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Ages of Conquest: a Kings and Generals Podcast

Jul 20, 2020

For most who experienced the Mongol invasions first hand, it was a sight of untold horror, an unstoppable enemy bringing fire and ruin. For Takezaki Suenaga, a samurai who fought against the Mongols in both of their failed invasions of Japan, it was a chance for the highest glory, and none could restrain him from taking the field against them. For the second episode in our Ghost of Tsushima -themed week, we present the story of a historical samurai who fought the Mongols, one who provided us with a set of illustrated scrolls which described his exploits. Today, we’re going to go through the account of Takezaki Suenaga, a rare opportunity to see how one man experienced the Mongol invasions first hand. Perhaps you’ll be able to compare his experiences with those of the player character, Jin, in Ghost of Tsushima. I’m your host David, and this is Kings and Generals: Ages of Conquest.


    Very little is known of Takezaki Suenaga prior to the invasions. He was a gokenin, a ‘houseman,’ a minor samurai from Higo province of Kyushu island, the southernmost of the main five of the Japanese home islands. He was part of the Takezaki clan, owned lands, could provide himself a horse, armour and bring 5 retainers to battle- about average for warriors from Kyushu, but slightly more than what the common samurai of Honshu, the largest Japanese island, could muster. 29 years old on the eve of the first Mongol invasion in 1274, Suenaga was known to have been involved in a land dispute which had put his personal finances in great jeopardy. Beyond such broad strokes, his early life is lost to us.


Higo Province, located in western Kyushu, was comparatively close to the strategic 

Hakata Bay, the large, natural harbour which any invasion fleet departing southern Korea would certainly strike for. Suenaga, living in Higo Province, was probably put on warning from 1268 onwards, when the Japanese government, the Kamakura Bakufu, began to prepare for a possible Mongol invasion. The details of this buildup of tension between Japan and Kublai Khan was explained in our previous episode, and we won’t reiterate that here. The Mongol invasion fleet departed Korea early in November 1274, swiftly taking the islands of Tsushima and Iki. As the fleet neared Hakata Bay, the warriors of Kyushu were mobilized, Suenaga among them.  In theory, the warrior would fight together with families of shared lineage, but were under no obligation to do so. Suenaga was part of the Takezaki clan, but operated nearly totally independently of them. By the time he and his men, all on horseback, arrived near the area of Hakata Bay, the Mongols had already broken through the defensive line. Suenaga had trained since childhood in archery, swordsmanship and riding; he had his own colourful set of yoroi armour, rows of iron lamellar and lacquered leather laced together. His principal weapon was the long, asymmetrical yumi, the Japanese warbow, a heavier bow than that utilized by the Mongols. In his small party was a bannerman to mark Suenaga’s location on the battlefield. The sword- not yet the famous katana,which developed in the 14th century- was the dignified sidearm, though the longer, spear-like naginata was more commonly used once the enemy was too close for bow-work.


When Suenaga arrived, the Mongols had already established a temporary camp at Akasaka, some kilometres inland. The commander in charge of the gathering samurai was Shoni Kagesuke.  He ordered those samurai who were already approaching Akasaka, Suenaga among them, to fall back and await reinforcements. As it was poor terrain, they hoped to encourage the Mongols to come to them, lose their formation and then allow Japanese archery to tear at them. Suenaga followed the order, and once the various warriors were recalled and far from the enemy, Suenaga spurred his horse onwards, saying, “Waiting for the general will cause us to be late to battle. Of all the warriors of the clan, I Suenaga will be the first to fight from Higo!”


