How Tiny Japan Survived the Great Mongol Empire Invasion

How Tiny Japan Survived the Great Mongol Empire Invasion

Once, there was an unstoppable force called the Mongol Empire. Founded by an orphan boy called Temujin, he single-handedly expanded the empire across Eurasia through mass genocides while also promoting meritocracy and religious tolerance. This man, later known as Genghis Khan, had a grandson called Kublai Khan, who extended their power throughout China.

On the other side of the sea, there was an immovable object called Japan. This island was virtually isolated from the rest of the world. They kept to themselves – mostly by drawing calligraphy and hiring a lot of samurais to fight wars amongst each other. In fact, there were too many samurais that they overthrew the king and became a military government, also known as shogunate. Oh, there was also the issue of piracy (the eye-patched bandits, not the bootleg DVD seller), who were causing troubles to the neighbouring countries.

One fateful day, Kublai Khan thought to himself, Meh, how about we cross the sea and claim that little island?

Japan said to the Mongols, “How about no”

A statue of Kublai Khan. Image credit: ThoughtCo

And Kublai Khan did address Japan as a ‘little island’. In 1266, Kublai Khan send diplomats with a letter asking Japan to ‘Establish friendly relations’, because ‘As for using soldiers and weapons, who would want that?’

In other words, it could be interpreted as a passive-aggressive way of saying, Hey how about you submit to us before we obliterate the shii..take out of you? But Japan didn’t answer.

Other diplomats were sent again five times over the next six years, yet Japan still didn’t answer.

Tired of waiting diplomatically, the Khan prepared for an attack.

First invasion of 1274 – Saved by nature’s grace

Battle of Hakata Bay. Image credit to Weapons and Warfare.

Khan wanted to launch the attack as early as 1268 but his counsellors advised against it as they didn’t have enough resources to do so. The Mongols then conquered China and entered into relations with Koreans by royal marriage, making the empire much more powerful.

In 1274, the Mongols managed to gather an army of 40,000 men, mostly comprising of Chinese and Korean soldiers. And Japan? With never-ending squabbling within themselves, they only mustered 10,000 samurai warriors.

However, Japan’s weakness was not just in their numbers, but also their fighting style. The samurai army had a code called bushido, where an individual samurai would step out, announce his name and lineage, and call out for a one-on-one combat. This would’ve worked in a modern-day Yu-Gi-Oh tournament, but not during international warfare. Naturally, when faced with a lone warrior in the middle of the battlefield, the Mongols responded with a raining fury of poison-tipped arrows and fire-bombs (the latter being a new technology at the time).

Tetsuhau, the world’s oldest anti-personnel explosive. Image credit: Weapons and Warfare.

First, the Mongols took over the islands of Tsushima and Iki. The outnumbered Japanese force was defeated one by one. Only a miracle could save them.

And a miracle did happen.

The Mongols arrived at Hakata Bay, where they initially had the upper hand in the battle until the night fell where strong wind and heavy rain began to lash the coast. The Chinese and Korean sailors requested the Mongolian generals to let them retreat into the sea out of fear of being marooned in Hakata Bay. And so they did, straight into the arms of approaching typhoons.

Two hundred Mongol ships were reportedly lost at sea while others were taken by the Japanese. The Mongols suffered a big blow with 13,000 of their men killed in this invasion.

Second invasion of 1281 – Saved by nature’s grace, again

A painting of the wall of Hakata Bay. Image credit: KCP International.

The Battle of Hakata Bay was a victory, but also a warning that Japan took seriously. The leaders ordered the residents to build a wall that would defend the coasts, while the priests prayed to their god of war.

Kublai Khan tried the diplomatic method once again by sending a delegation to Japan, this time refusing to let them to come back until they got an answer. Naturally, Japan responded by… beheading the diplomats. Which was not cool at all, because you don’t kill the messenger!

Enraged by the act, Kublai Khan prepared to launch another attack, knowing that his defeat previously had simply been bad luck and not the power of the samurais. In fact, he was so enraged that a new government division was established called the Ministry of Conquering Japan. The Khan really meant business.

The second invasion force comprised roughly 140,000 men split into two armies. And Japan? While being better prepared with 40,000 soldiers, they were still way outnumbered (some sources cited that both of these numbers could be inaccurate and/or exaggerated).


The smaller Korean fleet of the Mongols first reached Hakata Bay but was unable to breach the Japanese defensive wall. While waiting for their larger reinforcement, the samurais weakened their opponents by stealthily rowing in small boats to the Mongol ships, setting fire and attacking their men, then rowing back to land.

The Korean fleet got demotivated, some of whom had only been conquered and had no love for the king. The Japanese on the other hand, fought with desperate bravery with little hope of survival, especially when the larger Chinese fleet of the Mongols arrived at the beach. Only a second miracle could save them.

And a second miracle did happen.

Painting of Mongol fleet being hit by the typhoon. Image credit: War History Online.

Another huge typhoon hit Hakata Bay, ending it all. A large number of the Mongol soldiers drowned in the storm, while the rest that reached the island either starved or got killed by samurais. The armada was almost completely wiped out, with only very few returned to tell the tale.

The Japanese called the two typhoons kamikaze, or ‘strong winds’, believing them to be sent by the gods. Kublai Khan seemed to agree on this supernatural forces and abandoned the whole invasion idea altogether. The one who lost the most, however, was the current shogunate. They weren’t able to pay the samurais and the priests and later was overthrown by another shogunate.

The lesson? You don’t mess with the typhoons

One of the biggest cultural and historical impacts from these invasions was the term Kamikaze, which was later used by the Japanese in World War II to refer to Japanese pilots, who deliberately crashed their planes into enemy targets.

The invasion is also said to have given birth to Katana, the most iconic weapon of Japanese culture today. Since the Mongol armies were equipped with thick leather armour, the previous tachi swords of the samurais tended to chip off upon contact. Japanese blacksmiths then began experimenting with new techniques, thus inventing the katana.

Today, most of the war sites are now called Chuo, Hakata and Higashi wards of the city Fukuoka. In Higashi, a shrine called The Hakozaki Shrine, which saw some of the fiercest battles was rebuilt and revered for its role during the war.

MK was once involved in a magic gig. You know the trick where they cut a person into half? He was one of the halves.

Send this to a friend