Marco and the Polos 5: The Echoes of the Wind

Kuniyuki Japanese Armies Defeating Mongol Invaders

Near the gates of the Hakozaki shrine of Fukuoka, Japan, is a stone marker with characters cut into its surface. They form the words of a song, and that song, in translation, goes something like this:

From four hundred states and more

Hundreds of the foe appear,

Looms a peril to the nation

In the fourth the Koan year.

What should be our fear? Among us

Kamakura men will go,

Martial discipline and justice

To the world with shout we’ll show.

From the [Mongol] shores barbarians,

What are they, The Mongol Band,

Fellows insolent and haughty,

‘Neath their heaven we will not stand.

Onward now our arms were practiced

For our native country’s sake,

For our country now a trial

Of these Nippon swords we’ll make.

To the waters of Tsukushi

We advance through flood and wave;

We with bodies stout and vigorous,

If we die, and find a grave,

Dying, we become the guardian

Gods of home, for which we fell,

To Hakozaki’s God I swore it,

And he knows the pure heart well.

Heaven grew angry, and the ocean’s

Billows were in tempest tossed;

They who came to work us evil,

Thousands of the Mongol host,

Sank and perished in the sea-weed,

Of that horde survived but three,

Swift the sky was clear, and moon beams

Shone upon the Ghenkai Sea.

It all sounds like a legend, a patriotic song of supernatural forces sweeping away the barbaric threat like ants. It tells of the sea, twisted by some great power into an irresistible weapon and striking down the enemy without mercy, and striking again, and again, until only three of their number survived, and then laying calm, resting, as the moon shone down on its now still waters, and on the broken boats and bodies of a Mongol invasion.

It’s not, as it’s sometimes been thought, purely the stuff of song and legend though. It’s a fascinating chapter of Mongol history which is often ignored, and it’s an important piece of Japanese history too, with its theme of divine protection echoing into modernity. It’s a snapshot of Kublai Khan’s Yuan Khanate reaching the limits of its abilities. It’s mentioned in Marco Polo’s text, and it’s what we’re talking about today.  

Hello, and welcome back. My name is Devon, and this is Human Circus. I’d like to take this opportunity to remind you that rating, reviewing, and subscribing is how we keep our dishes brimming with delicious fermented milk beverages, and also to let you know that the podcast now has a Patreon. Patreon, if you’re not familiar with it, is a subscription platform where you can pledge a monthly amount towards a project such as this one and receive something nice out of it for yourself. I currently have 1, 3, and 5 dollar monthly options, and you can find them at or via my own website at And now, let’s get back to the Travels of Marco Polo.

During the last few episodes, I’ve focused on Marco’s time in China and his relationship to Kublai Khan, and I ended the last one by saying that we’d be headed next for Myanmar, Japan, and elsewhere. Slight change of plans: this is all going to be about Japan. There’s just too much to the story to cut it down and cram it in to an “also visited” episode, so I’ll be talking about 2 attacks, how they’re covered in Marco’s text, how they’ve been remembered, and what we’ve learned since. This then will be an episode of invasions, and, unusually for Mongol stories, they won’t be successful ones. 

In Southeast Asia and across the sea, Kublai Khan’s empire was reaching its limits. Remember that story of Kublai’s financial minister Ahmed, the one who may or may not have been guilty of the vilest corruptions and sorceries? I mentioned then that he had the unenviable responsibility of sustaining the purse of a khan who kept dipping in deep for massive project after military expedition after naval adventure. Now, Kublai would hardly be the first Mongol khan to look to enlarge his territories - it would have been a real first if he hadn’t - but he was going to experience some costly setbacks along the way. Japan was one his costlier ones, and it revealed an outer limit to the whole world domination project that had long been the Mongols’ stated goal in life. 

Marco Polo would not be going to Japan himself, but he speaks of what he calls Zipangu, “an island in the eastern ocean,” where a king ruled over his people and their inexhaustible supply of gold. Except it was more like his inexhaustible supply of gold, for he did not allow it to be exported. Few merchants from elsewhere thus visited the island, and this contained bounty of treasure, Marco says, must explain what he’d heard of the king’s palace from those who had been there. The roof was plated entirely with gold, and the ceilings of its halls too; even the furnishings were gold, and the size and quantity of the pearls were apparently no less impressive. It was real storybook stuff, an island of riches and its greedy king.

