Feb. 20, 2023

The Storm that Saves Japan

The Storm that Saves Japan

February 20, 1281. The Japanese Imperial Court orders all temples and shrines to pray for victory in the face of a Mongol invasion and, in an unlikely twist, a massive typhoon saves the country.


Cold Open

It’s the early morning of November 5th, 1274 at Komoda Beach on Tsushima island, Japan.

A Mongolian warrior leaps from his boat and joins his compatriots on the sand. The well-drilled Mongols immediately form a line and notch arrows to their bowstrings. At the top of the beach, a few dozen Japanese soldiers stare at the newcomers with increasing panic.

The Mongols are fierce opponents. Since Genghis Khan founded the Mongol Empire on the Asian steppes a century ago, its armies have conquered land from China to Eastern Europe. But their desire for more territory endures. And two days ago, thousands of Mongol soldiers set sail from Korea. Now, they’re here to seize the island nation of Japan.

A general shouts an order, and the Mongolian warrior lets his arrow fly. One hundred poison-tipped projectiles soar through the air and rain down on the Japanese defenders. Some fall to the ground immediately, pierced by arrows. Most of the others turn and run, desperate to get out of range.

The Mongols mockingly cheer as the Japanese flee. If the rest of the Japanese resistance is this pathetic, the Mongol warrior suspects the islands will fall to the Great Khan with little difficulty.

Tsushima Island falls with barely any opposition. Many of its inhabitants are slaughtered by the ruthless invaders, and Japan seems sure to be the next nation to fall to the Mongols. But instead, they will be defeated—and when they return seven years later, they will be defeated again. Both Japanese victories will be credited to divine intervention after storms scatter the Mongol fleets, an unlikely outcome that will be ascribed to the emperor’s request for prayers on February 20th, 1281.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.

Today is February 20th, 1281: The Storm That Saves Japan.

Act One

It’s early in the morning on November 19th, 1274 at Hakata Bay on Kyushu island, Japan; 15 days after the first Mongol invasion began.

Takezaki Suenaga stands in his saddle and peers at the shore where Mongol soldiers are arriving on a small landing craft. The samurai turns to his commander and yells that they should attack before the Mongols create a beachhead. But the commander shakes his head. He says it’s too difficult to fight on the beach; they should wait for the Mongols to advance. Suenaga bristles.

Over the past few days, the Mongols have crept ever closer to the Japanese mainland. After securing Tsushima, they annihilated the Japanese on Iki island, tethering together captured women and using them as a human shield to goad the samurai into a suicidal charge. Now, the Mongols are here on the much larger Kyushu island, and Suenaga is frustrated that the Japanese are not putting up a greater fight.

So the samurai decides to take matters into his own hands. Suenaga kicks his heels into his horse’s flanks and breaks into a gallop, ignoring the shouts of his commander. Five of his retainers chase after him, sworn to defend their master. But Suenaga makes sure to lead the charge. Samurai like him have a strict code of honor. Warriors strive to be commended for acts of individual bravery, and Suenaga wants to be the first samurai into the fight.

But as the ground near the beach turns to sticky mud, Suenaga is forced to slow his horse to a walk. A scattered band of Mongol scouts stands on the other side of the mudflats. They raise their bows and let loose. Suenaga ducks to the side and the arrows miss, but one of his retainers is not so lucky. His horse is struck and falls onto its side. The retainer screams as he is trapped underneath the flailing animal.

As Suenaga wonders how he will cross the mudflats to reach the Mongols, he sees one of them throw an object his way. A metal ball soon lands at Suenaga's horse’s feet. The Samurai has never seen anything like it before. But in the bearest moments he takes to marvel at it, the ball explodes and Suenaga and the other Japanese are thrown to the ground. The Samurai rolls away from his injured horse, but he cannot get to his feet. Blood streams from wounds on his legs. And as he struggles to rise, the Mongols notch more arrows to their bows. Suenaga knows there is no defense. He closes his eyes and awaits his death with grim acceptance.

But his eyes snap back open at the sound of people calling in Japanese. Several more Samurai run toward him. They grab him and pull him to safety. And though the gesture saves him, Suenaga’s head drops in disappointment. He hoped to win glory by leading the charge against the Mongols. But now, it is his rescuers who will have tales written about them.

The following morning, Suenaga is eager to return to battle and redeem his reputation. He painfully pulls himself into the saddle and rides back to Hakata Bay.

Yesterday, the Mongol army secured the bay’s beach and raided several miles inland. They destroyed homes and burned a shrine. But when dusk fell and the weather deteriorated, the Mongols returned to their ships in the bay to sit out the storm. Suenaga intends to act now to keep them from landing again.

But the strong winds whipping around him threaten to overcome the weak grip of his injured legs and blow him from his horse. Somehow the Samurai pushes on. Suenaga rides past the mudflats where he was wounded yesterday. But a very different scene confronts him today. The storm-swept sea crashes against the beach and one of the Mongol ships lies at an angle on a sandbank. The other ships seem to have disappeared but the beach is littered with wooden wreckage and bodies. Several Samurai wander the sand, checking for survivors. And when they find them, the Mongols are put down without mercy.

The storm that ravaged Hakata Bay will force the Mongol fleet to hoist anchor and return to sea. But the tempest will continue to rage, and the Mongols will lose many more ships on their treacherous voyage home. By the time they make it back, around one-third of their men will be lost, most from drowning.

The Japanese will give thanks to the gods for the fortuitous weather event that scattered the Mongol fleet. But the storm will not eliminate the threat of invasion. Eventually, the Mongols will return, leading the Japanese to pray for another act of divine intervention.

Act Two

It’s February 20th, 1281 in Ise, Japan, seven years after the first Mongol invasion.

