In the thirteenth century, the Mongol’s had what was probably the biggest empire the world had ever seen and was at the height of its power. Japan on the other hand was a small, isolated empire, divided by internal conflict as rival warlords battled each other constantly for land and power.
The Mongol forces that invaded Japan were superior in man power, organization, tactical skills and weaponry but were twice defeated by the defending nation. However it was not the legendary fighting skills of the Samurai that beat them, it was the islands typhoon season, which became known as the ‘Kamikaze’ or ‘Divine Wind’, sent from the heavenly realms to protect the island.
Kublai Khan, the grandson of Genghis Khan, swept across East Asia in the mid thirteenth century conquering all who stood in the way of his terrifying Mongol army. Korea was brought under his control in 1259 and almost a decade later, the Khan sent emissaries to Japan to request military assistance against the Chinese Sung dynasty and demand that they accept him as their overlord.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, this demand was not well received by the proud ruling elite of Japan, who relied on the Chinese for trading basic goods and would not accept being ruled by any foreign leader. In 1271, the Mongols established their rule in China and three years later an army made up of Mongol, Chinese and Korean warriors set out to conquer Japan, who had enraged the khan with their refusal of assistance.
On the 19 November 1274, the Mongols landed at Hakata Bay, where they were met by the samurai of Kyushu. When they met on the battle field, two opposing samurai forces would charge each other mounted on horse back and engage in pitch battles between archers. However this tactic proved ineffectual against the Mongols, who fired volleys of poisoned arrows at the on coming samurai, before retreating and preparing for the next round. On foot, the samurai were out-classed as at this time their main weapon was the bow. They suffered heavy losses to the Mongols, who were far more effective with the sword and more accustomed to fighting on foot.
The Mongols also used firebombs, a weapon probably developed in China, to burn the samurai and their mounts. Eventually the Japanese were forced to fall back and form a defensive formation but due to a shortage of arrows, the Mongols could not take advantage and follow up their attack. Fearing a sneak attack, they re-boarded their ships when night fell and moved out to sea. As soon as they did, huge winds and waves along with torrential rains hit them causing chaos among the Mongol fleet. Of the 900 ships that began the attack, 200 were lost and estimated 13,000 people of the 35,000 who came lost their lives to the ‘Divine Wind’.
Over the next few years, the Mongols focused their attention on completing their conquest of South China until in 1279, they again sent envoys to Japan, demanding they pay homage to Kublai Kahn; the heads of the ambassadors were sent back to the Mongol leader, infuriating him. The samurai built a wall along the coast of Hakata Bay, 4.5 metres height and 40 km in length in response to the Mongol threat, they also assembled a large number of small boats, designed for fighting in shallow water.
By May, 1281, Kahn had raised an army which he split into two fleets. The first contained 3,500 ships and 100,000 troops, the second had 900 ships carrying 40,000 troops. The first wave of the attack reached the island of Kyushu on the 9 June and was eventually repelled by the samurai, who limited the invasion fleet to landing small numbers of men and harassed them with night-time attacks on their ships, using their new boats.
The two Mongol fleets moved south to take the island of Takashima but as if the gods were watching over the Japanese, as was believed to be the case, another storm came and laid waste to the invasion fleet. This time, 4,000 ships and 100,000 men were lost to the ‘Divine Wind’, forcing the rest of the fleet to return to China.
The battles against the Mongol army changed the way the samurai viewed warfare forever as successful warlords began mimicking the way the Mongols fought. They changed from being predominantly mounted archers who used their swords as secondary weapons, to swordsmen who mainly fought on foot but who had the secondary tactic of mounting up and using their archery skills if needed.
The failed invasion had a devastating effect on the Mongol Empire as the loss of man power and moral not only prevented the chance of any further expansion, it signalled the beginning of the end for them; less than 100 years later the largest empire the world has ever seen had dissolved.