Putting issues of treasure aside for a moment, Marco turns to religion, first considering Zipangu’s many-shaped idols, their animal heads, sometimes many heads, and their many limbs. He says Christians - he doesn’t say which Christians exactly - had enquired about the shapes and been told that they were that way because they had been in the past and so they would be transmitted into the future, that these were the idols of the practitioners’ parents and so they would also be those of their children. And then the text takes on a suddenly aggressive tone: the rituals done before these idols were “wicked and diabolical,” nothing short of an abomination to even relate in written form. Really, like HP Lovecraft’s indescribable evils, the author could not bring himself to tell us of such foul deeds, but he does insist on telling us, as the passage gathers steam, that, quote:

...the idolatrous inhabitants of these islands, when they seize the person of an enemy, who has not the means of effecting his ransom for money, invite to their house all their relations and friends, and putting their prisoner to death, dress and eat the body, in a convivial manner, asserting that human flesh surpasses every other in excellence of its flavour.

However, it was neither religion nor rumours of cannibalism which stirred in Kublai a desire to take it all for himself. It was all that wealth, or so Marco says. He tells us that a great fleet was fitted out for the purpose, and that a substantial army was loaded aboard under the command of two officers, two men who were apparently going to be the source of problems to come.

The invading army reached land in safety, but the poison had already set in at the top. There was a jealousy and bitter hatred between the two commanders which would not allow for cooperation on the task at hand. Plans of the one were resisted or ignored by the other, and though they were in their target’s territory, in their mutual animosity they could not get it together to actually take anything of consequence, whether fortress or city, except for one. And even there, they met with problems. They had cut off the heads of everyone within the walls, but there were eight people whose heads they simply couldn’t cut off, who, quote, “by the efficacy of a diabolical charm, consisting of a jewel or amulet introduced into the arm,” were rendered invulnerable to blades, uncuttable and unkillable. 

Approaching the problem pragmatically, the Mongols beat them to death with clubs, but not all the would-be conquerors’ challenges were going to be overcome so easily. Their leadership was as paralyzed as ever by a terrible working relationship, and nature was about to turn against them too. A great wind, some in Japan would say a divine wind, was making its way towards them. 

When the storm came, a decision was made to load the troops back aboard and ride it out at sea, but this second part of the plan proved impossible. The violence of the wind increased, sinking several ships, and scattering the rest. Those of the invasion force who survived, limped home across the waters to their khan, leaving behind them 30,000 men. Those soldiers who’d washed ashore on a small island with wreckage from the fleet, now found themselves utterly abandoned and without any hope return, but despite their desperate situation, they seem to have done quite well for themselves without the burden of their generals.

When the gale ended, a force came across from the mainland by boat, hunting for the survivors, but not in an organized way. The Mongols occupied the highland at the island’s centre, and watched as their enemy circled around, following the road, and then, the Japanese forces having gone on their way, the Mongols swept down and took their boats. They didn’t use them to go home, for these probably weren’t boats suitable for sea crossings. Instead, they used them to enter the, quote, “principal city of Japan,” friendly colours flying, and occupy it unresisted.

So there they were, this 30,000, having done what their commanders hadn’t really been up to, but now quite stuck. They had a captive city, apparently the “principal” one, but what were they to do with it? What were they to do when a blockade went up around them, and all hope of escape save for surrender had gone? They could only give themselves up after six months, having negotiated for their lives to be spared, and this, Marco tells us, is what they did. They exited the city and disappeared from our story entirely. 

Meanwhile, the story of those two commanders was reaching its own conclusion, though it would take some time for things to play out. Apparently some years passed before Kublai came to understand exactly what and who had been responsible for his army’s failure, but he did at last come to understand it and decide on appropriate punishment. The one commander was beheaded, but the other was less fortunate. He was sewn tightly into a fresh buffalo skin and then left to die as the skin dried and contracted around him, leaving him unable to move and succumbing to a nightmarishly suffocating end. 

But how accurate was all of this? And I don’t mean the buffalo skin here. I mean the invasion of Japan. How does Marco Polo’s depiction of this chapter of Mongol history compare with what we think now? Though it was once thought of as a bit of a fable, we’ll see that the basic contours of the story are there.

