[In 1274, the Mongol Empire’s Yuan dynasty, led by the great Kublai Khan, began its first attempted invasion of the Japanese archipelago. Having already subdued most of China and Korea, Kublai used Korean ports to launch a fleet of nearly 1000 ships. Their natural first target was the island of Tsushima, which sits almost exactly between the Korean Peninsula and the rest of Japan. Despite initial devastating losses for Japan, the Mongols retreated and their fleet badly damaged by a sudden storm. A similar fate befell their larger, second invasion of Japan in 1281.]

From Ghenko, the Mongol Invasion of Japan by Nakaba Yamada, 1916.

Note: This article has been excerpted from a larger work in the public domain and shared here due to its historical value. It may contain outdated ideas and language that do not reflect TOTA’s opinions and beliefs.

The First Invasion of Tsushima

While Japan was sticking to her national isolation policy, some people of her western provinces, whose spirit ran high and could not be repressed by their Government, as has been said, became freebooters and caused uneasiness to the Chinese and Koreans. Such sort of violent attacks by the Japanese adventurers are supposed to have become fiercer than ever, when the anti-Mongol policy was manifestly taken up by the Government.

Previous to Kublai's first invasion, the matter of Quelpart isle came to an issue, when a marauding party of the lawless Japanese landed at Keum-ju, in the Korean Isle, and the people, in fear of their lives, treated them well and gave them whatever they asked for. This the renegade Hung-Tsa-Kiu told the Mongol emperor with embellishments of his own, and averred that Korea was making friends with Japan with a view to an invasion of China. This fed the emperor's suspicions of Korea's bad faith and added materially to the overwhelming difficulties under which the land was already staggering.

The Japanese marauders went further, and they began ravaging the coast of Chul-la province of Korea, burning at one place between twenty and thirty ships which the Koreans had constructed for Kublai Khan, and carrying away a number of Mongol soldiers as prisoners. This caused a strong body of the Mongol and Korean army to cross to Quelpart, and they overthrew the stronghold of the rebels and placed there a garrison of 500 Mongol and 1,000 Korean troops.

No sooner had this been done than the Great Khan sent to Korea the main body of his army, which had to cross the straits and to invade Japan forthwith. In June, 1275, the whole army came to the south-eastern coast of the peninsula, where they joined a Korean expeditionary force. The former, consisting of 25,000 Mongols, was under the commanders Hoi-Ton, Hung-Tsa-Kiu and Yu-Pok-Hyong, so that they called the army "the triple-winged force"; the latter was composed of 15,000 Koreans under the command of General Kim-Pang-Syung. The enormous army of 40,000 in all embarked from a Korean port named "Happo," in a flotilla of 900 war-vessels.

Thus the first Mongol armada made for the isles of Tsushima and Iki in October, 1275.

The fate of the two Japanese isles hung by a thread. Though not unguarded, their garrisons were never sufficient to resist their foe; but their helpless condition gave birth in the isles to very strong and self-reliant natives, who could at once arise as soldiers at a time of emergency.

The governor of Tsushima, So-no-Sukekuni, as already mentioned, was a valiant knight, whose blood is recorded to have descended from a Japanese emperor Antoku. His clan lived generation after generation as the protector of the isle. Both the virtue and valour with which Sukekuni reigned over the people had made him venerated by all his subjects, and in consequence his command carried such weight that his men thought their lives as light as a feather.

Here is a curious story told as the prelude of the Mongol raid to Tsushima. Tsushima had a shrine of the god Hachiman, the deity of War, who was believed to protect the land from the foreigner's invasion. He was templed far from the villages and among the bushes. Very curious to say, a terrible fire is said to have broken out in the uninhabited shrine, early in the morning of October 5th, when the Mongol armada was approaching the isle. The blazing fire rose so high and burned so fiercely that all the fire-brigade assembled there at once and the mysterious fire was soon extinguished by them; but nobody knew what the cause was.

A little later, information reached the governor stating that a townsman had seen the fire break out as soon as a flock of snow-white pigeons came flying from the northward sky and settled upon the roof of the shrine. Governor So slapped his knee with joy and said: "The white pigeons are said, from time immemorial, to be the holy messengers of the god Hachiman; therefore, the mysterious fire caused by them must be his warning to us of any approaching danger. Stand up, my men, and guard the isle." Without loss of time, the governor called all his men-at-arms, and distributed the sentinels along the shores; and martial law was proclaimed throughout the isle.

The governor's solution of the mysterious fire hit the mark. No sooner had all his garrison stood to arms than sail after sail, the formidable fleet of Kublai Khan, appeared on the northward horizon. The enormous fleet of 900 ships came in swarms towards a big bay of Tsushima called Sasu-no-Ura, where, covering the wide sphere of the water so thickly that the horizon could no longer be seen from the land, they cast anchor all at once.

A small open boat manned by four or five knights had just left the beach for the monster-like ships of the enemy. It was an inquiry-boat despatched by the governor. But before the unguarded boat reached one of the enemy's ships, her approach was checked by showers of the Mongol arrows. So So-no-Sukekuni, in a white heat, exclaimed to his men in the water "Return, my men," and at the same time ordered his troops, about eight thousand in number, to kill every enemy who came to land.

Like a storm, the enemy began their disembarkation, some from the ships anchored afar, by boat, thousands in number; the others on horseback or on foot, and the great army, extending their force all over the surf which broke along the bay as far as one could see, advanced rank after rank in swarms to the shores, their terrible war-cry resounding over the sea and land, their furious discharge of arrows as heavy as rain.

