Autumn 2015

Painting of the Mongol Invasion

After Eight Centuries Underwater, the Mongol Fleet May Make Landfall in Japan

A shipwreck was found off the coast of Japan in June of this year and identified as part of a Mongol fleet that sailed to Japan in the latter part of the 13th Century.

The leader of the Mongols at that time, Kublai Khan, sent two military expeditions to Japan in 1274 and 1281. These are known in Japan as the “Mongol Invasions.” The Mongol army that sailed to Japan in 1281 is said to have had a combined force of up to 4,000 ships and 140,000 soldiers, making it the largest sea invasion force assembled until Operation Overlord 663 years later.

After the weather turned against them, part of Kublai Khan’s second armada is said to have taken refuge in Imari Bay by trying to ride out the storm there. Instead of being saved, the ships met with disaster. Today, the area in Imari Bay where artifacts from these ships are being uncovered has been designated as an underwater cultural historical site. Known as the Takashima Kozaki, due to its proximity to Takashima (Taka Island), it was the first underwater area in Japan to receive this designation. Takashima was also the site of a fierce battle between the invading Mongols and Japanese defenders, increasing the historical value of the area. Artifacts such as weapons and porcelain have been found along the coast in this area or retrieved from wrecks and subsequently displayed in Tokyo or on permanent display at the “Takashima Rekishi Minzoku Shiryokan” or Takashima Historical Folk Museum, in Matsuura City.

As part of an ongoing research project that began over thirty years ago, Japanese researchers opened the “Ryukyus Underwater Cultural Heritage Research Facility” on March 27, 2014, in order to advance archeological research on and preservation of artifacts found in the Takashima Kozaki. The facility is a joint venture between the University of the Ryukyus and the city of Matsuura, and the Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology has also supplied funding for equipment used at the facility.

According to the researchers who examined the shipwrecks, the identity of the sunken ships have been revealed by the artifacts scattered around them and by their design. The researchers have learned many things about the armada by examining the uncovered ships. Among these, one particularly intriguing discovery was evidence of burnt timbers on one of the two ships. Based on this, the researchers hypothesized that one method the Japanese defenders may have turned to in repelling the armada was to send fire ships, which are ships that are deliberately set on fire and used as weapons, among the Mongol fleet in an attempt to burn and sink them.

As there are numerous promising sonar readings that hint of other buried ships from the Mongol armada in the area, the researchers are excited about the opportunities these locations provide for further research and discovery in the years to come. The researchers also expressed a desire to raise one of the ships at a later time. Despite the technical and financial challenges to making that happen, Mongol fleet may actually land in Japan after 800 years.

Banner Photo: The Mongol Invasion

Donated to the Public Domain by the Walters Art Museum

Japan Info is a publication of the Consulate General of Japan in New York. However, the opinions and materials contained herein do not necessarily represent the views or policies of the Government of Japan.

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