For Kublai, the treasure to be acquired in Japan was likely not so much gold as it was the prestige he stood to gain, and I think this goes back to an inherent insecurity in Kublai’s position. He had become Khan of the Mongols in a manner that was not entirely above board, a kurultai on his own territory which was far from universally attended and then a civil war, and then he would become Yuan Emperor of China too. In both roles, he needed to prove his worth and his mandate, and that meant expansion. 

He also likely wanted to head off the Japanese-Song connection. Kublai’s early engagements with Japan came as he was still dealing with the Southern Song, and cutting them off from this friendly trading source across the water would hardly have hurt those efforts. 

Kublai first reached out to Japan by way of his Korean vassals. He sent envoys as soon as 1266, but the Koreans didn’t keep their end up. They were expected to bring the embassy over the sea to their destination - the Mongols were not naturally an ocean-going power themselves - but they did not want to keep that particular end up. They had a decent relationship with the Japanese rulers who had fairly recently interceded to halt Japanese piracy on their shores, and they had no desire to become embroiled in a Mongol-Japanese conflict. So they played up the problems that awaited the envoys: the ocean was too violent, the weather too unpredictable, the way too hard to pass safely. And it worked. They entertained their visitors into the winter months; they gave them a taste of the crossing in stormy weather; and the envoys, apparently more alarmed by the ocean than by the prospect of returning to Kublai Khan empty handed, headed for home. 

Of course, Kublai was immensely displeased by all of this, both with those envoys and with the Koreans, and he still wanted to reach out to Japan. In 1268, his second attempt arrived on Japanese shores, this time with effective Korean assistance. There was an official from the Ministry of Rites along, and one from the Ministry of War too, and they informed the Japanese that their leader, Kublai Khan, was the emperor of China and that he required appropriate tribute immediately. This, in part and in translation, was the letter which they brought with them:

The great Emperor of Mongolia notifies the King of Japan that history shows that a small country is to be dependent on a large one, and that the benefit of such an arrangement is mutual.

Since ancient times, the sovereigns of small countries whose territories adjoined each other have taken it as their duty to cement peaceful relations by upholding good faith. How much more so [should this apply in this case], since Our ancestors received a clear mandate from Heaven and controlled all of China, and those from distant places and other regions who fear Our awesomeness and embrace Our virtue have been countless.

When We first ascended the throne, as the innocent people of Korea had long suffered from spearheads and arrowheads, We immediately disbanded the soldiers and returned their frontier fortresses and sent their old and young back [to their homes]. The Korean sovereign and subjects came to Our court to express their thanks. Although in righteousness we were sovereign and subject, we were as happy as father and son. We believe that your subjects also already know this.

Korea is our Eastern frontier. Japan is close to Korea. From the founding of your country you have also occasionally had contact with China, but to Us you have not sent even an envoy with a single cart to communicate friendly [intentions].

Fearing that your kingdom knows this but has not considered it [carefully], We have specially dispatched an envoy with a letter to proclaim Our intention…

The letter continues on, with allusions to how one really doesn’t want to resort to weapons, and soldiers, and so on. And the Japanese, well, they did not respond at all, and this needs some explanation. Who were the Japanese we were talking about here? It’s obviously a pretty generalizing term, so who exactly didn’t answer this charming declaration? Who was making the decisions? In just a moment, we’ll find out.


Japan of the era we’re talking about, the late 13th-century, was in what’s known as the Kamakura period, a time usually marked as beginning in 1192 with the establishment of the shogunate. It was a time when power was split between two centres of authority but had swung well in the direction of the one at the expense of the other. At one end of this imbalanced balance of power was Kyoto and the emperor’s court, and at the other end was Kamakura, home to the shogun’s military administration, the bakufu. By our period, the shogun himself was but a figurehead. Truer power rested with a regency long held by the powerful Hojo family and with a military council that the Hojos had established.

So when that letter showed up, it went first to Kamakura and then on to Kyoto where it was received with alarm and offence. It prompted debate and eventually also a written response issued from Kyoto which was then promptly rejected by the council at Kamakura. It was the military leadership which was turning the envoys away empty-handed. 

