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Ages of Conquest: a Kings and Generals Podcast

Jul 27, 2020

Most popular discussions of the Mongol invasions of Japan simply end with the typhoon of 1281 wiping out the Yuan fleet off the coast of Kyushu. This was not the end of Kublai Khan’s dreams to conquer Japan though, nor do such retellings present the long term consequences of the invasion. Today, we will do just that, describing what happened in the years after the events of the new video game, Ghost of Tsushima. Our previous two episodes have discussed the first invasion in 1274, the story of Takezaki Suenaga, a samurai who fought in both invasions, and went over in brief the invasion of 1281. If you’re following Kings and Generals on Youtube, then you’ve also seen one of our newest videos, focusing on the battles on Tsushima and Iki islands. Now, we’re going to tie together everything we’ve talked about, and how this huge expenditure of men and resources affected both Japan, and Kublai Khan’s Yuan Empire. I’m your host David, but just before we get to today's content, we here at Ages of Conquest would like to say thank you to you, our listeners who download the podcast every week. Your support is greatly appreciated and the reason we do this. You could help us even more by donating through our patreon at or by leaving a five star review in your podcast app of choice! And now, this is,Ages of Conquest.


We’ll start off with the impact on Japan and then go into the consequences for Kublai later on in the episode. In Japan, the impact was significant but not immediate. In the days after the typhoon in August 1281, the Japanese killed the Mongol and Korean survivors they found. The Chinese were spared the sword, instead enslaved with few returning. Though a victory, the Japanese government, the shogunate ruling from Kamakura city, was wary. It was impossible for them to judge the full might of the Yuan, and Mongol envoys continued to arrive over the next few years demanding Japanese submission. In preparation for a third invasion, defences continued to be manned, the long sea wall built around Hakata Bay maintained, and garrisons stationed for the next 50 years. The Bakufu -the Japanese term for the shogunate- again considered launching an attack against Korea, the departing point for Mongol fleets in both invasions. Korean naval experience and ships were an important part of Mongol naval capabilities. It’s difficult to gauge how far these talks actually went, but they never materialized into anything concrete. The shikken, Japan’s de facto ruler, Hojo Tokimune, kept Japan on a war footing, a process which consolidated the power of the Bakufu, especially on Kyushu island where the fighting had happened. 


This was valuable, due to the rather… wonky nature of Japanese government. The shikken was officially regent for the shogun, who was ruling in the name of the emperor, who still had his own court, but the actual power in the court was the peculiar Japanese position of the retired emperor, or emperor emeritus. Sometimes called ‘cloistered rule,’ an emperor would retire after a short reign, and then allow a son to become emperor, who dealt with court protocol and ceremony while the retired emperor made the actual decisions. During this period, the shogun was also the grandson of the late emperor Go-Daigo. Of course, this isn’t mentioning the layers of regional and local lords and vassals the government worked through. Officially the shikken could only boss around vassals of the shogun, and was in theory only in charge of military matters. The crisis brought on by the Mongol threat was a great opportunity to expand the power of the bakufu, placing allies and members of the Hojo clan into prominent military governor positions, bringing these into the direct hold of the bakufu. The only troops the bakufu could raise were the gokenin, or‘housemen,’ the vassals of the shogun. But in the danger of the oncoming second invasion, non-gokenin forces in western Japan were mobilized, making the precedent for increased military reach of the bakufu. 


In 1281 Hojo Tokimune was still young with foresight and great energy, and intended to further strengthen his family’s hold on Japan. What more would he get away with using the justification of another Mongol attack! The position of the shogun and the emperor were totally compliant to Tokimune, and factions within his own clan were kept tightly in check. What might have been, had Tokimune not suddenly died in April 1284, only 34 years old. He was succeeded by his son, Hojo Sadatoki, too young to rule in earnest. The young Sadatoki was dominated by two advisors, Adachi Yasumori and Taira Yoristuna. The two had been at odds for years, but Tokimune had kept the peace. Without his presence, their cooperation could only be temporary. In late 1285, Taira Yoristuna and his faction suddenly attacked and killed Adachi Yasumori, leaving Yoristuna to control the young Sadatoki. From 1285 until 1293, Japan was ruled by the regent of the regent acting for the shogun acting for the emperor, who was also sidelined by the retired emperor. 


