What Happened When the Mongols Tried to Invade Japan?

Both of Japan’s successful defences against Mongol invasions were pivotal moments in the country’s history. After the decline of late Tang China and the retreat of the Heian court into themselves, Japanese contacts with China had been severed by the middle of the ninth century and never resumed. In following centuries, there were still some economic links maintained with southern China, despite the fact that the open waters were rendered perilous by Japanese pirates. The news of a new Mongol dynasty in Beijing came in 1268, at a period when the Bakufu had little interest in international affairs and disregarded dispatches from China and Koryo (as Korea was then called). Khubilai Khan, the commander of this group, requested that the Japanese pay tribute to the nascent Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368) and threatened retaliation against them if they did not comply with his demand. Kyoto, which was not used to facing threats of this kind, responded by raising the diplomatic counter of Japan’s divine origin, rejecting the demands of the Mongols, dismissing the emissaries from Korea, and beginning defence preparations. Following more failed attempts at persuasion, the Mongols launched their first invasion of China in 1274. More than 600 ships transported a combined army of 23,000 Mongol, Chinese, and Korean soldiers equipped with catapults, flammable rockets, and bows and arrows. All of these soldiers were carried aboard the ships. During battle, these troops fought samurai who were used to engaging in one-on-one conflict by forming close-knit formations of cavalry. After one day of warfare, the greater force from the mainland was devastated by the attack of a sudden typhoon that hit Hakata, which is located in the northern part of Kyushu. Local Japanese soldiers fought back against this force. After Khubilai came to the conclusion that the loss of his army was not the result of military ineptitude but rather the effects of nature, he decided to attempt a second invasion in the year 1281. In the northern region of Kyushu, battle continued for seven weeks until another storm arrived and destroyed the Mongol fleet for a second time.

Shinto priests credited the two victories against the Mongols to a “divine wind” (kamikaze), a symbol of heaven’s particular protection of Japan. Despite this, the invasion made a profound effect on the leaders of the bakufu. Fears that had been present for a long time over the danger posed by China to Japan were rekindled, and the Korean Peninsula began to be seen as “an arrow aimed at the heart of Japan.” The Japanese triumph, on the other hand, bestowed upon the bushi a perception of dominance in combat that persisted with Japan’s armed forces until 1945. The victory also persuaded the bushi that the bakufu style of administration was the superior system to use.

The Mongol war had been a burden on the economy, and as a result, additional levies had to be raised in order to keep up with the costs of maintaining defensive preparations for the future. Discontent also arose among people who had anticipated receiving payment for their assistance in vanquishing the Mongols as a result of the invasions. However, since there were no lands or other prizes to be offered, many people were dissatisfied with the bakufu of Kamakura. This dissatisfaction, together with overextension and rising defence expenditures, contributed to the bakufu’s fall from power. In addition to this, family holdings were being split up via inheritances, and landowners were increasingly being forced to seek help from moneylenders. An further factor that posed a risk to the stability of the bakufu was the presence of roving bands of ronin.

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