On this day in 1281, the Mongol Yuan Dynasty’s invasion of Japan failed for a second time when a typhoon destroyed their fleet. The Japanese came to call these fortuitous storms “divine wind,” or kamikaze, a term later used in World War II for aerial suicide attacks.
The Mongol-led Yuan Dynasty’s first attempt to invade Japan took place in the 1274 Battle of Bun’ei, or the First Battle of Hakata Bay. Despite the superior weapons and tactics of the Mongols, the Yuan forces were grossly outnumbered by the Japanese samurai force that had been preparing for their arrival. After only one day of fighting, the Yuan troops withdrew and took refuge on their ships. That night, a typhoon threatened their safety and the Yuan retreated homeward—but not before the typhoon sank one-third of their ships. The Japanese considered it a kamikaze, or divinely conjured wind.
Not to be dissuaded, the Mongols returned in 1281 with two impressive forces: Some 900 ships carrying 40,000 Korean, Chinese, and Mongol troops set out from Masan, while another force of 3,500 ships carrying 100,000 troops sailed from southern China. The Mongols planned to overwhelm the Japanese with their combined imperial fleets. After some delays and early losses, the combined fleet took Iki-shima and moved on to Kyushu. There, the Mongol forces were driven back to their ships in a number of individual skirmishes collectively known as the Battle of Koan, or the Second Battle of Hakata Bay.
Then, on 15 August 1281, a massive typhoon assaulted the shores of Kyushu for two days straight, destroying much of the Mongol fleet. Many of the fleet’s ships were hastily acquired flat-bottomed Chinese riverboats. Unlike ocean-going ships which are designed with a curved keel to prevent capsizing, these ships were difficult to use on the high sea and nearly impossible to save in a violent typhoon. Many of the Mongol fleet and the troops aboard, were destroyed in this, second “divine storm” the Japanese dubbed the now-famous kamikaze. The Mongols never again returned to Japan.
The term used for the storms, kamikaze, was later used during World War II as nationalist propaganda for the suicide attacks Japanese pilots used on enemy forces. It was a metaphor intended to convey that the pilots were the “divine wind” that would sweep enemy forces from the seas, just as divine winds swept Mongol invaders from Japanese seas in centuries prior.