The Mongol Invasions of Japan

Kublai Khan's Quests for Domination in 1274 and 1281

Samurai Takezaki Suenaga charges Mongol invaders as shell explodes overhead, 1274. Public domain due to age.

The Mongol Invasions of Japan in 1274 and 1281 devastated Japanese resources and power in the region, nearly destroying the samurai culture and Empire of Japan entirely before a typhoon miraculously spared their last stronghold.

Although Japan started the war between the two rival empires with hefty troops of honorable samurai, the sheer force and brute strength of their Mongol invaders pushed the noble warriors to their limits, making them question their very code of honor in facing these fierce combatants.

The impact of nearly two decades of struggle between their rulers would echo on throughout Japanese history, even through the Second World War and the very culture of modern day Japan.

Precursor to Invasion

In 1266, the Mongol ruler Kublai Khan paused in his campaign to subdue all of China, and sent a message to the Emperor of Japan, whom he addressed as "the ruler of a small country," and advised the Japanese sovereign to pay him tribute at once — or else. The Khan's emissaries returned from Japan without an answer. Five times over the next six years, Kublai Khan sent his messengers; the Japanese shogun would not allow them even to land on Honshu, the main island. 

In 1271, Kublai Khan defeated the Song Dynasty, and declared himself the first emperor of China's Yuan Dynasty. A grandson of Genghis Khan, he ruled over much of China plus Mongolia and Korea; meanwhile, his uncles and cousins controlled an empire that stretched from Hungary in the west to the Pacific coast of Siberia in the east.

The great khans of the Mongol Empire did not tolerate impudence from their neighbors, and Kublai was quick to demand a strike against Japan as early as 1272. However, his counselors advised him to bide his time until a proper armada of war ships could be built — 300 to 600, vessels which would be commissioned from the shipyards of southern China and Korea, and an army of some 40,000 men.

Against this mighty force, Japan could muster only about 10,000 fighting men from the ranks of the often-squabbling samurai clans. Japan's warriors were seriously outmatched.

The First Invasion, 1274

From the port of Masan in southern Korea, the Mongols and their subjects launched a step-wise attack on Japan in the autumn of 1274. Hundreds of large ships and an even larger number of small boats — estimated between 500 and 900 in number — set out into the Sea of Japan.

First, the invaders seized the islands of Tsushima and Iki about halfway between the tip of the Korean peninsula and the main islands of Japan. Quickly overcoming desperate resistance from the islands' approximately 300 Japanese residents, the Mongol troops slaughtered them all and sailed on to the east.

On November 18, the Mongol armada reached Hakata Bay, near the present-day city of Fukuoka on the island of Kyushu. Much of our knowledge about the details of this invasion come from a scroll which was commissioned by the samurai Takezaki Suenaga, who fought against the Mongols in both campaigns.

Japan's Military Weaknesses

Suenaga relates that the samurai army set out to fight according to their code of bushido; a warrior would step out, announce his name and lineage, and prepare for one-on-one combat with a foe.

Unfortunately for the Japanese, the Mongols were not familiar with the code. When a lone samurai stepped forward to challenge them, the Mongols would simply attack him en masse, much like ants swarming a beetle.

To make matters worse for the Japanese, the Yuan forces also used poison-tipped arrows, catapult-launched explosive shells, and a shorter bow that was accurate at twice the range of the samurai's longbows. In addition, the Mongols fought in units, rather than each man for himself. Drumbeats relayed the orders guiding their precisely coordinated attacks. All of this was new to the samurai — often fatally so.

Takezaki Suenaga and the three other warriors from his household were all unhorsed in the fighting, and each sustained serious wounds that day. A late charge by over 100 Japanese reinforcements was all that saved Suenaga and his men.

The injured samurai drew back a few miles from the bay for the night, determined to renew their nearly hopeless defense in the morning. As night fell, a driving wind and heavy rain began to lash the coast.

Close Call with Domination

Unbeknownst to the Japanese defenders, the Chinese and Korean sailors on board Kublai Khan's ships were busy persuading the Mongolian generals to let them weigh anchor and head further out to sea. They worried that the strong wind and high surf would drive their ships aground in Hakata Bay.

The Mongols relented, and the great Armada sailed out into open waters — straight into the arms of an approaching typhoon. Two days later, a third of the Yuan ships lay on the bottom of the Pacific, and perhaps 13,000 of Kublai Khan's soldiers and sailors had drowned.

The battered survivors limped home, and Japan was spared the Great Khan's dominion — for the time being. While Kublai Khan sat at his capital in Dadu (modern-day Beijing) and brooded over his fleet's misfortunes, the samurai waited for the bakufu in Kamakura to reward them for their valor, but that reward never came.

Uneasy Peace: The Seven-year Interlude

Traditionally, the bakufu gave a land grant to noble warriors at the end of battle so they could relax in times of peace. However, in the case of the invasion, there were no spoils to dole out — the invaders came from outside of Japan, and left no booty behind so the bakufu had no way to pay the thousands of samurai who had fought to fend off the Mongols.