Apparently undeterred by this lack of fellow-feeling, Kublai tried again in 1271. He was after all the most powerful man in the world. Surely, this “king of a little country,” as he is sometimes translated as addressing the Japanese emperor, could not continue to ignore him so rudely. But he did, or the bakufu did, and again the Mongol embassy was turned away with nothing to show for it. This time, they went so far as capture a pair of Japanese fishermen on their way home. They brought them back to their khan who then entertained them, told them to tell their rulers of all they had seen, and had them released back to Japan, but again, amazingly, there was no response. 

I’m sure by this point Kublai was quite flabbergasted; what kind of people wouldn’t even answer him? And when he’d been so unfailingly polite! One last effort was made in 1272, but it too led nowhere. The imperial court again showed signs of being willing to respond; however, the leadership at Kamakura was not, and war became inevitable. 

It’s interesting that the military administration chose this path because it’s possible that they didn’t need to. They had access to information from Korea as to the Mongols’ intentions and preparations for war, and there was a real possibility that some nice words on the khan’s most supreme supremacy and a well chosen gift might have forestalled the whole thing. The invasion would be no easy operation for the Mongols to manage. They were not inclined to ship-building themselves and had to press their Chinese and Korean subjects to the task, and the whole process put a tremendous strain on everyone. The advance elements of the Mongol forces in Korea even exhausted the local resources and food had to be shipped out to sustain them. 

Maybe that Korean-supplied intelligence reassured Japan’s military leadership that they had nothing to worry about. Maybe their ocean-bound seclusion gave them a false sense of security, that they were impervious to attacks from outside. Maybe they had no much to worry about from problems inside. Maybe their pride rendered them unable to concede the khan’s supremacy, even for the time it would take to write a letter, or maybe they just assumed that the attack was coming anyways and that they could not prevent it, only prepare. 

And maybe they were right, because of course the attack did come in November of 1274. As usual, there’s some disagreement as to how many attackers there were. Some estimates place the Mongol and Chinese forces at 15,000 and their reluctant Korean companions at 8,000, while others have argued, on the basis of the Mongols’ apparent unwillingness to venture far from their boats, that it may have been as few as but a few thousand. 

However many they were, their waves broke over the islands of Tsushima and Iki, easily overwhelming them, before reaching Kyushu, the southernmost of Japan’s four main islands, on November 19th, 1274, and at first, things seem to have gone well for the attackers. They took the city of Hakata and they burned it down. The Japanese fighters were skilled but faced unfamiliar tactics and weapons; I’ve seen it said that their emphasis on individual valour and excellence was not ideally suited to oppose the Mongols who fought as units. However, other commentators have seen something more even in these confrontations, and maybe this view is closer to truth, because what happened next is that the Mongols withdrew.

The story goes that a coming storm gave them cause to flee, that their ships’ Korean crews insisted on taking the fleet safely away from the shore and that was why the invasion ended. Not everyone has found this story convincing though, and other possibilities have been put forward. Some have suggested that the Mongol army was too fractured. Others, that their attack was disorganized or that all their arrows had been used up, and this would have indicated either quite serious disorganization on their part or perhaps only that they had never planned on staying long. And this, I think leads to another interesting hypothesis. Maybe it wasn’t a failure at all. Maybe they withdrew because their mission had already been completed. 

The invading forces had burned down Hakata and denied or disrupted the substantial income that the Southern Song received in trade from the city. That could have been all that this fairly modest force had been trying to do. Perhaps the whole thing was more of a scouting raid than an invasion, certainly an idea that would fit comfortably within the Mongol practice of war, and the real goal for now was still in Southern China. Or maybe the Mongols left primarily because their commander had been shot in the face, because that had indeed also happened.

Cause aside, the reprieve was not indefinite, but then Japan’s military administration had known that it wouldn’t be, and the years after that first Mongol invasion were not wasted. They monitored preparations in Korea for another invasion, pondered a disruptive strike to sabotage those efforts, constructed walls around likely landing sites, patrolled the coast, and they cut off the heads of the latest round of Mongol ambassadors. It was a gross act of indecency and an open invitation to war, but then the Japanese leaders probably felt that particular ship was already well on its way out of the harbour, with no chance of bringing it back to dock. They had, after all, already been invaded by the Mongols just the year before, so killing a few more on their shores wouldn’t have seemed an unnatural thing to do. That second invasion was coming. 

