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Mongol Invasions of Japan, 1274 & 1281

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Mongol Invasions of Japan, 1274 & 1281

Samurai board a Mongol Ship during the 1281 invasion. From Suenaga's scroll.

Public domain due to age.

Uneasy Peace: The Seven-year Interlude

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. Customarily, samurai who performed well in domestic battles were granted a share of the land or goods seized from their defeated foe.

In the case of the invasion, however, there were no spoils to dole out; the invaders came from outside of Japan, and left no booty behind. 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 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 staying at the court, 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; each landholder was responsible for a section of the wall proportional to the size of his estate.

Meanwhile, in 1280 Kublai Khan established a new government division, the Ministry for Conquering Japan. 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.

Kublai Khan was determined to smash Japan this time. He knew that his defeat seven years earlier had been simple 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 would row out to the Mongol ships in small boats under cover of darkness, attack the Chinese and Korean troops, set fire to the ships, and then row 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, even 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; those few thousand who made it to shore were hunted and killed without mercy by the samurai. Very few ever returned to tell the tale at Dadu.

The Aftermath:

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; he abandoned the idea of conquering the island nation.

 

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 went to the priests (who held more influence in the capital than the samurai). Suenaga did not even try to seek payment, this time; instead he commissioned the scroll 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 (1939-1945), Japanese imperial troops invoked the kamikaze in their battles against the Allied forces in the Pacific.

Sources:

Dersin, Denise (ed.). "What Life Was Like Among Samurai and Shoguns," (1999).

Turnbull, Stephen. "Samurai," (1996).

Yamamura, Kozo (ed.). "The Cambridge History of Japan, Vol. 3: Medieval Japan," (1990).

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