The Mongol Invasions of Japan

By Hareth Al Bustani 

In the thirteenth century, aided by suicidal courage, remarkable skill, and unbelievable luck, the samurai dared to resist the Mongol steamroller – and lived to tell the tale.

In 1259, after the death of his brother, Möngke, the fearless Kublai Khan became ruler of the Mongols. In the ensuing years, he ramped up the subjugation of China, establishing a capital at Yanjing, modern Beijing. When the Korean kingdom of Goryeo fell, with his empire stretching all the way west, into Syria and Central Europe, the Khan looked east. Although the Korean navy was exhausted, at full strength it was a force to be reckoned with – and to the insatiable Kublai, the lure of the Japanese archipelago, just across the Tsushima Strait, was too great to resist. As was the Mongol way, before launching a full-on invasion, he would send the Japanese the standard proposal: submit or face annihilation.


Kublai dispatched his first envoy to Japan in 1266, via the king of Goryeo – but was infuriated to learn the obstinate Japanese flat-out denied them entry. The next year, the enraged Khan ordered the Korean king to personally ensure his letter reached the Japanese court. At the time, Japan was ruled by a military government called the bakufu, which ruled with the blessing of a symbolic emperor. Atop the hierarchy sat a military dictator, the shōgun, who was under the thumb of the powerful Hōjō clan, controlling the realm through their monopoly of the imperial regency. The Japanese ruling class were the samurai, a group of elite warriors who adhered to a strict code of honor so severe that the painful ritualistic suicide by belly-cutting, known as seppuku, was deemed preferable to dishonor.

When Kublai’s letter finally reached the court in 1268, it was not received well. Although, on the surface, it appealed for “friendly relations,” in the shadows loomed a threatening subtext. While Kublai is referred to as the “Emperor of the Great Mongols,” the Japanese emperor is merely addressed as “the king of a little country,” implying a hierarchy of sovereignty. Moreover, the letter bragged of the Mongol conquest of Korea and questioned why the nearby Japan had not also come to offer tribute. “This must be because you are not fully informed,” it added, before finishing, “Let us enter into friendly relations with each other. Nobody would wish to resort to arms.”


Ready for War

Unwilling to entertain such boasts, the Japanese simply refused to respond. Even at the height of Chinese power, Japan had never been anyone’s vassal – and it had no intention of dishonoring its ancestors now. When his messengers returned home empty-handed, an impatient Kublai told the Korean king to mobilize 10,000 men and build him 1,000 ships for a Japanese conquest. Another envoy of 70 Koreans and Mongols returned to Japan the next year, demanding an answer – but once again, they were denied. Like the Mongols, the Japanese were already preparing for war. As the military hierarchy began reinforcing the archipelago’s coastal defenses, the imperial court prayed for safety.

When the bakufu received a letter from Korean rebels requesting support in 1271 – the same year Kublai formally established the Yuan dynasty in China – it issued an edict mobilizing warriors in the southernmost island of Kyushu: “We have received news that an invasion is imminent. All vassals who hold land in Kyushu must return to Kyushu immediately, in order to fortify the land and pacify local outlaws.”

With China’s Southern Song on the brink of defeat, the Mongol fleet set sail for Japan in November 1274, carrying 23,000 Mongol, Korean, and Chinese soldiers and 7,000 sailors. When they arrived at the island of Tsushima, to their amazement, the local samurai lord mounted a suicidal defense with just 80 cavalrymen. Incredibly, the masterful samurai archers were able to kill scores of soldiers before being overwhelmed. Eager to break this resolve, the Mongols resorted once again to their infamous terror tactics – razing down the island’s buildings and massacring its residents. After rampaging across the nearby island of Iki, the Mongol armada pressed on, hitting the Japanese mainland at Hakata Bay on 18 November.

As they watched from the shore, the samurai were horrified to see that the Mongols had taken scores of women captive, punched holes in their hands, threaded rope between them, and strung them across the bows of their ships as macabre human shields. When the two sides finally clashed the next morning, it was a rude awakening. Japanese warfare was an incredibly ritualistic, formal matter. Battles typically began with warriors screaming their names and ranks before finding a worthy enemy to fight in single combat, or with an archery duel. However, when the Japanese defenders fired a symbolic whistling arrow over the heads of the Mongols to draw the attention of the kami, or spirits, the Mongols simply burst out laughing. In response, they fired off volleys of poisoned arrows and hurled exploding bombs, blinding and maiming the samurai, to the rhythm of their war drums and gongs.