In Japanese warfare of the period, men were rewarded for valour in combat, being the first to enter battle, taking enemy heads or losing men of their own. Rewards included fine garments, horses, even lands. For a relatively poor samurai like Suenaga who could quite possibly lose his expensive armour, weapons and horse in the battle, not to mention faced dispossession of his lands, such rewards made all the difference. The prestige itself from heroic acts in combat could not be dismissed, either. The problem was that these were powerful incentives against patiently waiting for orders.  As Suenaga rode on, one of commander Kagesuke’s retainers called on Suenaga to dismount and wait, to which he replied, “We five are going to fight before you. We won’t limit ourselves to merely shooting down the enemy! I have no purpose in life but to advance and be known!” Kagesuke recognized that he’d be unable to hold Suenaga back, and told him that he would be witness to him. This was an important aspect to this reward system: unless someone could bring severed heads of the enemy, he needed witnesses, preferably multiple, who could vouch for the samurai’s actions. If the multiple witnesses provided contrasting details, then the Bakufu could dismiss the account.


On his ride to Akasaka, Suenaga encountered some Samurai returning, carrying severed heads of the enemy. Learning that the Mongols had abandoned Akasaka and were retreating to the beach in two main bodies, Suenaga drove his horse onwards ever faster. Pursuing the smaller of the two retreating Mongol forces, Suenaga was frustrated when he rode his horse right into mud flats. By the time he freed his horse, the Mongols had stopped at Sohara. Here he was finally about to close with his enemy, when one of his own retainers stopped him, urging him to wait for the oncoming Japanese reinforcements: better chances of victory, and witnesses, for his actions. In typical fashion, Suenaga dismissed his concerns, shouting: “The way of the bow and arrow is to do what is worthy of reward. Charge!” By then the Mongols had pressed on, reaching the beach and open ground. To Suenaga’s credit, he mentions  his bannerman was the first one out. The small party of samurai were met with a hail of Mongol arrows. The bannerman’s horse was shot out from under him and he was thrown; Suenaga and three other retainers were injured by arrows, and finally his own horse was struck, throwing him into the sand. This is the most famous scene in the illustrated scrolls, which shows Suenaga being thrown forward off his horse while blood spills copiously from the wound.  In the illustration, a bomb is being set off nearby. The presence of this bomb is generally taken to be a later addition to the art, drawn in a different style. Had the Mongols thrown explosives at Suenaga, doubtless he would have mentioned surviving such a terrifying weapon. The likely archaeological remains of such bombs have been found; this specific party of Mongols is just unlikely to have lobbed them at Suenaga.


Thrown from his horse, Mongol arrows raking his small party, Suenaga admits in his narrative that he would have died there, had it not been for a timely charge of a formidable unit of samurai cavalry from Hizen province. It’s commander, Shiroishi Rokuro Michiyasu (shi-roy-shi Ro-ko-ru Mich-i-yasu), rode right through the Mongol line, rider and horse miraculously emerging unscathed. Suenaga was evidently impressed by this, and acted as witness for him. Another gokenin was not so lucky: Suenaga watched the man bestruck in the neck by an arrow. After brief fighting, the Mongol party they had been chasing fled, evidently reached their ships, and thus ended Suenaga’s part in the first Mongol invasion of Japan.  The fleet soon departed, pushed back to Korea by strong winds, as we covered previously. Suenaga, by the way, never mentions anything regarding divine winds or storms, presenting a victory entirely through Japanese force of arms. 


The next event in the narrative presented in Suenaga’s scrolls is the most detailed, wherein he travels to Kamakura city to try and get his rewards in 1275. To pay for the journey, Suenaga had to sell horse and saddle, and took the trip from Kyushu to Kamakura. There he met with little luck. The officials of the court ignored his requests, deeming him a minor, insignificant warrior. Here, Suenaga gives the most attribution to divinely inspired favour. Visiting a nearby shrine of Hachiman, the war god, and praying fervently, he returned and was in time to speak with the Office of Appeals. There he met with its administer, Adachi Yasumori, military governor of Suenaga’s home Higo province, one of the most powerful men in Japan and father-in-law to the shikken and Japan’s de facto ruler, Hojo Tokimune.  Suenaga told his story to Yasumori, and learned that Kagesuke’s brother, Tsunesuke, the military governor of Chikuzen province, had not mentioned Suenaga’s exploits in his report on the battle. Lacking this evidence, with neither dead retainers or enemy heads to show for it, Suenaga emphatically declared that if Kagesuke said under oath that Suenaga was lying, then they could take his head. Finally, Yasumori decided to take Suenaga’s deeds straight to the highest authority, the shikken Hojo Tokimune. Suenaga was recognized, rewarded with a fine horse and saddle, and had his land dispute settled in his favour. Of the 120 samurai rewarded for the 1274 invasion, Suenaga was also the only one who received commendation from the shogun. Yasumori’s actions evidently touched Suenaga, who commemorates him in the scrolls and in his will, urged his descendants to serve loyally the house of Adachi. 


