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The Mongol Invasions of Japan

Ranshin: Literally meaning “divine wind,” the term kamikaze was coined in honor of the 1281 typhoon, as it was perceived to be a gift from the gods

Nippon (Japan) is an island nation in East Asia. Archaeological evidence indicates that humans have lived in Japan since at least 30,000 BCE. During Japan’s long history, several communities have invaded the nation, one of the most well-known being the Mongols.

Kublai Khan was a Mongol ruler with ambitions to rule over the entire territory of China. He was a direct descendent of Genghis Khan and one of the most prolific leaders to rule over the Mongol people. Kublai Khan considered Japan a small nation and sent emissaries to the Shogun demanding that Japan pay tribute to the Mongols. The Shogun did not permit the emissaries to go to Honshu and that angered Kublai Khan. After Kublai had conquered the Song Dynasty, he concentrated on building his army to defeat the Japanese and punish the Shogun. In 1274, the Mongol army numbered about 40,000 with the intention of conquering Japan in the Battle of Bunei.

The Mongol army began their attack by launching ships and boats, at least 500, into the Sea of Japan. The Mongol army was ruthless in crushing the Japanese resistance and, in one of their first battles, slaughtered the residents of two Japanese islands: Tsushima and Iki. The Japanese and the Mongols had different approaches to combat. The Japanese valued the code of Bushido while the Mongols valued victory and would rely on any method to achieve success. The Mongol army encountered a devastating typhoon which offered a reprieve to the Japanese military as the Mongols lost close to 13,000 soldiers. The Mongol army retreated from Japan after the loss of their men, and for about seven years an uneasy peace prevailed in the region.

During the period of peace, the Japanese tried to improve their defenses in anticipation of a second attack by the Mongols. The Japanese leaders ordered the residents to construct a wall that would defend Hakata Bay. Kublai Khan tried to communicate with the Japanese leaders, but all his diplomats were beheaded, which enraged him.

In 1281, the second Mongol invasion, known as the Battle of Koan, comprised a force of roughly 140,000 soldiers split into two armies. The Japanese were better prepared and had a force of approximately 40,000 soldiers. The initial attempts of the Mongols to conquer the territory were futile as only part of their army had arrived in Japan. When the full Mongol army was assembled, it greatly outnumbered the Japanese. Japan managed to hold on to its independence when a second typhoon struck and significantly weakened the Mongol army. Japanese soldiers were able to kill the remaining Mongol soldiers, thus ending the invasion.

Kublai planned to make a third attempt to invade Japan, but Mongol forces made slow progress in campaigns in Vietnam, faced repeated rebellions in China and Southeast Asia, and were driven out of Java in a failed incursion. In the end, there was no opportunity for Kublai to try again.

Literally meaning “divine wind,” the term kamikaze was coined in honor of the 1281 typhoon, as it was perceived to be a gift from the gods, supposedly granted after a retired emperor went on a pilgrimage and prayed for divine intervention.

(Information derived from Benjamin Elisha Sawe, World Atlas, https://www.worldatlas.com/articles/the-mongol-invasion-of-Japan.html; Atsushi Kawai, Nippon.com, https://www.nippon.com/en/japan-topics/g01214/; and Britannica.com, https://www.britannica.com/event/kamikaze-of-1274-and-1281)

Appendix: Typhoons Saved 13th Century Japan From Invasion

In the late 13th century, after Genghis Khan had united the Mongol Empire, it was left up to his successors to continue his conquests through Asia, the Middle East and Europe, and Kublai Khan, Genghis’ grandson, was diligently continuing his grandfather’s work. His victories, however, would not extend to Japan.

According to legend, a series of two intense typhoons—known as the “Kamikaze” for their exceptional strength and supposedly divine origins—decimated the Mongol fleet on its approach to Japan, both in 1274 and 1281. But ancient documents, researchers know, are prone to exaggeration. So a team of geologists decided to see if any physical evidence existed from these storied events.

Sediment samples spanning 2,000 years and collected from a lake near the would-be location of the Mongol invasion reveal a spike in salt content that indicates that typhoons did indeed seem to have struck Japan around the time of Kublai Khan’s reign. At the time, those events were seen as a divine intervention on behalf of the Japanese people.

The researchers show that there was actually a lot of flooding going on for quite some time, however, thanks to an increase in El Niño activity. Storms in Japan began picking up in intensity from about 250 onwards—well before Kublai Khan or his empire-making relatives arrived on the scene. For the island nation, this was very lucky timing. As the authors of the new study write, “The Kamikaze typhoons may therefore serve as a prominent example of how past increases in severe weather associated with changing climate had significant geopolitical impacts.”

(Article by Rachel Nuwer in the Smithsonian Magazine, Dec. 10, 2014, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/typhoons-saved-13th-century-japan-mongol-invasion-180953573/)

Historical Background

  1. The Ninth Crusade
  2. The Mongol Invasion of Japan
  3. Letter from Kublai Khan
  4. Hojo Tokimune

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RANSHIN: Samurai Crusaders
Tetsuo Ted Takashima
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