When the two sides clashed on the beach, compared to the tight Mongol formation, the 5,000 samurai defenders, who had been expecting a slower build- up to open battle, were chaotic and disorganized. Desperate to be the first warriors from their province to enter the battle, many disobeyed orders, forsaking the larger strategy and rushing headlong into the fray. Yet, they fought with suicidal courage, butchering 13,500 enemies over the course of the day. The Mongols pushed the defenders several miles inland, to the fortress of Mizuki, a long, moated earthwork built in 664. However, when a senior Mongol commander, supposedly measuring over two meters tall, was shot in the face, the invaders retreated back to their ships. With a violent storm beginning to emerge, after just a day, the Korean sailors convinced the Mongols to retreat or risk being marooned.

Samurai Bravado

Though Kublai was frustrated, he was undeterred. A year later, he sent yet another envoy to Japan, suggesting their “king” travel to Beijing to pay tribute to him. The Japanese reply was telling: they beheaded the messengers – all but inviting the full wrath of the Mongol death machine. Launching a state of emergency, Japan commissioned a fleet of warships and began building a two-meter-tall stone wall, stretching thirteen miles across Hakata Bay, set 50 meters back from the shore.

By 1281, having completed their conquest of the Song of Southern China, the Mongols directed their full attention to the obstinate Japan. This time, Kublai was said to have shipped out 40,000 Mongol, Korean, and Northern Chinese soldiers, and a further 100,000 warriors from Southern China. Though these numbers may be exaggerated, it was nonetheless an enormous invasion force. Fiercely competitive, the two fleets were each determined to beat the other to the punch. The Korean navy landed in Japan first but were kept at bay by the Japanese archers, who fired carefully from the wall, creating space for their cavalry to launch sporadic counterattacks.


Surprised by the level of Japanese organization, the Mongols anchored at a pair of nearby islands. There, having abandoned their attachment to formality and ritual, the Japanese engaged in guerrilla warfare, sending out a continuous stream of raids. Once again, the samurai spirit of bravado was on full display as warriors competed for glory, running across sand bars, hurling themselves into small boats, even swimming out and scaling Mongol warships with grappling irons.

One warrior, Kusano Jiro, led a night attack against an isolated Mongol ship, dodging stones hurled from modified Chinese siege crossbows. Using their own mast to board the ship, he and his men took 21 heads before burning the ship down. When another, Kawano Michiari, saw a heron pluck one of his men’s arrows and drop it onto the Mongol fleet, he saw it as a good omen. In the ensuing raid, even after being shot twice, he cut down a giant Mongol warrior and captured a high-ranking general.

The Japanese raids were so relentless that the Korean navy retreated further to Iki, where they linked up with 3,500 Chinese ships. They took this rather literally, binding their warships together with plank bridges and chains to prevent the Japanese from launching any more raids. As Japan prepared itself for an almighty invasion, the likes of which it had never seen before, suddenly the emperor’s prayers were answered. A massive typhoon emerged from nowhere, hurtling the Mongol ships into the cliffs and rocks and against one another. Incredibly, their chains and planks magnified the damage, as ships dragged each other down, hurling tens of thousands of men into the sea. Those who did not drown were hacked to pieces by the samurai, who spared only the Song – who they saw as unwilling participants.

Although the samurai remained on high alert until Kublai’s death in 1294, the Mongols never returned. The typhoon that saved Japan, making it one of the only forces to successfully stand up to the Mongols, was seen as an act of divine intervention – forever immortalized as “kamikaze,” or “divine wind.”


Hareth Al Bustani is the Arts & Culture Editor at the National News. Follow him on Instagram.

Further Reading:

Clements, Jonathan. A Brief History of the Samurai. Robinson, 2010.

Sansom, George. A History of Japan To 1334. Stanford University Press, 1958.

Caiger, J.G., and Richard Mason, editors. A History of Japan. 2nd ed., Tuttle Publishing, 1997.

Top Image: A 13th-century depiction of the invasion from the Mōko Shūrai Ekotoba (蒙古襲来絵詞, Illustrated Account of the Mongol Invasion) – Wikimedia Commons

This article was first published in The Medieval Magazine – a monthly digital magazine that tells the story of the Middle Ages. Learn how to subscribe by visiting their website.