The Bakufu was generally reluctant to pay out these rewards. Normally as fighting was between the Japanese, confiscated lands and goods from the losing side were made the rewards for valourous samurai. But, fighting against a foreign enemy who retreated back over the sea, meant such rewards essentially had to be paid out of pocket by the Bakufu. A temporary measure to this was to forbid samurai like Suenaga from leaving Kyushu to make the trip to Kamakura to demand rewards, citing reasons of military defence. For the Kamakura Bakufu, this was to become a rather dangerous matter for them in coming years, and our next episode.


Hojo Tokimune and the Bakufu readily realized the victory in 1274 was not an end to the war. The Mongols would return, and in greater force. For this, an even greater effort was thrown into the defences. For over 20 kilometres around Hakata Bay a sea wall was built at likely beachheads, in places 3 metres high and 3 metres wide. Warriors from the provinces of Kyushu were to serve 3 months guard duty along the coast. The shugo positions, the military governors, came under more direct rule of the Hojo clan to strengthen its coordination abilities. Temples were ordered to pray for the nation, and in the final months of 1275 there was even discussion of a retaliatory attack against Korea, though it is difficult to judge if these preparations ever went past discussion.


With the conquest of the Song Dynasty in 1279, Kublai Khan now had ample men and resources for side projects, such as punishing the insolent Japanese archipelago. It was by all accounts a massive undertaking: 40,000 Northern Chinese, Mongolian and Korea troops departing from Korea aboard 900 ships, and as many as 100,000 men from the territories of the former Song Dynasty departing southern China aboard 3,500 ships.  It was immense, likely the largest seaborne invasion before D-Day in 1944, and only barely lurched from the gate. Many of the vessels were repurposed ships designed for rivers in southern China, not open ocean. Others were hastily constructed, built to hurriedly meet the deadline of an impatient Great Khan. The northern fleet, manned by experienced Korean sailors aboard sturdier ships, was ready to go, with a timetable to link up with the southern fleet at Iki island. The southern fleet was held up by the death of a commander, while its provisions spoiled in the warmth of south China. Frustrated, the northern fleet set out on its own;  by the 10th June 1281, Iki island was occupied, and again the fleet set out for Kyushu’s Hakata Bay. The Japanese sea-wall did its work. The Yuan Dynasty armada could not force a landing, well-protected Japanese archers repulsing efforts to land. For two months the fleet was essentially held in standstill, occupying Shiga island and unable to take advantage of the southern fleet’s arrival and disembarking on Kyushu. 


With the enemy at sea, when the 35 year old Takezaki Suenaga arrived at Hakata Bay, he had a problem. He didn’t have a boat. Since the Mongols were not coming to them, and hungry for glory, the samurai were taking their small vessels out to sea, boarding the Yuan ships and fighting there. Suenaga and his retainers ran along the beach, looking for ships to take them but none had room. When hope seemed lost, the flag of Adachi Yasumori was spotted on a ship. Boarding a messenger skiff unsuited to the deeper waters where the Mongol fleet was, Suenaga and his retainers reached Yasomuri’s vessel. To the great displeasure of Yasumori’s retainers, Suenaga jumped aboard their ship. He told them he was ordered there by the military governor, and had to be on the ship- which Yasumori’s men saw right through, and ordered him to be thrown off. Suenaga cried that if they just gave him a small boat of his own, he’d leave on his own accord, but somehow that didn’t convince them. 