Takesaki Suenaga took the unusual step of traveling for two months to the ​Kamakura shogun's court to plead his case in person. Suenaga was rewarded with a prize horse and stewardship of a Kyushu island estate for his pains. Of the estimated 10,000 samurai warriors who fought, only 120 received any reward at all.

This did not endear the Kamakura government to the vast majority of the samurai, to say the least. Even as Suenaga was making his case, Kublai Khan sent a six-man delegation to demand that the Japanese emperor travel to Dadu and kowtow to him.

The Japanese responded by beheading the Chinese diplomats, a terrible infringement of the Mongol law against abusing emissaries.

Then Japan prepared for a second attack. The leaders of Kyushu took a census of all available warriors and weaponry. In addition, Kyushu's landowning class was given the task of building a defensive wall around Hakata Bay, five to fifteen feet high and 25 miles long. Construction took five years with each landholder responsible for a section of the wall proportional to the size of his estate.

Meanwhile, Kublai Khan established a new government division called the Ministry for Conquering Japan. In 1980, the ministry devised plans for a two-pronged attack the following spring, to crush the recalcitrant Japanese once and for all.

The Second Invasion, 1281

In the spring of 1281, the Japanese got word that a second Yuan invasion force was coming their way. The waiting samurai sharpened their swords and prayed to Hachiman, the Shinto god of war, but Kublai Khan was determined to smash Japan this time and he knew that his defeat seven years earlier had simply been bad luck, due more to the weather than to any extraordinary fighting prowess of the samurai.

With more forewarning of this second attack, Japan was able to muster 40,000 samurai and other fighting men. They assembled behind the defensive wall at Hakata Bay, their eyes trained to the west.

The Mongols sent two separate forces this time — an impressive force of 900 ships containing 40,000 Korean, Chinese, and Mongol troops set out from Masan, while an even larger force of 100,000 sailed from southern China in 3,500 ships. The Ministry for Conquering Japan's plan called for an overwhelming coordinated attack from the combined imperial Yuan fleets.

The Korean fleet reached Hakata Bay on June 23, 1281, but the ships from China were nowhere to be seen. The smaller division of the Yuan army was unable to breach the Japanese defensive wall, so a stationary battle evolved. Samurai weakened their opponents by rowing out to the Mongol ships in small boats under cover of darkness, setting fire to the ships and attacking their troops, and then rowing back to land.

These night-time raids demoralized the Mongols' conscripts, some of whom had only recently been conquered and had no love for the emperor. A stalemate between the evenly-matched foes lasted for 50 days, as the Korean fleet waited for the expected Chinese reinforcements.

On August 12, the Mongols' main fleet landed to the west of Hakata Bay. Now faced with a force more than three times as large as their own, the samurai were in serious danger of being overrun and slaughtered. With little hope of survival — and little thought of reward if they triumphed — the Japanese samurai fought on with desperate bravery.

Japan's Miracle

They say that truth is stranger than fiction, and in this case, it's certainly true. Just when it appeared that the samurai would be exterminated and Japan crushed under the Mongol yoke, an incredible, miraculous event took place.

On August 15, 1281, a second typhoon roared ashore at Kyushu. Of the khan's 4,400 ships, only a few hundred rode out the towering waves and vicious winds. Nearly all of the invaders drowned in the storm, and those few thousand who made it to shore were hunted and killed without mercy by the samurai with very few returning to tell the tale at Dadu.

The Japanese believed that their gods had sent the storms to preserve Japan from the Mongols. They called the two storms kamikaze, or "divine winds." Kublai Khan seemed to agree that Japan was protected by supernatural forces, thus abandoning the idea of conquering the island nation.

The Aftermath

For the Kamakura bakufu, however, the outcome was disastrous. Once again the samurai demanded payment for the three months they'd spent warding off the Mongols. In addition, this time the priests who had prayed for divine protection added their own payment demands, citing the typhoons as evidence of the effectiveness of their prayers.

The bakufu still had little to dispense, and what disposable riches they had were given to the priests, who held more influence in the capital than the samurai. Suenaga did not even try to seek payment, instead commissioning the scroll where most modern understandings of this period come from as a record of his own accomplishments during both invasions.

Dissatisfaction with the Kamakura bakufu festered among the ranks of the samurai over the following decades. When a strong emperor, Go-Daigo, rose in 1318 and challenged the authority of the bakufu, the samurai refused to rally to the military leaders' defense.

After a complex civil war lasting 15 years, the Kamakura bakufu was defeated and the Ashikaga Shogunate assumed power over Japan. The Ashikaga family and all the other samurai passed down the story of the kamikaze, and Japan's warriors drew strength and inspiration from the legend for centuries.

As late as World War II from 1939 to 1945, Japanese imperial troops invoked the kamikaze in their battles against the Allied forces in the Pacific and its story still influences the nature's culture to this day.

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Szczepanski, Kallie. "The Mongol Invasions of Japan." ThoughtCo, Jul. 16, 2017, thoughtco.com/the-mongol-invasions-of-japan-195559. Szczepanski, Kallie. (2017, July 16). The Mongol Invasions of Japan. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/the-mongol-invasions-of-japan-195559 Szczepanski, Kallie. "The Mongol Invasions of Japan." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/the-mongol-invasions-of-japan-195559 (accessed September 21, 2017).