Kublai Khan was one of the world’s most ambitious and accomplished leaders. During his reign, the Mongols ruled a vast expanse of Asia, as well as some parts of Eastern Europe. After a struggle with his brother Ariq Boke, Kublai subdued the Southern Song Dynasty of China. The only kingdom that remained out of his reach was Japan, but the Mongols failed to subdue it in 1274 and 1281. Because of this failure, Kublai Khan and the Mongols did not seem as powerful as they were before. These events are recorded on the Bible Timeline Chart with World History during that time.
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Korea: The Mongols’ Northeastern Ally
Between 1218 and 1233, Kublai Khan’s grandfather Genghis Khan and his uncle Ogedei subdued a large part of the Korean peninsula. Ogedei’s invasion in 1233 forced the Goryeo Dynasty king to flee to Ganghwa Island. Mongke, Kublai Khan’s brother, completely subdued the Koreans between 1253 and 1258.
When Kublai became the Khagan (Great Khan), the Crown Prince of Goryeo traveled to China and became a vassal to the Mongols. The Khagan accepted him in the royal court, and the Korean Crown Prince stayed in China for many years. When the king of Korea died, Kublai released the prince from the royal court and allowed him to return to his homeland. The Khagan supported the prince’s decision to claim his throne. But he was also prudent enough to send a Mongol administrator to Korea to ensure that the new king would behave. The prince became King Wonjong of Goryeo. His alliance with the Mongols was cemented further when the Khagan arranged the marriage of one of his daughters to the king.
The Mongols were masters of cavalry, but they had no experience in naval warfare. The Khagan knew this, so he enlisted the help of the Koreans in building a naval fleet. Korean sailors also played a large part in his campaigns against the Southern Song and Japan. They, however, paid dearly with their lives in Kublai’s disastrous Japan expeditions in 1274 and 1281.
Japan: The Isolated Kingdom
Just like his grandfather and other relatives, Kublai Khan also wanted to extend his empire. It was only natural that he would look beyond the Korean Peninsula and try to bring the isolated kingdom of Japan to heel. Fresh from his victory against his brother Ariq Boke, the energetic Khagan sent his ambassadors to demand the submission of Japan.
The Korean crew knew that they would gain nothing from the deal, so they tried to dissuade the Mongol ambassadors by frightening them with stories of strong winds and turbulent seas. Unused to traveling by sea, the ambassadors became frightened and told the Korean sailors to return to the peninsula. Kublai Khan sent a harsh letter to King Wonjong when he heard what the sailors said to the envoys.
In 1268, Kublai sent another embassy to Japan. This time, however, the Korean sailors learned their lesson, and they transported the envoys all the way to the royal court in Kyoto. The Japanese were not excited with the arrival of the Mongols, to say the least. The head of the bakufu (military government) Hojo Tokimune refused to submit to the Khagan by sending the ambassadors back to China without any message.
Kublai dispatched ambassadors once again in 1271 with the same demand. The envoys were barred from entering the royal court when they arrived in Kyoto. They had no choice but to sail back to China and tell the Khagan that they were denied. Although Kublai Khan was humiliated with Japan’s refusal to submit, he still sent another ambassador to the islands in 1272. The bakufu refused the ambassadors’ request to see the Japanese emperor. The Japanese even responded harshly to the envoys’ demands. The envoy, Chao Liangpi, went home empty-handed in 1273.
It was the last straw for Kublai Khan. In 1274, he ordered the Koreans to build a naval fleet that they could use in bringing Japan under submission. Thousands of Mongol, Jurchen, and Chinese men joined the army. The Korean soldiers and sailors also joined the expedition because of the Korean king’s alliance with Kublai Khan.
When all the warships were done, Kublai Khan’s navy sailed from a port near Busan to the islands of Iki and Tsushima. They easily defeated the Japanese defenders of the islands, so they sailed to Kyushu on November 19, 1274. The Mongol fleet initially overpowered the samurais, but luck was on the side of the Japanese. As soon as night came, a strong typhoon swept in. The Koreans convinced the Mongol overlords to retreat into the open sea so that their ships would not be swept into the rocky coast and be destroyed. The Mongols agreed to sail away from the coast, but they suffered heavy casualties after many of their ships sank.
