When Mongols Collided with Samurai: The Unsuccessful Mongol Invasions of Japan

The clash of civilizations has been a recurring theme throughout history, and few instances capture this clash as vividly as the Mongol invasions of Japan in the 13th century. It was a time when the nomadic Mongol Empire, led by Kublai Khan, came face to face with the proud warriors of Japan, the samurai. This collision of two very different worlds resulted in two separate invasions, both of which ended in failure. In this article, we will delve into the intriguing story of when Mongols collided with samurai and explore the factors that led to the unsuccessful Mongol invasions of Japan.

The Rise of the Mongol Empire

To understand the context of these invasions, we must first look at the rise of the Mongol Empire. The Mongols, under the leadership of Genghis Khan, embarked on a relentless campaign of conquest in the early 13th century. Their empire expanded rapidly, encompassing vast territories stretching from Europe to Asia. Genghis Khan’s successors, including Kublai Khan, continued to expand and consolidate this empire.

Kublai Khan, the grandson of Genghis Khan, became the Great Khan of the Mongol Empire in 1260. Under his rule, the Mongol Empire reached its zenith, and Kublai Khan sought to expand his influence even further, setting his sights on Japan.

Japan in the 13th Century

Japan in the 13th century was divided into several feudal states, each ruled by a daimyo or warlord. The samurai, a warrior class, served these daimyos and held significant power in Japanese society. The country had been marked by internal strife and conflict for centuries.

Despite its internal divisions, Japan had a strong sense of cultural identity and a history of repelling foreign invasions. The Japanese people considered their country to be divinely protected, and this belief played a crucial role in their resistance to foreign forces.

The First Mongol Invasion (1274)

In 1274, Kublai Khan launched the first Mongol invasion of Japan. This invasion force was massive, consisting of an estimated 40,000 to 50,000 troops, along with a formidable fleet of ships. The Mongols believed that their overwhelming numbers and military prowess would easily subdue the Japanese.

However, they encountered several obstacles. The Mongol fleet faced a violent typhoon, or kamikaze (divine wind), which scattered and damaged their ships. This divine intervention was interpreted by the Japanese as proof of their country’s divine protection. The Japanese samurai, led by daimyo Hojo Tokimune, took advantage of the disarray among the Mongol forces and engaged them in fierce battles.

The combination of the kamikaze and the determined resistance of the samurai led to the failure of the first Mongol invasion. The Mongols were forced to withdraw, having suffered significant losses.

The Second Mongol Invasion (1281)

Despite the setback of the first invasion, Kublai Khan remained determined to conquer Japan. He began preparations for a second invasion, which took place in 1281. This time, the Mongols assembled an even larger force, estimated at around 140,000 troops and a formidable fleet.

The Japanese, however, had learned from the previous invasion. They had fortified their coastal defenses and were better prepared to face the Mongol threat. Once again, the Mongol fleet encountered fierce resistance from the samurai, and the kamikaze intervened, decimating their ships.

The second invasion proved to be an even greater failure than the first. The Mongols suffered heavy casualties, and Kublai Khan was forced to abandon his plans for the conquest of Japan.

Lessons Learned

The unsuccessful Mongol invasions of Japan left a lasting impact on both sides. For the Mongols, it was a rare and humbling defeat, demonstrating that their military might was not invincible. Kublai Khan’s dreams of adding Japan to his empire were shattered, and he shifted his focus elsewhere.

For the Japanese, the invasions served to strengthen their sense of national identity and their belief in divine protection. The kamikaze had saved them from two formidable invasions, reinforcing the idea that Japan was a sacred land. This belief would play a significant role in shaping Japanese culture and history in the centuries to come.


The story of when Mongols collided with samurai in the unsuccessful invasions of Japan is a testament to the power of belief, resilience, and the unpredictable forces of nature. It serves as a reminder that even the mightiest empires can be thwarted by determined defenders and the whims of fate.

The Mongol invasions left an indelible mark on Japanese history, influencing their sense of identity and shaping their future. The samurai’s valor and unwavering dedication to their homeland became legendary, and the kamikaze entered the realm of mythology.

In the end, the unsuccessful Mongol invasions of Japan stand as a remarkable chapter in the annals of history, a collision of two worlds that left a profound impact on the course of events in East Asia and beyond.

Cultural Exchange and the Mongol Legacy

While the Mongol invasions of Japan were ultimately unsuccessful in their military objectives, they did have some unintended consequences, including cultural exchange. The encounters with the Mongols introduced the Japanese to various aspects of Mongol culture, technology, and warfare. This exchange of knowledge and ideas had a lasting impact on Japan.

One notable example of this cultural exchange was the introduction of new weapons and military strategies. The Mongols employed advanced siege weaponry and tactics that the Japanese adapted and incorporated into their own military practices. This technological exchange contributed to the evolution of Japanese warfare in the centuries that followed.

Additionally, the Mongol invasions led to increased contact between Japan and other parts of Asia. Japanese traders and emissaries began traveling to China and other regions, fostering trade and cultural exchange. This period of heightened international interaction played a role in shaping Japan’s future as a nation with strong ties to East Asia.

The Kamikaze Myth

The kamikaze, or divine wind, that twice saved Japan from Mongol invasion became a powerful symbol in Japanese culture and history. The belief that the gods had intervened to protect Japan reinforced the idea of the country as a sacred land. This belief persisted throughout Japanese history and was invoked during later periods of foreign threat.

The concept of the kamikaze took on new meaning during World War II when it became associated with the kamikaze pilots who carried out suicide attacks against Allied ships. These pilots were believed to be sacrificing themselves for the defense of Japan, much like the divine wind had protected the nation in the past. The kamikaze pilots, like the samurai of old, were seen as symbols of unwavering loyalty and devotion to their homeland.

Lessons from History

The unsuccessful Mongol invasions of Japan remain a fascinating episode in world history. They highlight the resilience of a people determined to defend their homeland, the role of belief and mythology in shaping a nation’s identity, and the unpredictable forces of nature that can alter the course of events.

The collision of the Mongol Empire and the samurai warriors of Japan left a legacy that transcended the immediate military conflict. It influenced the development of Japanese culture, military tactics, and national identity. The kamikaze myth, in particular, became a powerful symbol of Japan’s enduring spirit in the face of adversity.

In the end, the story of when Mongols collided with samurai serves as a reminder that history is shaped not only by the actions of empires and armies but also by the beliefs, values, and resilience of the people who inhabit the land. It is a testament to the enduring power of culture and identity in the face of external threats and challenges.

As we reflect on this historical episode, we are reminded that even in the face of overwhelming odds, a determined and united people can stand firm and defend their way of life. The story of the Mongol invasions of Japan continues to inspire and resonate with people around the world as a testament to the strength of the human spirit.