On the shore, the garrison, spreading their force along the strand, and even in the shallow waters, stood contesting the enemy's landing. Fierce hand-to-hand battles took place on the edge of the water and the land. But in addition to the superior number of the Mongols to the Japanese, the former, using their poisoned shafts that killed on the spot, employing the guns that disabled scores of the defenders at once, and defending themselves with strong shields of metal, all of which the Japanese had never used nor seen, attacked at so many points that the Japanese garrison, fighting under such disadvantages, were obliged to give way to the enemy here and there on the shore. At last the Mongols and their allied troops succeeded in landing in great numbers, and the entire surface of the strand now became the field of battle.

Through the use of superior weapons the enemy stepped ashore without great loss, marshalled their ranks and advanced in phalanx, which also was a novelty to the Japanese, protecting themselves most effectually with their shields. They do not appear to have been much distressed by either the cross-bows or the long-bows of the defenders, but they covered their own advance with a host of archers shooting clouds of poisoned arrows, which the Japanese never at any time of their history used, despising them as depraved and inhuman weapons. The Mongolian shafts harassed them terribly; still all the Japanese soldiers fought according to their own etiquette of battle.

A humming arrow, the sign of commencing the combat, was shot. The Mongols greeted it with a shout of derision. Then some of the best fighters among the Japanese advanced in the usual dignified, leisurely manner and formulated their traditional challenge. But the Mongol phalanx, instead of sending out a single warrior to answer the defiance, opened their ranks, enclosed each challenger, and cut him to pieces. The invaders moved in unchanging formation, obeying signals from their commanding officers, who watched their evolutions from an eminence.

Under such circumstances a hundred horsemen dashed simultaneously at the phalanx, and ninety-nine were slain. The best fighters among the defeated furiously rushed into the enemy's ranks, and each killed six or seven of their opponents, but the shortage was soon made up by the enemy with their fresh forces from the ships. In this manner the battle continued all day long.

Before sunset, even the bravest of the Japanese warriors were worn out by the long battle; still, sustained by their spirits on the brink of death, they gallantly confronted the foe. Towards the evening, when the enemy's flank advanced near the pine-tree groves, some single combats began. Naturally the Japanese combatants won the bloody game and beheaded their enemies by hundreds. A knight named Sukesada brought twenty-four Mongols under his own sword; he was the last to give up his place, but meanwhile the others' retreat led him into a cul-de-sac.

He was utterly tired out, so he took his seat upon an enemy's corpse near by and exclaimed chivalrously, "Now then, my task is over. Where is my master? There let me go and die." In answer to this a Mongol warrior of enormous height suddenly appeared from a bush hard by. "Come you, Japanese, let me fight!" shouted the enemy, whose body was protected by a splendid coat of mail and a helmet, and he held his big sword directly over his head. "Agreed!" returned the dauntless Japanese merrily. Several strokes were exchanged in hot strife, but the skilled defender, seizing an unguarded moment of his assailant, dealt him a heavy and mortal blow upon the shoulder, and he at once fell to the ground covered with blood.

This animated scene had been earnestly observed from both quarters in the field. Not only did the Japanese side raise a loud cheer, but even their enemies applauded. Sukesada then cried, holding down the defeated man under his feet, “Ye coward Mongols! come and challenge me again!" But no Mongol was so daring as to run alone out of his rank; but they answered him with a simultaneous discharge of their horrible arrows, and three of them went right into the hero's breast, and the bravest of the brave was gone.

And so, one after another, the valiant warriors went to death, while the enemy's gaps were soon filled from the sea; but the defenders had no reserve. Governor So, who had been commanding the garrisons, shouting to his troops and stimulating their martial spirit, and had already been wounded, now appeared on horseback leading a band of cavalry, in the quarter where Sukesada, his best general, was slain. But the place had been occupied by the most powerful wing of the enemy.

All at once the forlorn hope charged upon their innumerable foes, all the horsemen brandishing their razor-like blades. This was the most terrible scene of all, and also the final stage of the day's battle. The whole enemy army assembled in the quarter where governor So's band, the only remnant of the Japanese force, delivered their charge. The ear of heaven was deafened with the din of the Mongol drums, the earth shook at the tempest of war-cries. Ah! Where is our forlorn hope that rode into the jaws of death? The shafts began to fall like raindrops of spring, and blood flowed till the field looked like a crimson sea. Where is the brave band of Sukekuni of So, in the smoke of the guns or in the clouds of arrows? They were no more seen in the isle; all that came into sight again out of the smoke were a few masterless horses, returning and neighing for their empty camps.

Ere the evening mist came over the scene every field along the coast was occupied by the enemy, who destroyed every rampart of the powerless defenders, faithful in keeping their land to the last. As soon as the strongest band of So-no-Sukekuni fell under showers of arrows and balls, the triumphant force rushed into the town like a torrent, captured all the male survivors in severe conflicts, and had them all slain. Most of the females are said to have been carried into their ships, except those who lived in the palace of Governor So, who, before the enemy dashed into their chambers, committed suicide to save their honour from the barbarians' hands. It is recorded that the enemy brought back more than 1,000 heads of Japanese fighters into their ships, and not less than 6,000 of the natives had been slaughtered in a single day.

They fired every quarter of the town, and reducing it into ashes, off they went toward their fleet, doubtless in great triumph. But they did not occupy the isle too long; for they had the Isle of Iki to storm at once before reinforcements arrived from the mainland, and they had also to make their general advance into the latter before the news of their attacks on the two isles were known. They kept Tsushima under their strict vigilance by sea and land, so that no communication outside could be made by any survivors. Their military order and spirit having been perfectly restored, the formidable squadron, as big as before, moved far southward to make a heavy attack upon the Isle of Iki. It was about a fortnight after the first attack on the ill-fated isle.

Click Here to Read More About the Mongol Invasion of Iki

Yamada, Nakaba. Ghenko, the Mongol Invasion of Japan. Smith, Elder, & Co., 1916.

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