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The Mysterious Power of Zen, the Indomitable Spirit of Bushido
The epic tale of how the samurai warriors of Japan fended off the Mongol armada in 1274 and again in 1281 has all the ingredients of a compelling thriller: political intrigue, shifting alliances, espionage, damsels in distress, heroic warriors, courageous leaders, and even divine intervention.
Fans of the anime series Angolmois: Record of Mongol Invasion, as well as the video game Ghost of Tsushima, will be particularly interested in the real adventure behind them presented here.
This is a completely revised version of Nakaba Yamada’s 1916 Ghenko: The Mongol Invasion of Japan edited for easy reading among modern audiences, featuring updated maps and graphics. It is a must for Japanophiles, samurai enthusiasts, martial artists, military historians, and history buffs alike.
The story of how Japan’s samurai warriors repelled the invading Mongol horde has the makings of an epic blockbuster on par with Game of Thrones or the Spartans at the Battle of Thermopylae. It’s got everything…from heroic warriors, damsels in distress, harrowing escapes, political intrigue, assassinations, hostage trading, human shields, and even mysterious divine intervention.
The recent anime series Angolmois: Record of Mongol Invasion and the action-adventure video game Ghost of Tsushima demonstrate renewed interest in this pivotal episode from Japanese history.
Many aspects of pre-modern Japan were shaped by the experiences of this massive armed attack on the island nation’s sovereignty by a foreign power between 1274 and 1281. The Divine Wind that ultimately devastated the Mongol fleet and made their continued assault untenable would later be invoked during World War II in the form of suicide attacks by kamikaze pilots.
Like the Great Pacific War, otherwise known as World War II, Japan is not blameless for the conflagration with the Mongol Empire. Japanese pirates had been raiding the coasts of what we now call Korea and China for a very long time before these territories came under the control of Kublai Khan and, as their protector, it was instinctive for the Mongols to address these attacks upon their dynasty.
Though proud to be Japanese and eager to share this story with a Western audience, the author of this book admits these provocations. Nakaba Yamada was at Oxford University in England in 1916 when he wrote Ghenko: The Mongol Invasion of Japan. At the time, Japan had only been fully open to trade and discourse with the rest of the world for less than fifty years and the book was made as a way to foster mutual understanding between distant cultures.
Japan embraced rapid industrialization and rose as a force to be reckoned with as the world witnessed its victories in the 1895 Sino-Japanese War and 1905 Russo-Japanese War. Great curiosity surrounded this island nation that was ascending in The East and the enthusiastic Yamada wrote with the intention to forge common ground with Western audiences.
Yamada presented Ghenko as a story with deep similarities to England’s victory over the Spanish Armada in 1588. Both were aided greatly by the elemental force of wind and, in this way, both Japan and England were said to enjoy protection through Heavenly Grace. Yamada remarks how both the Spanish and Mongol Empires had fallen into the dustbin of history while Japan and England had continued as “sovereigns of the sea”.
From our modern perspective, we can look at Yamada’s writing as a testimony of what international relations were like prior to World Wars I & II. We can also see attitudes of ethnocentrism, nationalism, and hubris. These outlooks indicate how Japan would soon find itself in conflict with other actors within the international system. Yet also in this story we see the intelligence, fortitude, and discipline of the Japanese people underlying the success of post-war Japan today.
Therefore, I would ask the modern reader to value Yamada’s telling of the Mongol Invasion for what it is, a heroic battle record as told by the victors. Try to overcome “presentism” and judgements of the past using present-day values. Appreciate the story in the context in which it was presented.
To this end, I have edited every sentence to make the text more presentable to modern readers. Paragraphs are shorter to make what was a “wall of words” easily digestible. Some anachronistic terms have been replaced to better convey the author’s intent today. I have also changed the transliteration of many Japanese words for consistency.
Anyone familiar with other productions of this work will notice the title I use drops the “h” to align with modern translations of the kanji used in “Genkō”. Similarly, where Yamada used “Kiushu” and “Kioto” I have rendered, in the modern parlance, as Kyushu and Kyoto. Several other modifications along these lines, too numerous to list, make this presentation of Yamada’s work more enjoyable for a contemporary audience.
Whereas the original, and many commercially available scanned copies, include plates of photos and maps, I have dispensed with them since they have deteriorated over time, add little to the story, and unnecessarily bog down the digital file size. In their place I have added just a few maps and other illustrations to provide context on the geographic locations involved in the battle record.
There is much to be learned about samurai culture and the warrior traditions of Japan from the various “kassenki” or recorded battle accounts. The Genkō Kassenki is on par with other, more notable, ones like the Taiheiki or Heike Monogatari.
Within it you will find tales of heroism and sacrifice, leadership and infighting, tactical innovations and the impact of geopolitics. Yamada’s telling provides value to samurai enthusiasts, martial artists, military scientists, adventure gamers, and Japanese history buffs of all stripes.
The samurai had to adapt their tactics and technologies to deal with the unique problems presented by the Mongols. Japanese battle etiquette at that point in history involved individual challenges and pronouncements of one’s heritage, followed by single combat. The Mongols ignored such formalities and destroyed anyone presenting themselves as a target in a hail of arrows or mass swarm. Mongols also confounded the samurai with hurled bombs, a sort of stone grenade filled with gunpowder that caused tremendous damage and confusion within Japanese ranks.
In response, the samurai built fortifications to prevent the Mongols from rushing in mass and forced the invaders into channelized terrain where they could engage in individual or small group melee. They also conducted night raids on the Mongol flotilla using small boats and the element of surprise under the cover of darkness.
Piercing the thick leather armor worn by the Mongols proved difficult for the swords used by the samurai at the time. This would prompt sword smiths to innovate the stronger and more resilient katana that has since become iconic of the samurai.
This an extremely important point in samurai history and highly instructive for students of the political economy of conflict. Japan’s first military government was just under one hundred years old and control of the Kamakura Bakufu had long since transitioned away from the Minamoto Clan that had founded it in 1185 and over to the related Hojo Clan who wielded ultimate authority as regents to figurehead shoguns.
Under the Hojo, a clear law code, rules governing inheritances, and an inclusive Council of State composed of leading feudal lords provided a relatively high degree of stability. The Hojo implored warriors to be frugal in their daily lives and promoted Zen Buddhism as a practice of developing mental fortitude in the face of mortal danger.
Despite prevailing through the leadership of the charismatic regent Tokimune, the conflict with the Mongols ultimately ushered in the end of the Hojo Clan and the Kamakura Shogunate. Mobilizing resources to contend with the crisis weighed heavily upon the alliance of warrior houses who expected remuneration and rewards for their efforts.
Since vanquishing the Mongols yielded no loot or territory to divide among the fighters, faith that allegiance with the Hojo was in their best interest began to wane among the warlords. One combatant, Takezaki Suenaga, whom you’ll read about in Yamada’s text, commissioned an artist in 1293, some twelve years after the last battle, to detail his exploits in a painting so that he could present them to the Shogunate because he had yet to receive any titles or compensation.
Widespread dissatisfaction with the Hojo’s inability to feed the network of warrior clans with redistributed largesse opened the Shogunate to the ambitions of rival power brokers. Heeding a rallying cry from the retired emperor Go-Daigo, Ashikaga Takauji, a top Hojo general, would rebel against the Shogunate and, with the assistance of the warlord Nitta Yoshisada, annihilated the Hojo Clan at Kamakura in 1333.
Editing the prose and reassembling the text has been a labor of love for me as well as an informative journey through this chapter of samurai lore. I hope you enjoy this retooled version of Genkō Kassenki: Battle Record of the Mongol Invasions.