Formative Memory: The Thirteenth-century Mongolian Invasions and their Impact on Japan

Simon Duncan

[B]etween 607 and 894 Japan sent numerous study missions to China, and adopted many key elements of China’s administrative systems, along with its kanji writing system and Buddhism. But by the time China introduced paper money, under the Song Dynasty in the 11th century, Japan no longer looked to China as a mentor. Paper currency spread further across the world due to expansion of the Mongolian Empire, but banknotes were not introduced in Japan until as recently as 1873, the sixth year of Meiji period reform. The Mongols under Kublai Khan, a grandson of Genghis Khan, subdued the Song during the 13th century, and even sought to conquer Japan in two ultimately unsuccessful invasions. The first-ever one yen note circulated in Japan featured scenes of heroic defiance against the attempted Mongolian assaults.

Due to the similarity between these two clashes between the Mongols and Japan, and the fact that they occurred within a period of less than ten years, people could be forgiven for thinking that there was only one such invasion. These two attacks had strong impact at the time, but outside of Kyushu they were largely forgotten about centuries later. However, as Japan opened up to foreign influence in the Meiji era the legend of the destruction of the foreign invaders by kamikaze (divine wind) was revived, and spread through popular culture. Present-day fears of Chinese territorial expansion in the East China Sea may have ancient roots in this cultural memory.

The First Mongolian Invasion of Japan

The Mongolians made their first assault on Japanese territory in 1274. This was not only the first invasion attempt by the Mongols; it was also the first attack of this scale by any foreign invader on Japanese soil. At this time Japan was functioning as a diarchy with the Imperial court presiding in Kyoto and the Shogunate bakufu government based in Kamakura. This made a difficult and dangerous situation even more complex.

Kublai Khan had become the supreme leader of the Mongolian Empire in 1260, and by 1271—when the planning for the invasion began—his vast empire included most of China, Russia, Central Asia, Persia and Mesopotamia. Despite controlling more territory than any human before him he desired more, and saw it as his destiny to control the Song territory of modern day Southern China, and also Japan.

Mongolia is a landlocked country, so despite the Mongols’ many successful campaigns across Europe and Asia they had limited naval experience, their preference being for horses. By the time of the invasion Korea had been under the control of Mongolia for several decades, and the Koreans were tasked with building ships nearby modern-day Pusan.

Before the invasion the Mongols sent a number of negotiators to Japan and Kublai Khan wrote a letter to Japan which was delivered in 1268. The Emperor’s court ignored it and the military in Kamakura wanted no involvement. The first two envoys returned to Mongolia empty-handed. The third and final envoy was expelled from Japan.

The invasion fleet finally left Korea on November 3rd 1274 (the third day of the tenth lunar month, erroneously written as October 3rd in some texts). Estimates of the number of invaders vary drastically: some sources claim 40,000, others go for 900 ships with 20,000 men. One book offers a precise figure of 6,700 sailors and 23,000 Mongol, Chinese and Korean soldiers (by 1274 the Mongols had taken Song China and conscripted some Song troops into their army). Stephen Turnbull—an expert on Japanese and Mongolian history of this period—goes for 900 ships with 16,600 men.

One thing that almost all books new and old agree on is that the Japanese who took part in the battles were vastly outnumbered. They consisted of between three and six thousand men. The only source disputing this is the Yuan Shi written by the Mongols after the battle, which claims they were faced by 102,000 Japanese warriors. No doubt this was an attempt in part to justify their loss.

The invaders first made landfall on November 5th at Tsushima, an island off the coast of Kyushu, between Korea and Japan, that at various stages in history has been part of both countries. The fighting here lasted less than a day as the invaders killed all the Japanese defenders.
The Mongols reached the mainland on November 15th, landing at Hakata Bay near the location of Fukuoka City in present-day Japan. The samurai faced unfamiliar war tactics, which helped the invaders immensely. The grandson of the Japanese commander, a boy of 12 or 13, fired the arrow signalling the commencement of hostilities. The invaders reportedly laughed and launched a barrage which included poison arrows and bombs made of paper and iron. The latter projectile proved particularly effective. Horses were petrified by the sound of this modern weapon used for the first time ever in Japan. By the 19th of November the Mongols had taken Dazaifu, the provincial capital.

However, here their luck ran out. Liu Fuxiang, one of the senior Mongolian commanders, who was said to be more than two meters tall, was shot in the face by the arrow of Commander Shoni Kagesuke. He and his army retreated to their ships to regroup, and decided to return to Korea. Somewhere during their long journey around a third of the fleet was lost in a storm, together with more than 10,000 men, according to some sources. However this was not during the typical typhoon season and neither was this the kamikaze (divine wind) that wiped out the Mongol fleet and saved Japan. That fate awaited the Mongols on their next assault in 1281.

