In the early 13th century, Genghis Khan and his armies swept throughout Asia to create one of the largest empires in history. But did Genghis Khan ever invade Japan?
Genghis Khan never invaded Japan, but his grandson Kublai Khan attempted to invade Japan twice, once in 1274 and once again in 1281. Although both Mongol invasions failed, they had significant political and cultural impacts on Japan.
To find out more about the Mongol invasions of Japan, read on.
The Invasion of 1274
In May 1260, Kublai Khan was crowned as the Khagan of the Mongol Empire, inheriting the title from his brother Möngke and leading to a civil war that lasted until 1264, preceding a period of disunity in the empire.
While the Mongol Empire was now fraught with internal conflict, Kublai Khan set about expanding his territory in East Asia and campaigned to conquer the Kingdom of Goryeo in the Korean Peninsula as a vassal in 1270, while pushing to conquer all of China in the 1260s and 1270s. He already held Mongolia and much of what is now northern China.
Kublai Khan would establish the Yuan Dynasty in China in 1271, naming himself as Emperor of China before finally defeating the Song Dynasty in 1279 and becoming the first non-Han Chinese emperor.
During Kublai Khan’s campaign to conquer the entirety of China, he sent a letter to the Japanese emperor demanding that they pay tribute. Kublai Khan received no response, with the Japanese shogun not even allowing his messengers to land on the main island of Honshu.
Angered by the Japanese, Kublai Khan prepared to launch an invasion of Japan, which was divided between competing clans and could only raise a force of around 10,000 soldiers in defense.
In 1274, the Mongols launched their first invasion of Japan from Masan in Korea with a fleet of hundreds of ships and first took the islands of Tsushima and Iki, killing all their inhabitants, before sailing east to Hakata Bay near Fukuoka.
Here, Mongol forces initially bested the Japanese samurai who fought according to the warrior code of bushido, thanks to a mix of more advanced technology and tactics. Samurai would often fight one-on-one, which made them vulnerable to attack.
After the Japanese samurai barely repelled the initial wave, Kublai Khan’s fleet was struck by a typhoon that sank an estimated third of his ships and killed around 13,000 soldiers and sailors, effectively ending the Mongol invasion.
As the conflict had been defensive, there were no new lands to give to Japanese soldiers as payment as was the normal custom, causing conflict between the Kamakura shogunate and the 10,000 samurai warriors who had fought against the Mongols.
The Invasion of 1281
Following the first invasion, Kublai Khan again sent delegations to Japan demanding that they pay tribute to the Mongol Empire. The Japanese executed the delegates and expected retribution, causing them to build large defenses in anticipation in Hakata Bay while Kublai Khan prepared an enormous attack planned for the spring of 1281.
This time, the Mongols launched a two-pronged invasion with 40,000 Korean, Chinese, and Mongol troops coming in 900 ships from Korea and a further 100,000 sailed from the south of China in 3,500 ships. The Japanese sent 40,000 warriors to defend them.
The fleet from Korea arrived in June while the Chinese fleet would not arrive until August. The Mongol forces were unable to breach the Japanese defenses and Japanese counter attacks led to the destruction of Mongol ships during night raids.
Unable to break the stalemate, the first fleet awaited the arrival of the fleet from China. When the fleets converged in August, the Mongol fleet of some 4,400 ships was hit by a second typhoon, sinking the vast majority of the ships.
This led to Kublai Khan calling off the invasion, perhaps believing that Japan was protected by supernatural forces that the Japanese called “kamikaze” or divine wind.
The Mongol Empire never again tried to invade Japan and while it had been a remarkable victory for the Japanese, the demands for payment from samurai and priests, who expected remuneration for praying for the typhoon to come, led to resentment of the Kamakura shogunate and a period of subsequent instability.
The Kamakura shogunate was overthrown by Emperor Go-Daigo in 1333 before the Ashikaga clan seized power. The kamikaze also had a significant cultural impact, with stories of the defense passing down into legend.
Indeed, up until the defeat of Japan during the Second World War in 1945, there were many in Japan who believed that divine forces would protect Japan and that they could not be defeated.