It didn’t happen right away. Korea had to recover from 1274 first. It had to spring back from having its grain seized, its people taken from the fields, and the crop shortfalls that resulted. It had to rely on Kublai’s relief shipments for years. And Kublai, he had to deal with the Southern Song, but once that issue was wrapped up with the death of the last claimant to the throne, Kublai was free to exert more of his considerable strength in the war against Japan and he also had an extra reason to do so. As the Yuan Emperor now ruling all of China as a foreigner, he needed more than ever to establish his authority, and just as it had always done and would always do so for rulers facing domestic challenges, foreign military adventure looked like the perfect solution.

This time, an enormous force was to be mustered for the purpose. 40,000 men were to leave from Korea in 900 ships while the southern army of 100,000 men travelled from the south in 3-4,000 ships. The numbers of soldiers here are, as always, highly suspect, but the number of boats is not as crazy as you might think. These weren’t fleets of perfect cookie-cutter uniformity. The vessels would have been a mix of new, purpose-built craft and refitted ones from the quite massive existing stock of merchant and pirate ships, and they would have varied in size too. Both Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta mention that Chinese ships would travel in pods with smaller boats attached to the sides of larger ones, towed behind, or, in the case of the smallest, actually carried aboard, ready for use after the ocean crossing had been safely completed. All things considered then, 900 in one fleet and 3-4,000 in the other, starts to look a little less unreasonable than at first glance. It’s not on the same scale of impossibility as battles you sometimes read about where one and a half million men on one side faced a million on the other, with sundry elephants scattered in between. It is probably still an exaggerated number though.

The two fleets were to arrive on Iki island together in mid-June of 1281, but of course it didn’t go that smoothly. The northern army left Korea on time. They reached their goal, and they waited, and they waited. And then they waited some more. They waited as their ships rotted and their supplies ran short. And back in China the southern army was only just departing. Their greater numbers required more time to prepare, their commander had become sick and had needed replacing, and somehow the Mongols’ vaunted postal system had let them down or, maybe more likely given Marco’s talk of conflict among the leadership, those in charge of the southern army were not as communicative as they might have been with their colleagues to the north.

Eventually though, the southern army did arrive. It hadn’t happened exactly as it was supposed to, but the Mongol war machine had finally started to roll. Now, surely, the samurai would succumb as so many had done before, and the Mongols would spread even further across the map. Except they didn’t. The second invasion was going to make no more of a dent than the first. What could have happened? 

The story goes that the kamikaze happened. First came sulphurous smells from the sea, then sightings of a green serpent, and then the divine winds themselves, terrible storms heaven-sent to smash the southern fleet and kill as many as 80% of its soldiers. Much of the Korean fleet seems to have found shelter and headed safely for home, but the broken remains of the southern army were left struggling among themselves and fighting for space aboard what few boats were left. The stragglers who could not find a ship were hunted and finished off by the Japanese defenders. There were stories of massacres committed by the Yuan invaders on the smaller islands and of their captives being strung to the sides of boats through holes cruelly pierced through in the palms of their hands, and the Japanese fighters weren’t looking to take many prisoners. There’s one story of three Mongols taken captive who each sought to preserve his life by claiming that he was the important general, but unable to distinguish between their claims, their captor simply killed them all.  

Some of the Mongol survivors would have been slaughtered in the shallows as they dragged themselves exhausted towards land. Others, already ashore, would have been caught against the water and surrounded by warriors looking to earn the rewards which valour in combat and before witnesses could bring them. There would have been nowhere for the invaders to go, and so they mostly died. 

For the Mongols, the story of the storm was something of a double-edged sword. To some degree it lets them off the hook in questions of their military might. If either nature or the gods themselves had intervened, then who could blame the generals or their soldiers if they did not secured victory? They could still be undefeated in regular-season play, for this was something entirely different. It just didn’t count. For Kublai himself though it was quite another matter. Establishing his authority as emperor of China might have been his primary motivation in launching the invasion in the first place, and now it seemed that he did not have the mandate of heaven at all.

