The “Divine Winds” [Kamikaze] of Japan

by William Kirsch


The “divine winds” were thought sent by the gods to protect Japan. In 1268 Mongol envoys arrive in Japan with a message from the Mongol ruler, Kublai Khan. The Japanese at this time have two centres of power. The apparent ruler is the emperor, living in Kyoto. The real ruler is the military Regent Bakufu in Kamakura. The emperor is terrified. He has heard tales from the Sung about Mongol atrocities and their military skill. But the Bakufu is insulted and defiant. The envoys are sent home without a reply, snubbing Kublai Khan’s offer. The Mongols build a fleet in their Korean vassal state, the Kingdom of Koryu. In November 1274, 900 ships set sail with 25,000 Mongol soldiers and 15,000 Koreans. Japan has no deep sea ships to speak of, so the fleet heads toward Japan unhindered. They first attack the island of Tsushima. Next, the island of Iki falls. On November 19th or 20th the Mongols land at Imazu in Hakata Bay, Kyushu.


The Bakufu has a force of 6,000-10,000 Samurai waiting at Hakata Bay, but they are unfamiliar with the tactics of the Mongols and are hit hard by the Mongol artillery. The fighting is fierce all day, but the Mongol forces make steady progress. Japanese reinforcements are sent to Hakata Bay. By the time help arrives, the surviving defenders have been pushed back to Hakata, the modern-day city of Fukuoka.


The Mongols feared a counter-attack when the darkness made their artillery useless, and took to the safety of their ships, burning a shrine to cover their retreat. A hurricane then tore through the area. 200 ships are sunk and 13,000 soldiers never return to Koryu. The first invasion is over.


In 1279, the Sung Dynasty in southern China falls to the Mongols. The defeated Sung army and navy become part of a new invasion force. In Koryu, the force consists of 900 ships with 30,000 Mongol soldiers and 10,000 Koreans. In southern China, 3,500 ships are prepared, carrying 100,000 Chinese soldiers. The Bakufu has not been idle, however. While spies kept watch on the mainland, a wall is built around Hakata Bay. The wall is 13 miles long and about 8 feet high. It is vertical, facing the bay, but the inland side is angled to allow horses to climb it. Defences are also built elsewhere, and soldiers are stationed along the western coast and the inland sea.


The fleet from China is delayed. The fleet at Koryu decides not to wait for them, and sets sail on 22 May, 1281. Tsushima soon falls. Then Iki is overrun. The northern fleet is supposed to rendezvous here with the southern fleet, but instead, it heads straight for Hakata Bay. The Japanese are waiting for them. Almost 100,000 soldiers are in Kyushu, and a reserve force of 20,000 more is in southern Honshu.


A small diversionary force sails north towards Honshu, but on the 23rd of June, the main body lands on Shiga Spit to the north of Hakata Bay and at the north end of the wall. After several days of fighting, only one unit manages to get a beachhead. While the invasion is stopped on land, the Japanese strike back at sea using their large collection of coastal fishing boats. These are loaded with soldiers, and hit-and-run tactics are made on the Mongol fleet. Night and day, individual boats are boarded, the crew killed, and the ship burned. These tactics are so effective that the Mongols begin to lash their ships together and lay planks between the ships to help repel attacks.


For a week, attempts are made to land, but they are all fiercely thrown back. Finally, the fleet retreats to Iki. The soldiers have been forced to stay on the cramped ships since they could not land. The Mongols have also been renowned for their lack of hygiene, and to make it worse, they have brought their precious horses across the sea with them. In these unsanitary conditions, 3,000 men die of fever. General Hong, wants to give up now, but General Kim argues that they still have two months’ rations. The northern fleet stays at Iki and waits for the southern fleet to arrive.


The fleet from China arrives a few squadrons at a time. One squadron attacks and seizes the island of Hirado Jima, while another group links up with the Korean fleet at Iki on 16 July. It is decided the next attack will be made further south. The ships at Iki move to Hirado Jima, where the entire fleet is assembled on 12 August. They move in and take the island of Takashima at the mouth of the Imari Gulf.


However, a second hurricane strikes on 15 August. This time, 4,000 ships are lost and 100,000 men are dead. The main islands of Japan are never again invaded.