With the two great Mongol-Chinese-Korean fleets attempting an invasion of Japan, turned back by the brave resistance of the samurai, who were for once fighting a foreign enemy instead of each other. But the resistance to the Mongols, although successful, ended with a vast expenditure of resources and no real means of rewarding the participants with booty or confiscated lands.


It was not merely a wind that had smashed apart the Mongol armadas: it was a Divine Wind, a Kamikaze, demonstrating that Japan was the privileged “land of the gods.” This phrase, in fact, first achieved popular currency during the Kamakura period (1185–1333), where it began a genealogy of the emperors that was aimed at sorting out the succession issues which would characterize the end of the era.

Although the Mongol invasions would create ultimately fatal instabilities, and there were several uprisings requiring military action, the Kamakura period nevertheless saw new flourishing in the arts.


Katana signed by Masamune with an inscription in gold inlay, Kamakura period, 14th century, blade length: 70.6 cm[

The Kamakura period also saw a creative peak in sword making. Japanese swords had often been appreciated as fine artifacts, but a century of actual warfare had honed requirements to extreme levels. The contact with the Mongols, in particular, had confronted swordsmiths with the fact that many samurai had previously fought largely with arrows rather than swords. Mongol armor was thicker and harder, and was met by the swordsmiths by a new trend in thinner blades with a triangular cross-section, which might be more likely to punch through tougher armor.

It was not merely a case of evolving technology. The Kamakura smiths also benefited from an aristocracy that valued weapons but no longer required them to be churned out in quite such high quantities. For a century before (and, as it would turn out, for a century afterwards) battlefield conditions required swords that were made efficiently and quickly, in anticipation of high turnover, breakages, and losses. Now the swordsmiths could afford to take it easy, to experiment with new ideas, and to take money from their patrons, who were no longer troubled warriors but relatively wealthy men of leisure commissioning new family heirlooms or impressive curios.

In the Kamakura period we see refinements to the curved blade of earlier wars; the edge was tempered, and several variant hardnesses of steel were used, folded hundreds of times. The weapon could be honed to razor sharpness while remaining flexible enough to take some punishment. Blades were tested by their ability to cut through something with the consistency and resistance of a human body; this would sometimes involve testing on them corpses or even live human subjects, with convicted criminals meeting unpleasant fates in the service of science. It was not unusual for a sword cut a man’s body from shoulder to navel in a single strike. The best were certified for cutting through several bodies at once.

Despite their demonstrable practicality, many such swords were unlikely to see real action, and instead were cherished as family heirlooms. They hence gained an entire subculture of fittings and trappings, including ornate scabbards, highly decorative hand-guards (tsuba), and exotic materials binding the hilts.

China, 1280 CE—Marco Polo saw it with his own eyes. The river Yangtze was thick with ships great and small: ocean-going traders, robust war junks, and huge numbers of shakily repurposed river boats. All were being readied for the latest great enterprise of the new emperor, the Mongol Khubilai Khan: a massive armada that would cross the sea to annihilate the defiant island kingdom of Cipangu.

Nobody in the West had ever heard of this Cipangu before. Marco Polo’s account was the first to even mention it in a European language. When he did, he drew on years of propaganda designed to fire up the conscripts of Khubilai’s navy, as well as lies and spin concocted by reluctant Korean allies.

In his intimidating correspondence with the rulers of Cipangu, Khubilai had belittled the nation as a jumped-up barbaric kingdom, uncomprehending of courtly etiquette and ignorant of the trouble it would be in if it did not submit to him. However, in his exhortations to his armies, he made sure that everybody knew how incredibly rich Cipangu was.

“They have,” enthused Marco Polo on the basis of no evidence whatsoever, “gold in abundance, because it is found there in measureless quantities.”

