Lloyd Schillinger

Lightning Talk Presented: June 2014
Published: July 31, 2014

In 1268, a new Mongol leader named Kublai Khan came to power. His empire was gigantic; covering most of Asia. The Mongol Army was a feared juggernaut. Even so, the proud Japanese had been ignoring his demands that they pay him tribute. Finally, in 1274, Kublai Khan ordered that Japan be invaded.

The first Mongol invasion took place with a combined force of 23,000 Chinese, Mongol, and Korean troops. They arrived on 600 ships and brought catapults, crude missiles, and archers. The Mongol invaders landed at northern Kyushu at Hakata Bay where they fought with the local Japanese troops. This was known as the Battle of Bun'ei or the First Battle of Hakata Bay.

The Mongol campaign was not fairing so well. They had not achieved a decisive victory on the battlefield. So with the experienced Korean sailors warning of approaching severe weather the invasion force returned to their ships and departed for home port. By the next morning, all the Mongol ships were gone.

The Japanese believed that local Shinto priests had contributed to the victory by praying to the Shinto gods, or kami, who sent storms to break up the Mongol fleet. These typhoons were named kamikaze, or "divine winds," by the Japanese and are understood as winds sent by Shinto gods or kami. Korean records indicate that it took the Mongol fleet a month to return to its home ports due to the weather.

At first, the Mongol tactics confused the Japanese. They were highly mobile and maneuvered together in teams. The Mongols would send a force forward and engage their opponent. This force would then withdraw from the engagement as if in retreat enticing their opponent to pursue. If the opponent did, they would be drawn into a much larger force lying in wait to ambush them. These tactics seemed very cowardly to the noble Samurai.

During warfare in Japan, individual Samurai would emerge from an army's ranks and issue challenges for singular combat to any enemy Samurai who would desire to gain a reputation. In this way, they were similar to western European knights and were defeated by the Mongols in a very similar way.

Despite their victory, the Japanese knew that the Mongols would return. Several Mongol ambassadors came to Japan between 1275 and 1280. Almost all were beheaded on the spot. Late in 1280, Kublai Khan decided to launch a second massive invasion dwarfing his first attempt. Kublai Khan directed his Korean and Chinese vassals to begin a massive shipbuilding campaign.

In 1281, the Mongols returned with two massive forces. The first consisted of 900 ships carrying 40,000 Korean, Chinese, and Mongol troops set out from Masan. While another force of 3,500 ships carrying 100,000 troops sailed from southern China. The Mongols planned to overwhelm the Japanese with their combined imperial fleets.

Then, in early August 1281, the combined fleet took the small island of Iki-shima and moved on to Kyushu. There, the Mongol forces were driven back to their ships in a number of fierce engagements collectively known as the Battle of Koan, or the Second Battle of Hakata Bay. Then, on August 13, a typhoon struck that lasted for two days.

This time there was no warning and the Mongol fleet was caught at anchor. Many of the fleet's ships were hastily acquired flat-bottomed Chinese riverboats. These ships were not meant to be used on the high seas and were nearly impossible to save in a violent typhoon. It is estimated that 60% to 90% of the Mongol fleet was destroyed in this second divine storm which the Japanese again referred to as a kamikaze. One Japanese account claimed that the corpses of the enemy filled Imari Bay and that a man could walk across the bay on the bodies of the dead. The Mongols left, never again to return to Japan.

The Japanese gained valuable military experience from the Mongol invasion and their Military technology advanced also. The sword of the period known as the tachi was prone to brake against the Mongol body armor. A new type of sword known as the katana was developed. This sword would become the Samurai's primary weapon and the one they were most known for.

The threat of the Mongol invasion had given the many Japanese clans a common enemy and cause to unite behind. As the threat faded, the many Samurai became restless and began to demand compensation for their service. Normally, after a victorious campaign, the defeated opponents land and riches would be divided between the Samurai. In this situation that was not possible. Eventually rebellions sprang up and the period known as the Kamakura period ended and the Sengoku period, also known as the Warring States period, began.

The spectacular victories over the Mongols by the apparent supernatural nature of the typhoons led the Japanese to believe they were a divine race favored and protected by the gods. The victories were a great source of pride and also helped legitimize the shogunate system of government.

The events of 1274 and 1281 would be used more than six hundred and fifty years later to inspire Japanese pilots to fly bomb-laden planes into Allied warships off the coast of Japan, hoping to save their homeland from another invading army in the last months of World War Two. The pilots thought of themselves as divine winds and were called kamikazes.

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