Mongol Invasions of Japan

Mongol Invasions of Japan

Kubilai Khan, Mongol ruler and founder of the Yuan dynasty (1279–1368) in China, twice attempted to invade Japan, in 1274 and 1281, with huge armadas launched from Korea and China. He failed both times mainly because of weather.

Japan thus never suffered under Mongol rule. The Japanese attributed their deliverance to the divine wind, kamikazi in Japanese. In 1260 Kubilai Khan seized leadership of the Mongol empire on the death of his elder brother, Mongke Khan, in a disputed succession.

Kubilai Khan established his capital in North China, at the site of the former Jin (Chin) dynasty capital, which he called Dadu (T’atu), meaning great capital in Chinese (present-day Beijing). He continued his brother’s unfinished work of destroying the Southern Song (Sung) dynasty and embarked on a new adventure even before that task was completed in 1279.

In 1268 he sent his first embassy to Japan demanding tribute. The Japanese emperor, by then a figurehead residing in Kyoto, was willing to acquiesce. But real power belonged to the shogun or military commander and his court at Kamakura, which rebuffed the repeated Mongol demands.

Thus Kubilai Khan decided to invade Japan to force compliance. His Korean subjects were ordered to build 400 large and 500 small ships, which set sail from Pusan in Korea in November 1274.

The invasion force had 15,000 Chinese and Mongol soldiers, 6,000–8,000 Korean troops, and 7,000 Korean sailors. The defending Japanese warriors (samurai) were far less numerous and suffered serious losses in the battle fought at Hataka on Kyushu Island. However they were saved by a fierce storm that blew in.

The defending Japanese warriors (samurai) were far less numerous
The defending Japanese warriors (samurai) were far less numerous

The Korean sailors persuaded the Mongol troops to board their ships and sail for safety in the open seas. The storm, however, damaged and sank many of the ships and 13,000 lives were lost; the survivors eventually limped home.

Kubilai Khan finished the destruction of the Southern Song in 1279. Then he focused on subjugating Japan. In 1281 he dispatched a huge force, reputedly of 140,000 men, in two armadas that sailed from China and Korea for Hataka.

Anticipating the Mongols’ return the Japanese had mobilized and built a wall to the interior of Hataka Bay. After about two months of desultory fighting, another fierce storm or typhoon blew in and destroyed most of the Mongol fleet.

Some survivors fled back to Korea; the rest were slaughtered or enslaved by the Japanese. Kubilai prepared for a third invasion, but the effort was abandoned after he died in 1294. However the shogunate continued a state of military alert until 1312. The cost of the defenses fell mainly to the people of Kyushu Island.

The discontent generated eroded the power of the Hojo clan of the Kamakura Shogunate. Japanese credited the kamikazi for their deliverance and tried to resurrect this idea during the last days of World War II for salvation from defeat by the Allies.