the Khan’s regiments, but there was no mention of this meteorological event being particularly violent in any way. Elsewhere, in the historical archives of the Yuan Dynasty, an ancient scroll described how the Mongolians had retreated because “all the arrows had been used” and “the troop was not organized”.
The 1274 Mongol invasion of Japan has been panned as a failure, due in large part to the Japanese samurai successfully overpowering their foe. However, one interpretation has viewed it as an overwhelming success. The torching of Hakata, a city populated with the merchants of the Song Dynasty, the Mongolian’s mainland enemy, would have been a huge economic blow to the struggling kingdom, who derived much of their income from this important trade nexus.
Only five years later the Song Dynasty would fall to the Khan’s dominance in a naval engagement. The last child emperor was supposedly bundled into the arms of an official, who jumped into the sea, taking the last Song ruler with him to his grave. The success of the Mongol’s next effort, however, would be less ambiguous.
The Japanese samurai army along their massive defensive barrier at Hakata, Kyushu in preparation for the second Mongol invasion of Japan in 1281. (Public domain)
The 1281 Mongol Invasion of Japan: Massive Failure!
The Khan’s advisors, in a clear attempt to placate their irascible lord, sensibly blamed the defeat on the weather instead of the weaknesses of his forces. It had not deterred the Mongol king, and in the intervening years the Khan would once again try to impose his power on the Japanese by sending a string of envoys to demand the Japanese surrender. In 1275 the Japanese replied to the Khan’s offer by beheading the delegation he had dispatched. The Khan was so furious he doubled down on his plans to conquer Japan, even establishing an Office for the Chastisement of Japan. Another conflict was inevitable, and in 1279, after defeating the Song Dynasty, the Khan was able to greatly increase his resources and directed them into preparing for the next invasion.
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The Japanese, keenly aware of the impending threat, started to make defensive arrangements. A great wall which stretched across Hakata Bay and included the landing spot of the last Mongolian invasion, was built as the samurais trained and honed their skills for war. Such measures were absolutely necessary, as the Khan, rejuvenated by his conquest of China, had assembled one of the most enormous armies of the century. The Khan’s first force, which was provided 900 ships for its transportation, was 40,000 strong, and comprised of Mongolians, Koreans, and the newly-assimilated Northern Chinese. This primary eastern force contained a few thousand more warriors than in 1274, and it was supplemented by an additional southern force made up of a staggering 100,000 Chinese conscripts.
However, the size of the Mongolian ranks would ultimately play a part in the failure of the second invasion. The invasion began in late June 1274 when the eastern force set off from Korea and began attacking the Japanese defenders stationed in Hakata Bay. The southern force was meant to join the eastern force shortly after, but its sheer size caused them to delay their arrival. With the eastern force stuck at Hakata Bay, a stationary naval battle lasting 50 days ensued. The eastern forces slowly dwindled as the Japanese, under the cover of night, sent hundreds of smaller ships to row near the massive Korean-built frigates and set fire to them.
Fortunately for the eastern force, the southern Chinese would eventually turn up in August, over a month later than planned. For the Japanese, this marked the death knell of their civilization, which would surely be overwhelmed by the fearsome Mongol mob. However, luckily for the Japanese, a miracle happened. As the Khan’s forces made their final thrust forward, a cataclysmic typhoon suddenly swelled, and the Khan’s men and their ships were annihilated by the earth-shattering winds and divine lightning of a great storm that would be forever remembered in Japanese history. The Mongol delay had forced them to attack during typhoon season, where they were swiftly punished. A contemporary Korean record conveys the scale of destruction:
“As they converged to a focus at the mouth of the harbor a terrible catastrophe occurred. The vessels were jammed together in the offing, and the bodies of men and broken timbers of the vessels were heaped together in a solid mass so that a person could walk across from one point of the land to another on the mass of wreckage.” (The Korean Repository as cited by Neumann, p. 1170.)
The Japanese rejoiced, naming the storm ‘ kamikaze’ or ‘divine wind’, and watched on from the shore as it wiped out their enemy, who only a few days earlier had represented an existential threat to their kingdom. Although the eastern force, who had wisely started to retreat earlier, remained largely untouched, around half of the southern Chinese force were killed in the bedlam. Others were murdered by their own men-in-arms, who fought each other to get onto vessels unharmed by the storm as it raged on.
The memory of 1281 would continue into the Second World War, when Japanese kamikaze pilots, invoking the divine punch of the legendary tempest, would suicidally crash their airplanes into American warships.
This Japanese ink and water painting by Kikuchi Yōsai shows what happened to the Mongol fleet on their second and last invasion of Japan. The kamikaze typhoon storm came and completely wiped out the Kublai Khan’s fleet. (Kikuchi Yōsai / Tokyo National Museum / Public domain)
Was the Weather to Blame! The Kamikaze Typhoons?
The events of 1281 shook Kublai Khan to the very core, and he was unable to rescue his prestige in the events that followed. Shortly after, the Khan started to prepare ships for a third Mongol invasion of Japan, but he was quickly dissuaded by his advisors, who this time were more honest in their appraisal of the situation. Instead, the Khan sent his newly constructed fleet to bring the tropical kingdoms of Vietnam and Salihli to their knees, but he was again repelled. After hearing that his south-east Asia sortie had failed, the Khan died a short while after, and he was succeeded by a series of weak Mongolian rulers who were eventually displaced in 1368 by the Ming Dynasty.
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Similar rumblings of discontent in Japan would lead to the fall of the Kamakura shogunate from power. On both occasions, 1274 and 1281, the shogunate had failed to give the samurais their customary dues of land and titles in reward for their heroic defense of the country. As a result, they were ousted in 1333 and replaced by the Muromachi shogunate. Such a move was understandable, as the samurais had fought hard against the Mongols on both occasions. They had battled ferociously against the Mongols in 1274, repulsing them principally through their military prowess and skill. Although the great typhoon of 1281 helped them tremendously, the samurai could still claim they had fought heroically against the initial waves of the Mongol onslaught. Thus, it was only in 1281 that the weather played a deciding element in Japanese victory.
Top image: The 1274 and 1281 AD Mongol invasions of Japan were well equipped and favored overall but both times the samurai and their “magical” storms won the day! Two Samurai with a dead Mongol at their feet from a votive image (ema) at the Komodahama Shrine on Tsushima, approximately halfway between Kyushu and the Korean Peninsula. Source: Public domain
By Jake Leigh-Howarth
Neumann, J. 1975. Great historical events that were significantly: I. The Mongol invasions of Japan. American Meteorological Society.
Sasaki, R. 2015. The Origins of the Lost Fleet of the Mongol Empire. Texas A & M University Press.
Szczepanski, K. 2019. The Mongol Invasions of Japan: Khublai Khan’s Quest for Domination in 1274 and 1281. Available at: https://www.thoughtco.com/the-mongol-invasions-of-japan-195559 .
Turnbull, S. 2006. The Mongol Invasions of Japan. Osprey Publishing.