In Japan, the issue was less muddy. There was no problem of explaining away either a massive defeat or the hostility of the gods, and in the courtly and priestly sources, the supernatural origins of the victory are celebrated. One courtier wrote of the first invasion that, “this great protection [could] only have happened because of the many prayers and offerings to the various shrines … around the realm,” and of the second he said the following:

On this past first day [of the seventh month] a typhoon sank most of the foreign pirates’ ships. Several thousands were killed or captured. Not one [enemy] boat remains at Iki or Tsushima. Most of the foreign invaders who came [to Japan] lost their lives or were captured. This event reveals unprecedented divine [support]. A source of great rejoicing in the realm - what could exceed this? This is no random event. Even though we live in the final age, the gods’ support has not ceased. One must more fervently worship the gods and buddhas.

And this courtier wasn’t alone in his assessment. In 1309, the head priest of the Takeo Shrine in Kyushu took direct credit for the event, saying that the shrine’s god had risen to fire three arrows at the invading fleet, and that right before the coming of the storm, three purple banners had turned to point in that direction. 

The victory gained religious significance in part because a religious victory was what many had been calling for all along. First Kyoto’s imperial court and then Kamakura’s military leadership had called on temples to pray for their enemies’ destruction even before the invasion of 1274, and in 1281, the emperor himself had issued a prayer with the accompanying wish that his own life be sacrificed should Japan suffer any damage during his time. They had asked, and the gods, apparently, had answered.  

Of course, not all analysts have looked to the sources and found the weather, divine or otherwise, to be responsible for the Mongols’ lack of success. In just a moment, we’ll get into what else may have contributed to their failure.

There is plenty of evidence that the attackers faced stiff resistance from the outset and that they never really established any momentum. After all, by the time the storms are supposed to have hit, they should have been well inland if the weather was all they had to be worried about. But there was more. The landing sites were fortified against them, and the walls, constructed since 1274, seem to have held them at bay, keeping the attackers in the open, unsheltered, and vulnerable to skirmishers and storms. 

The northern army cleared the outer islands and landed at Hakata Bay to find that wall and its defenders waiting for them, and they were driven back, back to the water, and back to their ships. From there, they bombarded the shore trying to soften up the defenders, but they had stalled entirely. They couldn’t take the beach back, and they were constantly threatened by raids, on the small island where they were pasturing their horses and on their fleet. Their ships were chained together into a kind of floating fortress to prevent individual vessels becoming surrounded, but small boats of fighters threatened them still, boarding and fighting hand to hand or crashing in with boats filled with burning hay. They managed to sink many of these boats on their way in and kill the occupants of others as they came aboard, but not all. There are stories of individual samurai lacking their own transportation, lying and coercing their way aboard others’ boats just to get at the enemy, and then there are scrolls showing them as they cut their way across the Mongol decks in close-quarters combat. They could storm a ship, set it on fire, and make off with the heads of their enemies before reinforcements arrived, and the northern army grew pretty tired of this treatment. They pulled even further back, to the island of Iki, and they never got any closer. 

Meanwhile, the southern army, what should have been the dominant force, made for land 30 miles south of Hakata, at Imari Bay, and there, they too faltered. Fighting on land carried on for weeks, while off-shore the southern fleet also strung itself together into a defensive formation connected by boardwalks, and fought off probing attacks by small boats, burning and otherwise. And I wonder if this fortress formation was, in part, why they were so decisively finished by the storm, why they failed to adequately respond to it. Maybe their reactions were hobbled, and they could not maneuver as they would have, and that was why the divine wind left them completely shattered. As one Korean account tells us, quote: “The vessels were jammed together in the offing, and the bodies of men and broken timbers of the vessels were heaped together in a solid mass so that a person could walk across from one point of land to another on the mass of wreckage.” Looking out at all that destruction, and their enemies made suddenly helpless, it’s easy to see why the relieved Japanese would have seen an otherworldly hand at work.  

But if it was the weather that had caused so much damage and brought the whole effort to a sudden halt, it hadn’t exactly saved those defenders in the nick of time, just as their positions were about to be rolled up and their lands rolled into the Yuan Empire. They’d been doing just fine for themselves, and this second attempt on the part of Kublai’s forces seems, if anything, to have been less successful than the first, despite the vast expenditure of resources involved. Maybe those defenders wouldn’t have needed the gods, or the weather, on their side after all.

