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Relics of the Kamikaze: Facing the Khan's Wrath Volume 56 Number 1, January/February 2003
by James P. Delgado

Matching wits with Kublai Khan, Japan's military leaders built a wall at Hakata Bay in 1276. Five years later, the samurai halted one wave of invaders there. Parts of the wall have been restored. (James P. Delgado) [LARGER IMAGE]

Kublai Khan's ascendancy to leadership of the Mongols, fraught with internal dissension and civil war, coincided with his long and difficult conquest of China. Needing to obtain additional resources and to demonstrate his power and legitimacy as the Mongol ruler, Kublai, grandson of Genghis Khan, opened a second front in Japan even as he fought the last remnants of China's Sung Dynasty for control of the mainland. The khan sent envoys, demanding the Japanese submit, but the bakufu, Japan's military rulers, rebuffed them. In 1274, with the assistance of his Korean vassal state of Koryo, the khan assembled a fleet that historical accounts suggest was as large as 900 ships to ferry 23,000 troops across the narrow, 110-mile straits of Tsushima, which separate the Korean peninsula from Kyushu. Sailing from Koryo in early October, the fleet overwhelmed Japanese defenders on the islands of Tsushima and Iki before landing at the ancient trading port of Hakata (modern Fukuoka). The Japanese were waiting for them with a force of about 6,000 samurai and gokenin, or armed retainers. Japanese sources suggest that the battle, while hard fought, was going badly for them. The samurai, who fought as individuals, were no match for the Mongols with their tactics of fighting en masse, and their use of poison-dipped arrows and catapult-launched exploding shells. After a week of battle, the Japanese had retreated ten miles inland to Daizafu, the fortified capital of Kyushu. The invaders looted and burned Hakata, but wary of Japanese reinforcements and perhaps the weather on a coast notorious for typhoons, the fleet commanders prepared to withdraw. On October 20, the wind shifted and blew hard. The fleet, with some ships dragging anchor and drifting to shore, departed. Most historical accounts claim as many as 300 ships and 13,500 men were lost in the "storm" that ended the first invasion, but others suggest that the majority of ships simply escaped with the changing wind, with only a handful wrecking on the beach.

Kublai Khan sent more envoys to demand subservience from the Japanese, but the bakufu, emboldened by the retreat from Hakata, continued their defiance, executing the khan's ambassadors. The bakufu also strengthened their defenses, relocating loyal samurai to estates near Hakata and, in 1276, ordering them to build a 12.4-mile-long stone wall along the coast; it was completed in six months' time. The samurai at Hakata organized local fishermen and traders into a coastal naval force of small craft and trained the local inhabitants as a defense force.

The khan and his vassals had not been idle. Chinese histories report that Kublai ordered Koryo to build 900 ships and assemble 10,000 troops for a new invasion. In China, drawing from the newly defeated Sung navy and new ships built expressly for the invasion, Kublai reportedly gathered a force of 3,500 ships and 100,000 troops. Sailing separately in May 1281, the two fleets were supposed to rendezvous at Iki Island in the straits of Tsushima.

But the Korean force, after recapturing Iki from the Japanese, sailed on for Hakata without waiting for the larger Chinese force. The Japanese, alerted by spies, were waiting for them. Thwarted by the stone wall fortifying the beach, the invaders fell back to Shikanoshima Island in the middle of Hakata Bay. Japanese defense craft raided the fleet as it lay at anchor, samurai warriors springing onto the decks of the enemy ships to fight it out with their crews. Other craft were set on fire and sent drifting into the mass of enemy warships. Finally, the Koryo fleet retreated to Iki Island, its role in the invasion over.

The Chinese contingent, after a delay, finally sailed in June and arrived at the small island of Takashima in Imari Bay, 31 miles south of Hakata. Weeks of battle on the small island's shores and hilly countryside were at best a stalemate for the defenders when a sudden storm mauled the fleet on the evening of July 30. According to Japanese records, most of the invading ships were driven ashore and sank, killing nearly all of the 100,000 invaders. At the entrance to Imari Bay, says one Japanese account, "a person could walk across from one point of land to another on a mass of wreckage."

Kublai Khan never again sent a force against Japan. He abruptly canceled plans for a third invasion in 1286. The Japanese embarked on a series of punitive raids against Korea and China, many of them more piratical than naval. If there was a policy, it was found in Japan's ultimate retreat into the solitude and security of their home islands, which they now believed were protected by the gods, who twice had sent winds and storms to thwart an enemy's ambitions. The myth of that protecting force, the kamikaze, would not die until seven centuries later, in the last desperate months of World War II.

© 2003 by the Archaeological Institute of America