The murder of Adachi Yasumori sent shockwaves across the bakufu. A popular man who had been energetic in promoting judicial reforms, his death prompted murders and suicides of Adachi loyalists and family, as well as armed revolts in Kyushu. The loss of many prominent officers was a first blow to the bakufu’s governing ability. Taira Yoritsuna also had to deal with the growing discontent of the samurai clamouring for rewards after the 1281 invasion. As we discussed in our previous episode, it was the custom for samurai to be rewarded for bravery in battle, generally with land confiscated from the defeated enemy. After the Genpei War, which saw the rise of the Shogunate in the 1190s, a whole class of land owning samurai was created, the gokenin, rewarding loyal samurai who fought for the Minamoto clan with inhabited lands. They’d collect the revenues, send part to the shogun and use the remainder to support themselves; the lands could then be inherited by their children. By the 1280s, these lands had been parcelled up and divided, and then divided again, leaving many of the gokenin facing destitution. Enough gokenin were forced to sell or pawn their lands that by the late 1260s the bakufu was issuing laws forbidding this and ordering lands to be returned. For many, the rewards they expected to receive from fighting the Mongols was the difference between maintaining the status quo and impoverishment. The Kamakura Bakufu proved slow to doll out the rewards: under Taira Yoristuna, the rewards largely went to important Hojo and Bakufu supporters, leaving out the poorer gokenin who actually needed it. A large group of well armed men with little stake in the status quo was gradually being formed.


In 1293, the shikken Hojo Sadatoki had Taira Yoristuna and his supporters assassinated, ushering in an era of attempted centralization. Sadatoki was only 24 years old in 1293 and wanted to consolidate the power of the bakufu like his father, largely through force and largely unsuccessfully. He struggled to reduce factionalism within the bakufu, and tried to employ the gokenin in suppressing bandity and piracy. Too late was it realized that in many cases the bandits were the gokenin, and such suppression efforts proved futile. All while dealing with the expenditure of continuing to prepare for a Mongol return. When Sadatoki died in 1311, he was remembered as a tired politician who had decreed innumerable death sentences. Sadatoki was succeeded by a nine year old son, Takatoki, dominated by his advisers. Largely ignoring political matters, even when he came of age he was unable, and unwilling, to exert a redirection on the ailing Bakufu.


Takatoki was a poor figure to match another growing threat facing the bakufu.  Back in 1221 the retired emperor Go-Toba attempted to throw off the rule of the Hojo, only to be quickly defeated and Hojo rule secured. In the aftermath, the Hojo asserted greater power over the emperors, including the mandate to decide the imperial succession as needed, though generally left this to the retired emperor. Since the 11th century, the retired emperors held authority and influence over the sitting emperors, just to add that extra layer of confusion to medieval Japanese politics. The Bakufu had a particularly good relationship with the emperor Go-Saga, who reigned as Japan’s 88th emperor, ruling from 1242 to 1246 but acting as retired emperor until his death in 1272. Go-Saga’s son Prince Munetaka became Shogun in 1251, his next son was the 89th Emperor, Gofukakusa and a third son was the 90th emperor, Kameyama, reigning until his retirement in 1274. Go-Saga had never declared whether Gofukakusa or Kameyama would control the succession, anticipating that the Bakufu would simply decide. In theory Gofukakusa, as the senior retired-emperor on Go-Saga’s death in 1272, had control over the succession. The Bakufu sought the opinion of Go-Saga’s widow, who told them to instead choose Kameyama. For the first time in 200 years the sitting emperor, Kameyama, was dominant over the retired emperor, Gofukakusa. It was a step towards the empowerment of the emperors which led to the downfall of the Bakufu. 


A consequence of this was both Gofukakusa and Kameyama each thought his own children should sit on the Chrysanthemum Throne. When Kameyama retired in 1274 he declared his son to succeed him as the 91st Emperor, Go-Uda. When it was apparent that Gofukakusa was angry at this, the Bakufu made an unusual decision: they declared that the throne would alternate between the two lines, with Go-Uda to make his heir Gofukakusa’s son, the future 92nd Emperor, Fushimi.  The motive isn’t exactly clear: historian Ishii Susuma has suggested this was a means of control. Facing the threat of the Mongol invasion, the first in 1274 and a second sure to follow, the Bakufu may have believed tightly controlling the imperial succession was another way to secure their power in the crisis of the Mongol threat. Whatever the case, the Bakufu now interfered with the succession at will, demanding the resignation of an emperor whenever rumour reached them of anti-Bakufu sentiment. By the early 1300s the alternating succession was formalized, and the antagonism between the lines of Gofukakusa and Kameyama institutionalized. By the time the two brothers died in 1304 and 1305, the competition between their families had gone on for some 30 years. By 1318 the Bakufu enforced further guidelines, limiting each emperor to a maximum ten year reign and forbidding the offspring of the new monarch, the 96th emperor Go-Daigo, a grandson of Kameyama, from ever taking the throne. For Go-Daigo, who dreamed of overthrowing the shogunate, this was infuriating. 


