The Freak Storm That Saved Japan From The Mongols (Twice)

By Aaron Short on Monday, February 10, 2014
“The essence of life is to die like a true samurai.” —The Divine Wind

In A Nutshell

In 1274, Genghis Khan’s grandson launched one of the most massive invasions in history against Japan. Japan’s samurai code almost cost them the war, but they were saved by a massive freak storm. Seven years later, Kublai Khan invaded again, but he was once again defeated by a divine wind from the heavens.

The Whole Bushel

In 1259, Genghis Khan’s grandson, Kublai Khan, became the leader of the Mongol Empire. They owned the greater part of China, and even Korea paid them tribute to avoid an invasion. It was at this point they set their sights on Japan.

They sent Japan an ultimatum: Send us tribute to avoid a war. Japan ignored this. They also ignored the various emissaries that Kublai Khan sent them. Kublai Khan began construction of up to 600 ships, and gathered an army of 40,000 Mongols, Koreans, and Chinese soldiers. All Japan could muster was 10,000 samurai, all from the various samurai clans who were more used to fighting each other than outside enemies.

In 1274, the Mongols began their invasion. They approached Japan like a storm, easily conquering the small islands between Korea and Japan and then landing on Kyushu. The samurai were completely unprepared for Mongol warfare. Lone samurai would step forward and perform the samurai customs of shouting out their name and and house and then expect the Mongols to also send out one high-born fighter. Instead the Mongols, Chinese, and Koreans attacked each single samurai en masse. If the larger numbers and differing ideas about warfare weren’t enough, the Mongols had bows that fired twice as far as the Japanese, explosives which could be launched from catapults, and poison-tipped arrows.

But, luckily for the Japanese, in a weird twist of fate, when they returned to the ships for the night, a typhoon appeared and smashed their fleet, killing 13,000 people. They had no choice but to curse their luck and return home. It was seven years later, in 1281, when the Mongols next tried to invade. This time they had a combined force of 140,000 warriors, one of the most massive in history—135,000 more than the Normans had when they invaded Britain.

The Japanese had learned from their earlier mistakes. They built coastal fortifications, and when the Mongols got to shore they forgot about their knightly samurai code and formed defensive lines. Even though they put up a brave fight, it was only a matter of time before they were completely overrun. Then, another typhoon appeared. This time the Mongols heeded the warnings of the Koreans among them and tried to put out to sea, but in the struggle to do so, their ships began to smash into each other. Half of Kublai Khan’s army was killed and the rest who made it to shore were slaughtered. Kublai Khan survived, made it home with only a handful of ships, and never tried to invade Japan again. Once again, the Mongol invasion had been stopped by luck. Later, the Japanese would coin the phrase kamikaze (“divine wind”) in reference to the event.

Show Me The Proof

Encyclopaedia Britannica: Kamikaze of 1274 and 1281
This Day in History: Kamikaze Saves Japan From Mongol Invasion, Again
BBC News: Ship from failed Mongol invasion found off Japan