Kamikaze and the Aborted Mongol Invasions of Japan

Legend holds that the kamikaze, or "divine wind," prevented the Mongolian invasion of Japan in 1281, as depicted in this 19th-century piece by artist Issho Yada.

Legend holds that the kamikaze, or “divine wind,” prevented the Mongolian invasion of Japan in 1281, as depicted in this 19th-century piece by artist Issho Yada.

In Simon Schama’s History of Britain, he makes the comment that the weather bats for England.  Apparently the weather has that same deal with Japan.  The word “kamikaze” brings visions of suicide pilots from World War II, but the word actually means “divine wind”.  In this case, the kamikaze defended the Japanese islands from invasion fleets.

In the 13th century, the Mongols had swept through Asia and had finished bringing Goryeo, or Korea, into the empire.  Kublai Khan had become the first emperor of the Yuan (or Mongol) dynasty of China.  Now he cast his hungry eyes towards Japan.  At this time, Japan was ruled by the Shogunate Regents of Hōjō clan.  In 1266, Kublai Khan sent emissaries to Japan offering to make Japan a vasal state of the Mongol empire….or else.  This threat did not go over the first time it was made or the second in 1268 and the emissaries went home empty handed.  Later emissaries sent between 1269 and 1272 were not allowed to even land.  These slights to the the great Khagan could not go unanswered.

A mass construction began on the Korean coast, and a fleet of 300 large vessels and 400-500 smaller crafts set sail for Japan.  On the ships were 15,000 mongol and Chinese soldiers and 8,000 Korean soldiers.  In the autumn of 1274, this fleet set sail and lay at anchor in Hakata Bay, Kyushu Japan.  This was only a short distance from Dazaifu, the capital of Kyushu province.  All of North Kyushu had been mobilized, but the Japanese commanders were having difficulty controlling such a large group of troops as even pitched battles were often decided by single combat.  The Mongols were very experienced with moving a strategically moving a large force.  They also had superior weapons such as the short composite bows that the Mongols were famous for, with poisoned arrows, fire arrows, bow-launched arrows with small rocket engines attached and gunpowder-packed exploding arrows and grenades with ceramic shells thrown by slings to terrify the enemy’s horses.  It looked to be easy pickings for the Mongols.  However, around nightfall a typhoon hit Hakata Bay.  The storm was so fierce the Mongol captains suggested the troops who landed reboard the ships to avoid being stuck on Japanese soil.  By daybreak, the ships that had not gone out to sea had been destroyed.  Some estimates put this figure at close to 200 ships.  It is estimated that 13,000 troops drowned.  The remaining Mongol soldiers were dispatched by Japanese soldiers who boarded the ships left afloat in the cover of darkness.  The remaining fleet limped home to Korea.

The Mongols were not ones to give up easily.  Just because the first invasion failed, that did not mean a second one would.  They began rebuilding and an even larger fleet of 900 ships containing 40,000 troops set sail in the spring of 1281.  In coordination with the 900 ships from Korea, the Yuans in China were sending 100,000 troops in 3,500 ships from southern China.  The two massive fleets were to converge on the same place as before-  Hakata Bay, Kyushu Japan.  This time, the Japanese were ready for them and had built two meter high walls around all of the beaches.  The Mongol fleet stayed afloat for months trying to find a place they could land, when finally they were prepared to fight on August 15, 1281.  And in what must have been a cosmic joke, another typhoon hit Hakata Bay for two straight days wrecking the Mongol fleet.  Many of the ships from China were flat bottomed river going vessels, which were difficult to sail on the high seas let alone in a typhoon.  They capsized at a high rate.  Contemporary Japanese accounts say over 4,000 ships were sunk and 80% of the troops were either drowned or killed by samurai patrolling the beaches.  After this, the Mongols seemed to learn their lesson and did not try to attack Japan again.

There were lasting effects to these two attempts, however.  One was the development of the Japanese katana in the 13th and 14th century.  Prior to the invasion, Japanese swords were long and thin.  When attacking the Mongols, these types of swords got stuck in the thick leather armor worn by the troops and broke off.  Blacksmiths reevaluated this design and made the new katana’s shorter and thicker.  This also reinforced the myth of a “kamakaze” to defend the Japanese nation.  Japanese legend attributed the Kamikaze to Raijin, the god of lightning, thunder and storms.  Some legends say the Emperor had the ability to call up the Kamakaze.  This legend was invoked in World War II to refer to the suicide pilots who deliberately crashed their planes into enemy targets.  

These were considered legends, but in 2011 divers found remains of a ship the sunken Mongol fleet off coast of Japan near Nagasaki.  Ultrasound equipment located the well-preserved wreck 3 feet below the seabed.  It is the first ship from this period found with an intact hull.


Sources available on request