Luckily for Go-Daigo the time was ripe to topple the Kamakura Bakufu. The current shogun was Go-Daigo’s cousin, a grandson of Gofukakusa and an absolute non-entity. The shikken until 1326 was the distracted Takatoki, who retired that year and brought further crisis to the leadership of the bakufu. His successor resigned after only a month, due to an assassination attempt by Takatoki’s mother, who then installed Takatoki’s brother as the final shikken of the Kamakura Bakufu, Hojo Moritoki. The political leadership of the shogunate was hamstrung.  The unrest among the gokenin and earlier banditry turned into rebellion, small armies emerging across Japan challenging the shogunate’s rule. Go-Daigo shopped for allies and didn’t have far to look. In 1333 Go-Daigo’s star general, the masterful tactician Kusunoki Misahige, defeated a Bakufu army. With their military might broken, or at least the longstanding belief in it, the key underpinning of Bakufu rule was removed. Bakufu commanders such as Ashikaga Takauji and Nitta Yoshisada joined the imperial cause.Yoshisada attacked the Bakufu’s capital of Kamakura. The leadership of the Hojo committed suicide and the Shogunate was dismantled. The Emperor was now back in real power for the first time in generations… for about three years.


The aforementioned Ashikaga Takauji hadn’t fought for the restoration of imperial power, but rather, to make himself shogun: essentially, replace the Kamakura Bakufu with one led by his own family. Emperor Go-Daigo’s failure to reward his new military supporters with confiscated Kamakura lands alienated his fragile base of support.  In 1335 some Hojo survivors briefly recaptured Kamakura, and this was the spark for Ashikaga Takauji’s own putsch. Retaking the city, Takauji acted as shogun, ordering lands of his political foes confiscated and redistributed. In 1336 Takauji marched on the imperial capital of Kyoto. Go-Daigo fled before him and when Takauji set up a puppet emperor in Kyoto from the line of Gofukakusa, Go-Daigo set up a rival court in the mountains south the city. So began the 60 year period in Japanese history known as the Northern and Southern Courts, with the Northern Court, based in Kyoto, puppets to legitimize the Ashikaga Shogunate, and a southern court officially challenging them. Not until 1392 was this settled and the long running conflict between the lines of Gofukakusa and Kameyama brought to an end. The Ashikaga Shogunate nominally ruled Japan until 1588, but never matched the strength of the Kamakura Bakufu. Though the Ashikaga Shoguns held high pretensions- the third Shogun called himself the King of Japan in official correspondence- over the 15th century their hold weakened precipitously, and by the 1490s Japan’s famous Sengoku Jidai period began, the warring states period which eventually yielded to the control of the Tokugawa Shoguns.


The Mongol invasion on Japan undermined the Kamakura Bakufu, both causing and compounding fractures within the shogunate. Other than this, the impact of the invasion was much more limited, and not until recently was it seen as a ‘national’ event for the Japanese. On Kyushu, where the fighting had been and home of most of the actual defenders, the Mongol invasion held a high place in memory, shaping the identity of many warrior families. The island’s administration and judicial system were greatly affected, both by increasing Bakufu control and decades of preparing for Mongol returns. For the majority of Japanese though, other than the government shifts and conflicts, they saw little influence of the invasion on their lives. Claims that it prompted a shift in Japanese perceptions of the “foreign” have little basis in the 13th or 14th centuries. Samurai like Takezaki Suenaga saw it as just another battle for which to claim reward, rather than a national emergency: his own account simply calls the Mongols ‘pirates,’ or ‘rebels.’ The invasion did not prompt a national consciousness for Japan. Outside of Kyushu, after the 13th century wider Japanese interest in the invasions did not pick up until Takezaki Suenaga’s scrolls depicting the invasion began to be copied and distributed at the end of 1700s. Since the Samurai no longer had an actual military role by then, they were eager to celebrate the heroic combat of their ancestors -not because of victory over foreigners or civil wars, but that they had done brave deeds.


If the slow distribution of the scrolls promoted knowledge of the invasions, it was the forced opening of Japan and interaction with western imperial pressure in the mid-1800s in which, retroactively, the Mongol invasions became the “first round” of ‘Japan vs the world.’ The Mongol invasion was a popular medium to depict the Americans and Europeans as invaders coming to Japan.  The last of the Tokugawa Shoguns was ousted in 1868, and the 122nd emperor, Meiji, was the first to hold real power since the defeat of Go-Daigo some 500 years prior. Under Meiji, a national historiography was promoted to catch on to this new-fangled European idea of ‘nation-states.’ The Mongol Invasions were especially prominent in the new history textbooks, appearing on the currency and in popular art. With the boom in Japanese nationalism at the turn of the century and military victories over China and the Russian Empire, the Japanese government made the Mongol invasion a useful propaganda tool, presenting Japan as a divinely protected, and superior, nation to its foes. It’s roughly this time that the term kamikaze specifically came to be associated with the storms which marked the end of both invasion attempts. As we mentioned in previous episodes, the 13th and 14th century Japanese sources make little mention of the storms; divine support was seen in the fact that the Japanese won, rather than a specific manifestation via the storms. In the late 19th century, as both knowledge and popularity of the invasions grew, the storms became the sign of Japan’s divine favour, an idea which is now irrevocably tied to the invasions. The connotations of divine rescue in Japan’s hour of need reached their ultimate evolution with the kamikaze pilots of 1944, a last ditch effort to slow the American approach on the Japanese home islands.