The Mongol, Chinese, and Korean troops returned to North China in humiliation. Kublai was furious, but he could not strike back immediately as he was occupied with the war against the Southern Song. For some reason, he sent ambassadors once again to Japan in 1275. The ambassadors, however, reached a grim end when the Japanese executed them. Enraged with his ambassadors’ death but still busy with the Southern Song, Kublai allowed the Japanese a break. It was not until 1281 that he was free to launch another expedition to Japan.
Personal Tragedy and Decline
The years between 1280 and 1290, however, were marked with personal losses for Kublai Khan. His beloved consort, Chabi, died in 1281, and her death was followed by his son and heir, Zhenjin, in 1286. He became depressed when Chabi died. He also gorged himself on food and alcohol which worsened his gout and obesity. He even started the 1280s with the second expedition to Japan which quickly turned into a disaster.
The Second Invasion of Japan and the Kamikaze
The Japanese government knew that the Mongols would invade again, so the bakufu ordered their samurais to occupy the coast of Kyushu. They also built a long stone wall (genko borui) along the Hakata Bay.
Kublai would not give up on Japan, so he sent envoys once again but they, too, were executed by the Japanese. The killing of his envoys only solidified his decision to invade Japan for the second time. Preparations were already in full swing in 1280. Again, he ordered the unhappy Koreans and Chinese to build his ships. Kublai placed the Korean admiral Hong Tagu in charge of his fellow Korean sailors. Meanwhile, General Fan Wanhu led his fellow Chinese soldiers. The Mongol division, on the other hand, was led by Shintu.
As much as 40,000 Korean, Mongol, and Chinese troops sailed from Korea to Japan in mid-1281. The Chinese troops reached as many as 100,000. They sailed from Quanzhou in Fujian Province later to meet up with the Northern troops at Iki island in Nagasaki. Bad omens plagued the expedition from the start, while disagreements between the commanders made the journey more difficult.
On June 10, 1281, the troops from the north went right ahead and attacked Iki without waiting for the fleet from Quanzhou. They also sailed off to Kyushu where the fleet from Quanzhou finally caught up with them. Kublai’s combined fleet then attacked Kyushu in August 1281. It was bound to fail as the stone wall that the Japanese defenders constructed was effective in keeping the invaders out. From the start, the Chinese and Korean troops were unhappy about the expedition because they had nothing to gain from it. Their lack of enthusiasm in fighting the Japanese also made the expedition a failure.
In a case of extraordinary bad luck for Kublai’s troops, a typhoon swept in again and battered the Mongol fleet off Hakata Bay on the 15th and 16th of August. The Korean sailors tried to escape to the open sea, but the move came too late. Thousands of Korean, Mongol, and Chinese soldiers and sailors drowned when their ships sank. Those who were trapped on the coast were killed by the samurais.
The typhoon was a godsend and a morale booster for the Japanese. The “kamikaze” or “divine wind” saved them from the Mongols twice, and it reinforced their belief that they were favored by the gods. For Kublai Khan, however, it was a humiliating and shocking defeat. However, he stubbornly insisted on a third expedition, and the Mongols made preparations between 1283 and 1284. The third expedition was an unpopular idea among his advisers after their devastating loss in 1274 and 1281. He finally accepted his loss only when they vehemently objected to his plan.
Henthorn, William E. Korea: The Mongol invasions. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1963.
Kuehn, John T. A Military History of Japan: From the Age of the Samurai to the 21st Century. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, an imprint of ABC-CLIO, LLC, 2014.
May, Timothy Michael. The Mongol Empire: A Historical Encyclopedia. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, an imprint of ABC-CLIO, LLC, 2017.
Robinson, David M. Empire’s Twilight: Northeast Asia under the Mongols. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center for the Harvard-Yenching Institute, 2009.
Rossabi, Morris. Khubilai Khan: His Life and Times.
Berkeley: University of California Press, c1988 1988.
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