In the initial days of their rule in China, Khubilai Khan
and the Mongols had remarkable military successes, their greatest
victory being the conquest of Southern Song China by 1279
C.E. This particular campaign, for which the Mongols had to
organize a navy in order to cross the Yangtze River and move
into southern China, entailed tremendous logistical efforts.
Ultimately, though, the failure of their military campaigns
became a key factor leading to the weakening and eventual
demise of the Mongol empire in China.
Among the failed campaigns were two
naval campaigns against Japan one in 1274 and one
in 1281 both of which turned into complete fiascos.
The campaigns had been launched because of the Japanese shogunate's
refusal to submit to the Mongols after the arrival of Mongol
ambassadors in Japan in 1268 and 1271. And after one of the
ambassadors was harmed (a branding of his face), the Mongols
felt that this act had to be avenged. In 1274, they organized
their first expedition, which failed largely in part because
of the weather. Still determined, the Mongols launched a second
expedition in the summer of 1281 this time much larger
than the first but were once again thwarted by weather:
a terrible typhoon, in fact, that erupted and damaged the
Mongol fleet enough to force them to abort the mission.
The Japanese for their part believed that this typhoon was
no accident it was divinely sent and they called
it the "divine wind," or kamikaze. They were
convinced that the Japanese islands were thus divinely protected
and could never be invaded by aggressive outside forces.
Expeditions such as these were extremely costly and weighed
heavily upon the Mongol rulers in China. And a 1292 expedition
against Java, also a disaster, only served to further weaken
the Mongols' resources and resolve. Though this time the Mongols
actually managed to land in Java, the heat, tropical environment,
and parasitic and infectious diseases there led to their withdrawal
from Java within a year.
Similar problems afflicted the Mongols in all their attacks
and invasions into mainland Southeast Asia in Burma,
Cambodia, and in particular, Vietnam. Though they initially
succeeded in some of these campaigns, the Mongols were always
forced to withdraw eventually because of adverse weather and
diseases. It would seem that the Mongols simply were not proficient
in naval warfare and did not have much luck in this part of
the world. And with each failed campaign, vast sums were expended,
and the empire was further weakened.
of the Kamikaze," by James P. Delgado
in Archaeology 56/1 (January/February 2003).
Invasion Scrolls [Bowdoin College]
This interactive site allows you to
view individual scenes from a scroll depicting the Mongol
invasions of Japan. Takezaki Suenaga, a warrior who fought
against the Mongols in both 1274 and 1281, commissioned these
scrolls recounting his actions.