Khubilai Khan had already made one attempt to invade the island kingdom after a decade of increasingly antagonistic diplomatic exchanges. Not only the people of Cipangu, but also their Korean counterparts, had literally spent years lying about the distance to the islands and the likelihood of strong resistance. Embassies had been fobbed off with numerous wily excuses, and often failed to work out whom they were supposed to be addressing. The natives infamously claimed to have an emperor of equal standing to the ruler of China, but the man who sat on their throne in 1274 was only a figurehead. His father, the former emperor, had abdicated, allowing him to meddle in politics from behind the scenes. His mother supposedly had no power of her own, but was a member of the powerful Fujiwara family, obliging the new emperor to listen to the wishes of his grandfather and uncles. His wife, meanwhile, was a scion of the Minamoto family, another powerful clan with vested interests.

And yet none of this really mattered, because foreign policy and many local issues were in the hands of the emperor’s barbarian-suppressing supreme general, the shōgun, in the town of Kamakura. But the shōgun was himself a puppet of yet another group, the Hōjō clan that had secretly run the islands for many decades. His own job was delegated to a regent, the shikken, who at the time was a callow youth of twenty-three, leaning on a shadowy council of advisers. Your guess is as good as mine, and certainly as good as Khubilai’s, as to who was really in charge.

Such obfuscations were not unique to Cipangu. The Mongols were getting a similar runaround far to the south in what is now Vietnam, where any request for a direct answer would be passed around a series of grandly titled bigwigs, any one of whom might waste another couple of months by sending back a request for clarification. The land that Marco Polo knew as Cipangu was impossible to understand, beyond a distant horizon, itself at the very edge of the known Asian world, and apparently controlled by a nebulous, invisible hegemony of power brokers and alliances. This would not be the last time it was described in such terms.

Still, at least Khubilai could mention all that imaginary gold. His troops were drunk on stories of it. The armies that had pushed Mongol rule all over Asia were ready to advance on these unknown islands, hoping thereby to shut down so-called pirate bases. What happened next is one of the greatest war stories of human history.

Khubilai’s first armada, in 1274, swiftly snatched the islands of Tsushima and Iki in the 200-kilometer (124 miles) strait. The huge fleet packed into the wide sweep of Hakata Bay, which had been for centuries the gateway to the islands for any foreign shipping.

The natives were waiting for them.

The country had not seen a meaningful battle for two generations, and the members of its warrior class, the samurai, were spoiling for a fight. They had, however, distinctly odd ideas about how a battle should proceed. The Mongols and their Korean and Chinese allies watched in bafflement as a soldier clad in strange armor tied with brightly colored silks shot a noise-making “humming-bulb” arrow over their heads. It screamed in the air on the blustery November day, intended by the defenders to signal a parley and a series of small bouts between champions.

The Mongols retaliated with a volley of deadly poison arrows. They were not there to take part in some local battle ceremony. They were there to invade.

The fighting that broke out was so fierce that it cost the defenders a third of their military manpower by the end of the first day. The Mongols, however, had no way of seeing over the wall. Unsure of their ability to hold a beachhead that was all but encircled by enemy fortifications, they retreated back to their ships to await the dawn.

The natives had other plans, taking to the waters in a swarm of little boats piled high with kindling. They crept aboard the enemy ships, starting fires and knifing sailors, although many of the flames were soon put out by heavy rain.

Soon the wind whipped up even further; the natives pulled back, looking on as the elements carried on the fight for them. The mother of all storms pounded down on the armada, overturning smaller boats and threatening to bash the close-packed ships into each other. Captains ordered their crews to push their vessels into deeper waters where the swell would not be so dangerous.

But it was too late. The storm had escalated into a monstrous typhoon that dashed the invaders against the coastline and into each other, swamping them and overturning them, crushing troop transports and supply vessels. It was soon too dark to see, but the defenders on land heard the powerful crack of timbers and the screams of men and horses.

The following morning as the sun parted the clouds, Hakata Bay was carpeted in driftwood. A handful of soaked survivors washed ashore at several points along the coastline, where they were swiftly put to death. A few of the larger Chinese ships made it out and ran straight for home.