1281 was not the end of Kublai Khan’s overseas ambitions, nor of his plans to take Japan as his own. As we learned from Marco, he blamed his commanders for their poor efforts, perhaps fairly, perhaps a convenient bit of scapegoating, and he set about planning a third invasion. In 1283 he was ordering the construction of a new fleet in southern China, and in 1285 calling on northeastern China to build another 200 ships, for Korea to provide supplies of rice for the operation, and for a number of captured pirates to be pardoned and to join the invasion force; but that invasion never came. He’d overloaded the Koreans, and others, with excessive demands on their resources; he’d squandered much of the navy which he’d inherited from the Southern Song; and he’d sunk a lot of blood and treasure into the project with nothing to show for it. There were complaints about the costs of the boat-building, revolts over the resultant taxation, and his advisors pressed him to abandon all thought of Japan, at least for now. 

In Japan too, the Mongol attacks left their mark economically. They didn’t know that they’d seen the last of the Yuan invaders, and that though they had heard word of preparations in Korea, those would come to nothing. As a result, the Bakufu, the military administration, remained in a state of war for years longer than necessary. Warriors were mobilized, patrols maintained, fortifications built, and the departure of ships strictly policed. They were braced for a strike that never came, and the claims on their limited resources piled up. Unlike recent civil conflicts, the fighting with the Mongols had produced no new wealth or holdings to be distributed to the multitude of warlords, shrines, and monasteries which now clamoured for rewards or compensation. Complaints piled up, and tensions grew. The system couldn’t be sustained. So one of the legacies of the Mongol invasion of Japan would be fall from power of the Hojo clan, and the collapse of the Kamakura Shogunate in the 1330s.

That wouldn’t be the last this legacy was felt in Japan either. The story all but disappeared following the Sakoku Edict of 1635 as Japan moved towards seclusion. Their policies, vigorously enforced, were more pointedly anti-Catholic and anti-European, but other foreign influences were also policed, including any mention of the Yuan attacks of the 13th century. Even in 1808, you find the example of a writer censored for including the invading Mongols in his novel, and by that point, understandably, the story had left the public consciousness, not to return until an imperial power again threatened their shores.

That moment came in 1854 when the gunboat diplomacy of American Commodore Matthew Perry and his fleet forced the Japanese to open their ports and bring an end to two centuries of self-imposed isolation, and the years that followed which included events such as the bombardment of Kagoshima by the British. Soon after, the Mongols were back. In a woodblock print of the 1860s, they were there on the beach again, samurai driving them into the water, but the left panel of the triptych is particularly interesting. Cannon-fire rains down, smashing the invaders’ ships, and the ships themselves are black with steamboat side-wheels. To many viewers, they would have been reminiscent of the “black ships” of the Europeans and Americans, and the message was clear: divine assistance had allowed Japan to defend its coastline against powerful enemies before, and it could do so again. 

Japan went through immense changes in the 19th century, enormous societal shifts which I can in no way do justice to here. The feudal system was gone, the samurai, the bakufu. Loyalty was to be directed to the nation in the person of the emperor. New institutions were developed to safeguard it, and new stories were needed to underpin the divinity of the emperor, the heavenly protection of the country, and the idea of sacrifice in the service of Japan and its ruler in the face of foreign threats, or rather old stories were needed, and the Mongol invasion one suited the situation perfectly. The scrolls of Takezaki Suenaga, a samurai whose 13th-century exploits had been recorded, just happen to have been dusted off at this time and all kinds of poems, stories, books, songs, and paintings produced of them to bring the past to vivid, heroic life. Later, tragically, as the end of World War II closed in, the kamikaze, the divine wind, was evoked again, and thousands of men from Japan’s Special Attack Units sacrificed themselves in an effort to again keep an enemy from its shores. 

The thread which carries this story into the present can be picked up in late October of 1944, with the sinking of the Japanese cruiser the Maya, and it 336 of its crew with it. The survivors were rescued by the battleship Musashi, but it too was sunk, and another 143 of the Maya’s crew were killed. One man who survived the wrecks of both the Maya and the Musashi, and tuberculosis besides, was Torao Mozai. He was the retired engineer who went to Hakata Bay in the early 1980s, armed with a sonoprobe for scanning the seabed and looking for the truth behind legendary tale of the Mongol invasion. 