The Second Mongolian Invasion of Japan

Kublai Khan sent envoys to Japan again in 1275. They were held for four months before being beheaded in Kamakura. Undeterred, in 1279 Kublai again sent more envoys. They fared no better and were executed on the beach at Hakata. Finally getting the hint that Japan had no intention of subjugating itself to the Mongols, Kublai ordered the king of Koryo (Korea) to build 1,000 ships for a second invasion. These were to join the captured Song fleet from Southern China and rendezvous off the coast of Kyushu for a joint attack. The newly-expanded Mongol Empire was now known as the Yuan and their appetite for expansion had not been sated. After taking control of Korea and subduing the Song the empire continued in its quest for control of more territory and more tributes from vassal states. Their quest mostly took them in a southerly direction to Indonesia, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam, where success varied.

The second Mongolian invasion of Japan was like a sequel to a blockbuster movie; bigger in scale, larger cast, bigger budget, and the same director (Kublai Khan). Some well-loved characters returned, with a few new twists in the tale but also a lot of similarities. Even the main locations were retained, and the ending was eerily similar. Attacking Japan again could have been attractive to Kublai for a number of reasons: popular theories include revenge for killing his ambassadors, an inability to accept failure, rumors of large amounts of gold in Japan (as recorded by Marco Polo: “…the King’s palace is roofed with pure gold, and his floors are paved in gold two fingers thick…”), or simply to increase the size and strength of the Mongolian forces army by forcing the samurai to join them.

The ships from Korea set sail on the 22nd of May 1281. Again figures vary wildly: some books suggest the total combined invasion force from Korea and Southern China numbered 100,000 men in 4,400 ships against 3,000 samurai. Others suggest 140,000 soldiers crammed onto 1,500 ships. These numbers, surely exaggerated to some degree (which would be of benefit for the propaganda of both the winners and losers) suggest that it was the largest sea invasion in the world until the Normandy landings in France in 1944 that led to Germany’s defeat in World War Two.

The fleet made the relatively short journey to Tsushima, and the Mongols and Koreans landed on the island on June 9th, for the second time in seven years. What followed was largely a repeat of the previous invasion. By June 14th they had taken the island and had moved on to the smaller island of Iki en route to the Kyushu coast after killing over 300 people on Tsushima.
This time the invaders lacked the element of surprise with their weapons and tactics, but once again they made short work of subduing Tsushima and Iki. The plan was then to wait for the larger force to arrive from Southern China, link up and invade Kyushu together.

Japan’s rulers had been expecting this invasion and had sent reinforcements from elsewhere and— equally importantly—they had built a defensive wall, the ‘Genkō Bōrui’ at Hakata to attempt to slow any invaders. Part of this twenty-kilometer long wall, the result of five years of labor, still exists today. In addition to these practical precautions the Emperor prayed to the gods to protect Japan.

For reasons that are unclear, rather than wait for reinforcements, the invaders pushed on and attacked the mainland. Small boats full of samurai, sent to attack and board the larger foreign ships, proved to be effective. A stalemate ensued for two months with the Mongols wanting to land, ideally with reinforcements, but being prevented by the samurai who were meanwhile unable to destroy all the ships and soldiers of the invaders.

Finally, the much-delayed Southern China fleet reached the coast of Kyushu. Allegedly there were as many as 100,000 men, who instead of attempting to land at Hakata Bay and face the defensive wall, targeted Imari Bay, around 45 km south, thinking they could take Dazaifu. Records from the time provide little concrete evidence of what happened next, beyond saying that a storm destroyed most of the fleet, or as popular legend puts it: “a green dragon raised its head from the waves.”

This would later become known as the famous kamikaze (divine wind). The storm eliminated an unknown number of invaders from the Mongol Empire who drowned as their ships sank; estimates go up to 100,000 in total.

What happened next?

Many survivors who made it onshore were rounded up and beheaded; 20-30,000 Mongolians and Koreans, according to the Yuan chronicle. Exceptions were made for the Song who were taken prisoner, since the Japanese felt some sympathy towards their former trading partners.
More recent archeological evidence together with reading of historical records suggests that the fleet was largely destroyed not due to the strength of the wind alone but also in combination with the poor construction of the Mongol ships that had been rushed to completion to meet unrealistic deadlines. This theory is backed up by the survival of pottery from the ships, suggesting that they sank slowly, rather than being torn apart in a violent storm.
Despite the failure of the second invasion Japan prepared to defend itself again and waited for a third attack that never happened. The Kamakura bakufu was financially damaged by the invasions, by making preparations for the expected third assault and by paying rewards to samurai deemed successful in stemming the invasions. This was partially responsible for the downfall of the bakufu.