Suenaga tried this same trick on the boat of another lord, Tsumori, where he annoyed them enough that they let him on board. There was no space for Suenaga’s retainers, who complained but could only watch him sail away. Such is the way of the bow and arrow, Suenaga simply wrote on that. In the process Suenaga forgot to grab his helmet, and fashioned an impromptu defence out of two shinguards he tied to his head.  Finally they neared an enemy ship, and in the process of trying to board Suenaga was injured. Frustrated, Suenaga threw his bow away, grabbed a naginata and roared at the rowers to bring them closer to the enemy ship-  only by then the rowers were trying to push them away, fearing for their life. Switching ships again, Suenaga finally got his boarding action later that afternoon, in which he suffered another wound. To his pleasure, his name was the first from the province to be entered into the report for the battle. 


His final engagement with the Mongols was taking part in driving them from Shiga island. One of Suenaga’s retainers and a relative were injured in that battle, and two of their horses killed. The Yuan fleet had it worse. Bickering between the Mongolian, Chinese and Korean commanders hampered them, while the soldiers from South China fought poorly, seeing little incentive to die for foreign masters in a foreign land. The lack of progress raised tensions, provisions ran low, and the fleet was on the verge of retreat when on the 15th of August, 1281, the sea began to churn. With a storm oncoming, the men loaded onto the ships and tried to set out for deeper waters. A typhoon, rising unseasonably early, punished the fleet design. The riverine Chinese ships of the southern fleet were annihilated, brought to the depths or tossed onto the rocks. The archaeological remnants found on the sea floor by Takashima island mark their deep graves. The larger Korean vessels designed for open waters fared better; whereas half of the southern fleet was estimated to have been destroyed, only a third of the northern shared the same fate. Survivors who made it to shore, on Kyushu and the neighbouring islands, were hunted down and killed, though some mercy was shown to Southern Chinese- their fate was to be slaves to the Japanese. So ended the second Mongol attempt to invade Japan. Kublai Khaan was furious and demanded a third attack, but we will discuss this in our next episode.


Suenaga, in typical fashion, mentions none of this once his part in the fighting was done. Suenaga’s scrolls were compiled between 1293-1324, and were concerned with his personal exploits and commemorating Adachi Yasumori, murdered in 1285, rather than an overall view of the campaign. The existence of the scrolls themselves is quite unusual for someone living well outside the capital, and were an expensive undertaking. Extensive battle scenes are portrayed, highly detailed armours, horses and dozens of warriors. While his position in 1274 had been humble, he earned himself a pretty penny after the second invasion, primarily through donations people made to a shrine he controlled, and lending seeds at usurious rates. When the farmers failed to pay back the loan, Suenaga seized their lands. For Suenaga, the scrolls were an expensive endeavour, requiring foresight generally uncommon to the samurai of the period. The fact the scrolls survived for us is remarkable: the Takezaki clan lost them in the late fourteenth century when fighting spread through their lands and the scrolls, among other possessions, were seized. They traded between families; at one point, their owners died during the Japanese invasion of Korea in the 1500s. Not until the 1700s did they begin to be copied, and in 1890 they were handed over to Emperor Meiji: today, they sit in Japan’s Museum of the Imperial Collections. If you have seen medieval artwork of the Mongol invasion of Japan, you are looking at one of the illustrations from the scrolls. A full translation by Thomas Conlan can be found in his work, In Little Need of Divine Intervention: Takezaki Suenaga’s Scrolls of the Mongol Invasion of Japan, and provide a fascinating look at a man who perhaps best embodied the ideals of 13th century samurai culture. 


If you’re eager for more from us on the Mongol invasions of Japan, please check out the previous episode in our series, and the latest video on our Youtube Channel, Kings and Generals. Our next podcast episode, will wrap up our short series on Japan, detailing the consequences of the invasion on both the Japanese and the Mongol Empire, and its longer historical legacy. Once that is complete, we will return to our original narrative timeline! To help us keep bringing you great content, please consider supporting us on Patreon at www.patreon/kingsandgenerals. I’m your host David, and we’ll catch you on the next one