Daibutsu, Kamakura

Daibutsu, Kamakura
Daibutsu in Kamakura, June 2010. There were thousands of school kids visiting that day. It was still great fun.

Monday, March 09, 2009

The Mongol Invasions of Japan and the Kamikaze

The Kamakura Bakufu was the first shogunate in Japanese history. It was ruled by the great Minamoto clan. However, for much of the later Kamakura period, the shogunate was ruled by powerful regents from the Hojo clan. It was during the rule of Tokimune Hojo that the powerful Mongol Hordes attempted to invade Japan.

The Mongols were one of the greatest warrior empires in human history. At their peak, the Mongol empire stretched from Persia to China. In the 13th century, all of eastern Asia, from Sakhalin to Java was under the control of the Mongol warriors. After China, Korea was invaded, starting in 1231, despite the Koreans' heroic resistance that lasted almost half a century.

In 1266, Kublai Khan set his sights on Japan and sent, via the Koreans, official letters requesting the commencement of friendly relations, accompanied by the following threatening statement: "It would displease us to have to use force." But the Hojo leaders in Kamakura did not budge, and Kublai Khan grew impatient.

In 1274, backed by Korean and Chinese auxiliaries, the Mongols landed on the coast of Kyushu to begin their invasion of Japan. Although the combat lasted for only one day, it was unusually brutal. The Mongol invaders used poisoned arrows and all sorts of deafening explosive devices the likes the Japanese samurai warriors had never before witnessed. Surprised by these new weapons, the samurai warriors became disoriented and the Mongols began to gain the advantage. But a storm arose in the evening and the Mongols were forced to retreat to their ships.

Preoccupied with the conquest of Southern China (the Southern Song dynasty fell in 1279), the Mongols delayed their second campaign against Japan until 1281. This time, however, their attack was much larger, consisting of one of the largest invasion fleets in human history. Popular estimates state that the fleet carried as many as 140,000 Mongol, Chinese, and Korean warriors in several thousand ships. However, as military numbers are notoriously exaggerated from the sources of the day, the actual numbers of Mongol forces is probably closer to about 10,000 or so and Japanese forces maybe half that. The Mongol forces included both Chinese and Korean soldiers forced to fight by their Mongol overlords.

The Japanese had fortified the coasts of Kyushu just as they had in 1274. But the Mongols ravaged the Japanese islands off the coast; Tsushima, in particular, paid a heavy toll in human lives. Then they landed on Kyushu, but this time the Japanese warriors knew their enemy.

Thanks to stone walls and battle expertise, the samurai warriors kept the formidable Mongol cavalry from deploying and pinned it to the coast. After several weeks of fierce and bloody combat, the Mongols managed to establish a small beachhead, but they later had to abandon it due fierce samurai resistance and withdraw to the already conquered small islands to regroup. Then, just as in 1274, another storm arose apparently came to help finish off the already hopelessly bloodied Mongol forces. Thousands of Mongol, Chinese, and Korean survivors , trapped on the island, fell to Japanese swords.

This test was a victory for the Shogun and for the warriors in general. But it was also a victory for the Kyoto court and the Emperor who had ordered prayers for the safety of the country. It was also a victory for the Shinto shrines, which twice prevailed on the country's gods to intervene in the form of divine winds (kamikaze) against the enemy. Many historians believe that the Mongol's defeat was the beginning of the end of the Mongol empire.

The Japanese victory over the Mongols strengthened the belief in the Japanese divinity (at least among the Imperial Court). The belief that Japan was blessed by the gods and the gods would always protect Japan, just as they did by helping destroy the Mongol fleet with the Kamikaze. This belief in the Japanese divinity would last for 800 years leading to another belief that the kamikaze would again save Japan. That belief finally came to an end under the obliteration of American bombs in World War II.

This belief in the Japanese national divinity may actually not have been as widespread as believed however, at least among the warriors. Most likely the samurai who fought the Mongols, fought not just personal glory, but for reward as well. Rather than the idea that they fought for a divine nation, their real goal was to defeat the foreign invaders and to be rewarded by the bakufu for their efforts.