The Mongol Invasion of Japan

The Mongol invasions of Japan in 1274 and 1281 were significant events in Japanese history and are prime examples of the concept of divine intervention. These events are also believed to be the earliest reference for the word kamikaze or “divine winds” that ended any further attempts by the Mongols to invade Japan.

KhublaiThe Mongol Empire used to rule over lands that stretched from China to the Pacific coast of Siberia in the east. Kublai Khan, the grandson of Genghis Khan, ruled over much of China when he defeated the Song Dynasty and declared himself the first emperor of China’s Yuan Dynasty in 1271. He also ruled over Mongolia and Korea while his uncles and cousins controlled lands that stretched from Hungary in the west all the way to Siberia.

Kublai Khan painting by Anige.

The Battle of Bun’ei (文永の役) , the First Battle of Hakata Bay

As early as 1266, Kublai Khan had been sending emissaries to Japan demanding tributes. He continued to send messengers for the next six years with his demands being ignored. The Japanese shogun would not even allow the emissaries’ ships to land on Honshu, the main island. The Mongols commissioned construction of about 600 vessels from China and Korea and gathered an army of 40,000 men, many of whom were Chinese and Koreans. On the other hand, Japan could only come up with 10,000 samurai warriors.


Depiction of defensive wall at Hakata, 1293.

divinewindIn the autumn of 1274, the Yuan army departed from the port of Masan in southern Korea. An estimated 900 vessels set out for the Sea of Japan. The first invaders seized the islands of Tsushima and Iki and slaughtered about 300 island residents. From there they moved on to the east. On the 18th of November, the Mongol army reached Hakata Bay (near present day Fukuoka). According to the scroll commissioned by Takezaki Suenaga who had fought in both the battles of Mongol invasions, the samurai warriors initially set out to battle according to their code of bushido where a lone samurai warrior would step out, announce his name and lineage, and prepare for one-on-one combat with an opponent. Unfortunately, the Mongols were unfamiliar with the samurai code and attacked the lone samurai all together. In addition, strategic weaponry and coordinated attacks of the Mongols were all new and fatal for the Japanese.

The Mongol Invasion, tapestry by Kawasaki Jimbei II.

On the evening of the battle, strong rain and winds, said to be kamikaze (divinely conjured wind), began to hit the coast and threatened the Mongol ships. Chinese and Korean sailors on board Kublai Khan’s ships advised the Mongol generals to set anchor farther out to sea lest the winds drive the vessels to shore in Hakata Bay. When the storm subsided, a third of the Mongols ships were destroyed by the storm and around 13,000 of Kublai Khan’s army perished while the rest of the Mongol army retreated back to Korea.