A year later, a new embassy arrived from Khubilai, presenting the shikken regent with a golden scroll that offered to make him the “king of Cipangu.” It was a gesture of reconciliation, suggesting that everybody could spare themselves further trouble if the natives just bowed to the khan and admitted that he was their overlord. The regent made his feelings plain by having all the ambassadors executed.

It was Khubilai’s retaliation—an even larger fleet—that Marco Polo saw being assembled. Thanks to modern marine archaeology, we now understand the significance of his report of 15,000 ships on the river Yangtze—a great distance from the Korea Strait, and a reflection of numerous botched and poorly organized planning decisions. Khubilai’s second fleet was packed with everything the Mongol warlords could scrape up, including condemned barges and creaking riverboats. The timbers were warped; even the nails have been shown to have a high sulfur content, suggesting that corners were cut in every possible stage of sourcing and construction. Over-loaded with horses and supplies for a long campaign, packed so closely with men that three thousand troops were dead from disease before land was even sighted, the armada set sail in two task forces, one from Korea and the other up the coast from the mouth of the Yangtze.

Fearful of being boxed in again at Hakata Bay, the Mongols dithered offshore, many of their unseaworthy vessels lashed together in a vast floating fortress. They were particularly wary of a seaborne attack, since many of their troops were timid Chinese and Korean conscripts, worried about reports of “dragons in the water” and all too ready to surrender. They had started out with three months’ supplies, two-thirds of which they had already consumed, and they had still not made permanent landfall.

Samurai boats came out to the armada in ones and twos—numbers so small that the Mongols assumed they were there to offer terms. But the boats contained suicidal platoons on one-way missions; they cut down their own masts to make boarding ramps and stormed the larger warships.

And then the real storm came: a second typhoon, even more powerful than the earlier one. Modern marine archaeologists, examining the smithereens on the sea bed, estimate it to have been a Category 3 storm—a “major hurricane” with gusts of 199 kph (123.5 mph) that whipped up waves into storm surges of up to 4 meters (13 feet). Equivalent modern storms have been seen to strip the roofs off buildings, blow away mobile homes, and uproot trees. For the close-packed boats of the Mongol armada, it was a veritable apocalypse. Some 30,000 men managed to make it ashore from the sinking boats—bedraggled, starving, and without fresh water. They were easy pickings for the samurai defenders.

The Mongols had every intention of coming back for a rematch, but they never did. An office within Khubilai’s administration was supposedly tasked with putting together a third armada, but it was underfunded and overlooked, and largely powerless after 1286. Khubilai died in 1294, and his descendants more or less ignored the indomitable islands in the east.

The great storms gained their own legendary status among the natives. Before long, certain religious cults were claiming that the no-show by a third armada was the result of their intensive prayers. The Mongols, it was now claimed, had been fought off not merely by the warrior elite, but by the combined efforts of the entire nation, and even by the very elements themselves. In sending the weather to deliver the death blow, the gods had sent a Divine Wind, or Kamikaze. Their country, the locals believed, was special; it was unique; it was blessed by its particular gods and would never know defeat.

For decades afterwards, guards on the shores watched the seas for a new attack, but none came. Meanwhile, the defense took its toll in a different, mundane way. It was not merely the loss of life; it was the colossal expense of the project, which bankrupted many local lords. When, in earlier times, the samurai had been fighting one another, there was always a loser whose lands could be confiscated as the spoils of victory. But when the enemy came from another country, they left nothing behind but their dead; there was no reward that could be bestowed. Within a generation, the Kamakura shōgunate’s hold on power had collapsed, and the samurai had turned upon each other in another civil war, this time in the name of two rival emperors.

As for Marco Polo’s Cipangu, word of it was carried back to Europe. His tall tales of great riches and fierce knights would enter popular parlance. Two centuries later, Christopher Columbus would set out in search of the Spice Islands and this legendary Cipangu, sailing west in the hope of reaching the East, and finding something entirely unexpected.