The consequences of the invasion on the Mongol Empire were not as significant. Kublai Khan’s immediate reaction to the defeat in August 1281 was to demand a third invasion. Envoys were again sent to Japan demanding its submission, and orders were sent across his realm for ships and rice for another attack. Only by 1286 were Kublai’s advisers able to dissuade him against another attack.  Thought for invading Japan did not totally go away though: in 1280, the “Mobile Bureau for the Subjugation of Japan,” was established in Korea which was officially to prepare for further incursions. Dissolved and reformed several times, it became the highest arm of Mongol authority in Korea until the end of Yuan rule in the late 14th century. 


We will explore Kublai’s career in greater detail in future episodes, but by the mid-1280s his most trusted advisers, his chief and most beloved wife and his favourite son and heir were dead. Losing the only voices that could rein Kublai in, he became depressed, seeking solace in food and alcohol, suffering from gout and obesity. Japan was not his only failed foreign venture; he also ordered inconclusive invasions against Vietnam, Burma, Java and fought rebellions in Central Asia, Mongolia, Manchuria and Tibet. Having lost direct rule over the rest of the empire, the destruction of the fleets against Japan must have felt to Kublai like a failure to complete the Mongol conquest of the world. The defeats only deepened the morose of Kublai’s final years, but the invasion of Japan did not singularly cause this. 


More immediate effects were economic. The expenditure of men, ships and resources against Japan, and other overseas ventures, were enormous for no gain. To try to make up the difference, Kublai demanded his finance ministers bring in ever greater tribute and taxation. In Chinese sources, these men are called the “three Villainous Ministers,” or some variation thereof- Ahmad Fanakati, Lu Shirong and Sangha, who, in their attempts to meet the demands  of the aging Khan, with some personal enrichment along the way, were accused of heinous crimes and greed, from stealing women to looting tombs of the Song Emperors. While some accusations are likely exaggerations, the impression gained by the Chinese was one of mistreatment, and undid much of the goodwill Kublai earned from his other reconstruction efforts. The 1280s up until Kublai’s death at the start of 1294 saw mismanagement and corruption set in which Kublai’s less able successors never shook off. The attacks did not end Japanese trade with China; it continued after Kublai’s death, but with increasing restriction and regulation ordered by the Yuan government. To protect themselves, Japanese ships coming to China came with armed men, which gave way easily to piracy. Hence, wako pirates once again threatened the Korean and Chinese coastlines from the 14th century on.


To the Chinese and Mongols, they were left with an impression of the Japanese as tough warriors, but at that time little else was learned of them. Marco Polo, who arrived in China after the first invasion, provides the first European mention of Japan -Zipangu, he calls it- and a garbled version of the invasion. Describing the Japanese as incredibly wealthy, he describes the storm sinking the fleet, but with the addition that shipwrecked survivors were able to sneak into the Japanese capital city and take it, a paltry attempt to preserve the image of Mongol invincibility. It is from Polo’s account that Japan would first appear on European maps, some 200 years before Europeans first physically set foot on Japan in the 1540s. 


Our final note is a brief one;  The sword used by the samurai at the time of the Mongol invasion was the tachi, a long, single-edged blade with a pronounced curvature.  It seems to some extent the Japanese found the swords ill suited to the task, that the sword was deemed too fragile against either the Mongol armours, particularly full iron lamellar, or Mongol and Chinese swords which were shorter, thicker and sturdier made than the Japanese equivalents. As the Japanese did not use shields, attempts to block sword blows with the tachi may have resulted in significant chipping of the blade. According to the theory this spawned a need to redesign the tachi, making it stronger, shorter and somewhat straighter. The centralization of the Kamakura Bakufu and large mobilization of warriors resulted in hundreds, if not thousands, of men making the trips across Japan and to the capital and beyond. This provided a means to pass on technical knowledge of changing sword designs, and by the late 14th century spawned the emergence of a new weapon for the samurai: the katana. In that respect at least, the expansion of the Mongol Empire was an irregular road to providing a classic weapon for thousands of anime characters. Such is the nature of history!


This ends our series on Mongol Invasions of Japan; hopefully you’ve listened to this, the previous episodes and our newest video while you’ve been playing Ghost of Tsushima, and perhaps learned something along the way. Our next episode will go back to our regular series, picking up with the western expansion of Hulegu against the ‘Abbasid Caliph in the 1250s. If you’d like to help us continue bringing you great content, consider supporting us on patreon at www.patreon/kingsandgenerals. I’m your host David, and we’ll catch you on the next one.