A man dressed in the elaborate robes of the Japanese imperial court rides through a wooden gateway and into the inner sanctum of the city’s Grand Shrine. Shiver of excitement runs through him. Even though he’s an envoy from the Emperor of Japan, this is a sacred place where access is strictly limited. Only his important mission allows him to enter today — because the future of the nation is at stake.

Despite the failure of the Mongols’ first invasion, their leader, Kublai Khan, continued to covet Japan. In 1275, he sent an embassy to demand the Japanese to surrender. The Mongol ambassadors were executed in response. The Khan then sent a second mission in 1279, but it met the same fate. The Mongol leader then sent a final, and much more threatening message a few months later. It went unanswered, but Japan’s emperor is not completely ignoring the Khan’s warning. Today, the Japanese imperial envoy has traveled to the Grand Shrine with a critical assignment: to pray for victory against the impending second Mongol invasion.

The envoy walks to the shrine of Amaterasu, the goddess of the sun and mythical ancestor of the imperial family. There, he worships with the chief priestess and prays for the defeat of the Mongols. The envoy also requests that the priestess record a curse, punishing the Mongols for threatening Japan and the emperor. The priestess bows her head, assuring the envoy that the emperor’s wishes will be carried out.

All across the country, other temples receive similar orders to pray for victory in the upcoming conflict. All the while, the Japanese take precautions to ensure a sterner resistance in the face of the Mongol's return. And when they do arrive, the invaders are unable to penetrate the defensive wall built to defend Hakata Bay. Mongols can only launch raids from their ships anchored offshore, and the Japanese fight back with nighttime attacks on the water.

And for Samurai Takezaki Suenaga, the Mongols’ return is welcome. Seven years after his dramatic but failed charge against the first Mongol invaders, he hopes now to finally win the honorable victory he craves. So, as darkness again falls on Hakata Bay, Suenaga and his fellow samurais journey out to meet the Mongols in the water.

As they creep up on the Mongols’ ship, a smattering of arrows heads their way. Suenaga ducks as one hisses out of the darkness, just barely missing him and his men. As Suenaga recoils from another arrow, he shields his head with his hands, realizing ruefully, that in the rush to board the boat, he left his helmet on shore. So Suenaga orders one of the other soldiers in the boat to give him his helmet, but the soldier refuses. Suenaga shakes his head in frustration. With the Mongol ship drawing closer, he has no time to argue. So Instead, he reaches down and pulls off his shin armor, tying those metal plates around his head.

Suenaga glares as a few Japanese soldiers snigger at his makeshift helmet. But again he has no time to eke out discipline. Their boat strikes the side of the Mongol ship. And as one of the sailors tethers the vessels together, Suenaga leaps onto the Mongol deck, pushing another samurai out of the way. He charges toward the Mongol's soldiers stabbing one through a slit in his armor and then looking for the next target.

Within minutes, the Mongol's ship is captured. The samurai slaughter the Mongols and pitch their bodies into the water. Then, they disable the ship, breaking the helm and cutting the rigging. Before the Mongols can send reinforcements, a small Japanese force hurries back to their boat, eager to return to the safety of the beach. But amid the frenzy to flee, Suenaga pauses to carry out a final act of retribution. He approaches the first Mongol killed when he boarded the ship. Then, he swings his sword and decapitates the enemy soldier.

Suenaga will carry this grisly prize back to camp as proof that he was the first samurai in action. At long last, Suenaga will win the honor he so craves. The raid will be a resounding triumph. And it will not be the only successful attack launched against the invading fleet.

For the next two months, the Japanese will constantly harass the Mongols, preventing them from making landfall and ultimately forcing them to raise anchor and sail away from Hakata Bay. But the Mongols will not go far. In just a few months, the invaders will return again with reinforcements to complete their foreign conquest. But a mighty typhoon will ruin their grand plans once and for all.

Act Three

It’s August 15th, 1281 at Imari Bay on Takashima island, Japan; two months after the Mongols failed to secure Hakata Bay.

A gale blows across the water, tearing loose sails and whipping snapped ropes into the air. A Mongol sailor shouts for help as he tugs on another rope, trying to disconnect his vessel from a neighboring ship. But the roar of the wind is so strong that even a sailor a few feet away cannot hear him.

A few days ago, the Mongols dropped anchor at Imari Bay, hoping it would prove an easier place to launch an invasion. But the Japanese continued to resist. The Mongol generals tried to defend themselves against their small-boat raids by lashing the Mongol warships together. But Now a typhoon has hit Japan, and the Mongols are desperately trying to uncouple their ships to ride out the storm more safely.

But their boats are no match for the power of the ocean.

The typhoon rages with even more ferocity than the storm that scattered the first invasion fleet. Tens of thousands of soldiers are drowned. Hundreds of Mongol ships are wrecked and with them any chance of the Mongol invasion of Japan. In the wake of the natural disaster, the Japanese will remember the emperor’s prayers at the Grand Shrine and suggest that the typhoon was another gift from the gods. Priests will give thanks for the storm and name it the kamikaze, or divine wind.

Despite conquering territory from Europe to China, the Mongols will discover the eastern limit of their empire at the Sea of Japan. And within decades of their failed invasions, spoiled by typhoons, the Mongol Empire will fracture and decline. In contrast, the Japanese Empire will endure until the 20th century, outliving the Mongol Empire by 800 years – an outcome in part provided by two providential storms, the second of which was supposedly summoned by the emperor’s edict for prayers on February 20th, 1281.


Next onHistory Daily. February 21st, 1965. Civil rights leader Malcolm X is assassinated while giving a speech in New York.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing by Mollie Baack.

Sound design by Derek Behrens.

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by Scott Reeves.

Produced by Alexandra Currie-Buckner.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.