The Mongol invasion of Japan, lead by Kublai Khan, was the only severe threat to Japan from abroad prior to World War II. Kublai Khan came to power in 1260, succeeding a successful line of Great Khans including his grandfather, Genghis Khan, his uncle Ogedei, and his brother Mongke. By the time Kublai came to rule, the Mongols had already conquered a vast territory spreading throughout North China, Persia, Central Asia, Russia, and partly into the Middle East. During the earlier years of his reign, Kublai encircled Southern Song almost to the sea, and Korea was a hopeless match against the Mongol army. Once Kublai had Korea completely under his power, he placed his eyes on Japan, the only country in the East that remained free from Mongol rule. Although some believe that Kublai was attracted by the fabled gold and pearls of Japan, Kublai most likely desired to perfect the economic and military isolation of South China by bringing Japan under his control (Hori 243).
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In early 1268, a letter sent by Kublai Khan reached Japan, threatening the country to either submit by paying tribute or suffer invasion. Although offended by the demands of the letter, the nobles of the court at Kyoto were ready to surrender since they were terrified by the Mongol threat. However, during this period, administrative power rested not on the emperor, but on the military regime. The Kamakura shogunate, headed by Hojo Tokimune, plainly refused to submit since they had no interest in foreign contacts. All the foreign products Japan needed were imported from South China, which was then under Mongol attack. On top of that, the Zen Monks of South China provided counsel for the Japanese on which Japan depended greatly. Therefore, without hesitation, Japan ignored the letters that were sent by Kublai Khan. This, however, did not imply that Japan was confident of defending their country against the Mongol invasion. Due to their fear of invasion, the nobles of the court presented earnest prayers at the temples and shrines. The military leaders united to defend the country, establishing and strengthening their defense in the northwestern coast of Kyushu.
The first Mongol invasion of Japan occurred in 1274. In November, an armada of nearly 900 vessels containing more than 40,000 troops was dispatched from Korea. The armada demolished Tsushima and Iki islands and arrived at Hakata Bay on November 18th. On the following day, the troops landed on the bay and fought the Japanese defense on land. The Japanese were no match for the Mongol's cavalry tactics and weaponry including their small explosive bombs, which the Japanese had never encountered before. The Japanese defense had no choice but to retreat to a fortress near Dazaifu. That night, when the Mongols retired to their ships, a severe storm hit the island, sinking 200 ships and killing over 13,000 Mongol soldiers. As a result, the remaining armada retreated back to Korea, ending in an unsuccessful invasion.
The Japanese referred to this miraculous wind as the Kamikaze (divine wind), and believe that their island was protected by the gods. Although the country was saved by the storm, the invasion proved that the Japanese were no match against the Mongol on land or sea. As a result, the Japanese strengthened their army in fear of another invasion, and constructed a stone wall, 20km long, along the coast of Hakata Bay. Kublai Khan, on the other hand, never gave up on Japan and renewed his demands of Japan in 1275 through envoys sent to Japan.
Hoops, Richard, "The Divine Wind" in Earthwatch Radio <http://seagrant.wisc.edu/communications/earthwatch/archive/1992/earthwatch101308.html> 8 July 1992.
Hori, Kyotsu, "Mongol Invasion of Japan," Kodansha Encyclopedia of Japan (Tokyo: Kodansha, 1983) pp. 243-244.
Rossabi, Morris, "Kublai Khan," Encyclopedia of Asian History (New York: Macmillan Publishers, 1988) pp. 365-367.
Teshima, Ikuro, "Christians Among Mongol Invaders" in The Ancient Refugees from Religion Persecution in Japan <http://www.keikyo.com/books/hada/Christians_Among.html> 20 Nov. 1998.
Edited, Researched and Written by:
Oct 26, 2000
Copyright 1996-2000 by David W. Koeller. All rights reserved.