From 1282 Kublai Khan’s health began to deteriorate, partly due to heavy drinking after the death of his favorite wife, Chabi. However, he still dreamed of a third invasion and planning began in 1284, only to be abruptly cancelled in 1286 due to financial constraints caused by tax revolts and another defeat in Dai Viet, now northern Vietnam, which turned back Mongolian invasions in 1282, 1285 and 1288.

In Vietnam, much like in Japan, victories against Kublai Khan’s massed forces are a large and important part of the national history. There too the number of invaders is surely inflated, going as high as half a million! Unlike Japan, Vietnam claimed that it was saved by a brilliant military strategist, Tran Hu’ung Dao, rather than by a storm summoned up by the Emperor. Another sea-borne Mongol invasion failed in Java in 1292. By 1294 Kublai Khan was dead and his empire was in decline. Less than a century later his Yuan dynasty was defeated by the Ming.

Impact of the invasions

It is difficult to overstate how important the two invasions are to Japan and their impact on the nation. Firstly, we have the physical reminders of the invasions including objects recovered from the sea, and remnants of the anti-Mongol wall. In Kamakura, one year after the second invasion, Engakuji was constructed to pray for the souls of all who were killed, including the invaders. Although the original buildings have been destroyed by fires, this huge complex still exists as one of the head temples of the Rinzai Zen sect.

Marco Polo learned of the invasions and thus the battles later became known in Europe as the West heard about Japan for the first time—in a fanciful tale of heroic Mongolian survivors seizing Japanese ships and taking the capital, which was then besieged by the samurai, culminating in Kublai’s pitiless execution of his generals for their incompetence. Interestingly, in Japan for the next few centuries knowledge of the historical events was limited to people in Kyushu. After 1636 Japan was cut off from the outside world for the duration of the sakoku period, and foreign ideas, including mention of the Mongolian invasions, were prohibited. In 1854 following the re-opening of Japan after the arrival of the ‘black ships’ interest was allowed again and later deliberately rekindled.

Japan’s government again feared foreign invasion and wished to show to the population that they were strong, brave and protected by the gods. To promote this idea from the middle of the nineteenth century until World War Two, songs, history books and works of art were produced. Amongst the better-known are woodblock prints by Kawanabe Kyosai from 1863 and the song ‘Genko no uta’ which is still popular more than a century later. Significantly, as previously mentioned, the invasions and the kamikaze were even featured on Japan’s original one yen note (printed by the Continental Bank Note Company of New York) in 1873.

In recent times the invasion has become better-known in the Western world, appearing in historical fiction, computer games (Shogun Total War: The Mongol Invasion, a best-selling PC game from Electronic Arts) and popular TV shows (for example Kublai Khan’s Lost Fleet, a 2003 National Geographic special that was reportedly seen by an estimated 200 million people around the world). However, the most enduring legacy is the kamikaze and the idea of Japan as a divinely protected nation capable of repelling foreign invaders no matter how many or how desperate the odds. This idea was revived famously at the end of World War Two with the “kamikaze” fighter pilots again trying to protect Southern Japan from a foreign invasion.

Further Reading
Historicizing the “Beyond”: The Mongolian Invasion as New Dimension of Violence? edited by Frank Kramer, Katharina Schmidt and Julika Singer
Khubilai Khan’s Lost Fleet: History’s Greatest Naval Disaster by James Delgado
The Mongol Invasions of Japan 1274 and 1281 by Stephen Turnbull
A History of Korea from Land of Morning Calm to States in Conflict by Jin Wung Kim
Mongol Invasions of Japan – 1274 and 1281 Bowdoin College (with interactive viewing of Takezaki Suenaga’s Scrolls of the Mongol Invasions of Japan)
Images from the Moko Shurai by Takezaki Suenaga in this article sourced from Wikimedia Commons.


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Simon Duncan

Author's Bio

Simon Duncan was born on the Isle of Wight, U.K. and first came to Japan in 2000. He has spent 14 years in Nagoya, Toyohashi and Tokyo. He recently returned to Tokyo after working as deputy editor for Khaosod English, an English language online newspaper in Bangkok, Thailand. and volunteering as a teacher at the University of Mandalay in Myanmar. He holds an MA in Southeast Asian Studies from Chulalongkorn University, Thailand.