That man’s search produced many artifacts such as swords, spearheads, Chinese storage jars, and anchor stocks, and also revealed ones which local fishermen had already found, like the commander’s bronze seal which had been living in someone’s toolbox. And then, more recently, other projects have brought up bones, leather armour scraps, bronze mirrors, tortoiseshell combs, helmets, bundles of arrows, and a bowl with its owner’s name: Wang, commander of one hundred men. They also found bombs, ceramic bombs packed with gunpowder and pieces of iron shrapnel, real 13th-century explosives, and then, in 2002, hundreds of pieces of the wooden ships themselves were brought up from beneath several feet of mud, some marked by fire. 

They were made of camphor, a wood commonly found in Chinese boat construction, but they were not shining examples of that industry. The Southern Song navy that had been passed on to Kublai, is said to have included iron armour, Greek fire flamethrowers, gunpowder bombs hurled by trebuchets, and sailors experienced in combat with coastal raiders, pirates, and Mongols, and in protecting the increasingly important trade by water which land pressures had necessitated. 

These people were not new to the sea; however, the final decades of the Song had been hard on them. Corruption, inefficiencies, and the grotesque cost of staving off the Mongols had badly depleted resources which were not making it through. An official report on the state of one naval base in the 1230s found that of 5,000 men, a mere 500 were in any state to serve; quote, “the rest of the men were weary, dispirited, deaf, moronic, emaciated, short and frail. Look at them and one can see what the men [in other bases] are like. They cannot ride the waves and thrust with their spears. This is the result of thirty years of neglect. They cannot be used for combat and yet they cannot be demobilized.” They were not exactly the cream of the crop.  

Closer examination suggests that the boats found off the coast of Japan were rather shoddily put together, the products of rushed builds or repairs, with several pieces of wood made to do the job of a few strong ones and in places held together with rough clusters of nails. There were all sorts of signs that the work was poorly done, and it’s possible that it wouldn’t have needed such a great storm to scatter these ships to the ocean floor. Maybe just a regular storm would do. 

Some of the other finds too, the jars and anchors in particular, speak to similar problems, with shortcuts of all kinds seeming to indicate quick and crude preparation on the part of the khan’s forces, either with an eye more to meeting a Mongol khan’s deadline than to matching any level of quality control or because that navy still hadn’t recovered. Tellingly, the chronicles and the archaeological record both indicate that the Korean fleet was not sent to the bottom by the storm. It simply turned for home once the mission had so clearly failed.  

The pieces recovered also reveal another aspect to the invasion. There has been very little definitively Mongol material found; it’s mostly Chinese, so maybe it’s not right to speak in terms of a Mongol invasion of Japan at all. More accurately, Kublai Khan was responsible for two Yuan Empire invasions of Japan, but both would fail, whether through a lack of readiness, internal conflict at the command level, skill and steadiness on the part of the defenders, or the weather itself, perhaps divinely ordered, perhaps not. The likely answer, lazy as it may sound, looks like being all of the above.   

Marco Polo had brought many tall tales home with him. This one, of the invasion of Japan by Kublai Khan’s Yuan Empire and of fractured leadership and a storm contributing to its failure, has largely been borne out by all we’ve learned since. There’s been no progress as to those “diabolical charms” which Marco had described, the ones that rendered their wearer impervious to blades, and it seems reasonable to conclude that talk of Mongol survivors snatching up undefended principle cities was just a face-saving fabrication, but the rest of it all seems to be pretty solid. 

Kublai’s failure to take Japan revealed a new weakness in Yuan power and an inability to project it over the sea, and it wasn’t a unique stumble for the khan. Late in his life, he poured money and men into a series of expeditions that broke down in the tropical heat, forests, and disease of southeast Asia, his armies finding Vietnam every bit as difficult to subdue as future empires would. In Japan and elsewhere, late-career Kublai overextended himself and came away with little to show for it, only a severe financial burden that had to be shouldered by his increasingly unsupportive Chinese subjects and managed by a series of roundly despised financial administrators.     

And that’s where we’ll leave things for today. I’ll be back again in a few weeks with more from the universe of Marco Polo and Kublai Khan. As you may have noticed, plans sometimes change episode to episode, so I don’t want to be too definitive on what the next one will include, but I think we’ll be going to Vietnam.


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