The Real Ghost of Tsushima
Transcript of the We’re all Stories podcast episode 1
Episode 1 ghost of Tsushima
Welcome to first episode
We as a race are the stories that we leave behind
-for example, you may know your grandparents, but do you know your great grandparents? What about their parents? Or their parents? You may not have ever met them but you know they were here at one point or you wouldn't be here listening to this and if you know of them it is because you were told about them. Maybe your mother or father told you a story about them, maybe you found records of them, maybe they even passed down objects of theirs, heirlooms, down through the generations until they reached your hands. The point is, the only way we know of these people we have never met is by hearing or reading their stories because that is what lives on after we go.
In this podcast i am taking upon myself the duty and honour of passing on these stories, stories of every sort, and preserving them, hopefully giving some life to and shedding some light on them in the process. I hope you will take this journey with me and maybe pass these stories along yourself
Lately I’ve been getting sucked into the video game Ghost of Tsushima. spending many hours running around feudal Japan fighting off mongols, bandits and ronin to save the island of Tsushima. This game and its characters are works of fiction but there is perhaps more truth to this title than may be expected from your average video game.
The mongols were a collection of dissociated nomadic tribes from around the area of Mongolia, big surprise there. They didn’t really have much of a footprint in history until the rise to power of Genghis Khan in the spring of 1206. Born Temüjin (tem-YOU-jin) circa 1155 to Yesügei (yes-you-gay)Who was the leader of the Khama Mongols. Temüjin Comes from the word Temür meaning of Iron and Jin which denotes human agency or manipulation. So his name basically translates to blacksmith. According to the secret history of the mongols when Temüjin was 9 it was arranged that he would marry a girl from another tribe. His father took him to live with his in laws until he reached the marriageable age of 12. On the way home, the neighboring tatars (tatters) historically enemies of the clan, invited dear old dad over for a dinner of freshly made poison. I mean, they may be enemies but who turns down free food, right? Young Temüjin rushes home to take over but the clan votes him and his family off the island. He and his brothers must hunt and scavenge fruits and carcasses to provide for his mother and sisters. Big brother starts to flex his muscles so to speak and assert power as head of the family, being the eldest male. Temüjin isn’t thrilled with this so big brother obviously has to go. Him and his brother went out on one of their usual hunting trips with big bro only to turn and kill him leaving Temüjin able to take charge of the family. Around 1177 he is captured by another tribe and becomes a slave. He manages to escape which gives him the beginnings of a name for himself. He rises up from eating roadkill and slavery to uniting the mongols and taking over the other neighboring tribes and in 1206 declares himself, like Leo in titanic, king of the world. Or Genghis Khan which literally means universal chief or ruler. The chieftains of the mongols and all the other tribes of people he took over were so overjoyed to be peacefully united under one ruler that, they swore, at least according to the secret history of the mongols, “We will make you khan; you shall ride at our head, against our foes. We will throw ourselves like lightning on your enemies. We will bring you their finest women and girls, their rich tents like palaces.” One note on sources. I have mentioned a few times now the secret history of the mongols. This was a book written anonymously sometime after the death of Genghis Khan for the royal family so it MAY not be 100% accurate. If that quote is any indication the author didn’t want to get on the bad side of this family who just so happened to be known for their viciousness. But, since it is what we have, we gotta work with it. Just know some of the details may have been fudged a bit. The new Mongolian empire that is emerging then start spreading out in a series of “mongol invasions” all through Asia into the Middle East and Europe. It was not quite as upbeat as the British Invasion and involved a lot less Beatles and a lot more mercilessly slaughtering hundreds of thousands and subjugating lands under him. What can you do. Around 1211 he invades china, capturing the capitol in 1215, forcing the remnants of the Jin dynasty empire to flee south giving Northern China to Genghis. The Jin dynasty would eventually collapse in 1234 under the rule of Genghis’s son. Genghis didn’t get to see this as he died in 1227. He is known as the greatest conqueror in history.
In 1215 little baby Kublai was born. Kublai is sometimes affectionately referred to by his people as Stetson Khan, the wise ruler. His older brother rises to power, focused on continuing the family legacy of conquering. During this time he expands the empire into Persia, taking over what is now Afghanistan and Iraq and pressing into Syria. On the Asian front we see him moving into Korea, India, Vietnam and TIbet. This let him come at the Song Dynasty of southern China from all sides. Kublai was appointed to lead the conquest of the Dali Kingdom in modern day Yunnan Province of China. While his brother is off conquering, he has Kublai tending the home fires and governing China. Now the mongols were a conquering people but they weren’t so keen on statecraft or the day to day running of an empire. Realizing this Kublai surrounds himself with Chinese advisers and Confucianist scholars. He is also fond of the Tibetan monks because of their healing abilities so he brings them along too. He becomes seen as kind of an enlightened figure by Mongolian standards because of who he surrounds himself with. Even though he himself wasn't the greatest mind the world has ever seen, by sitting back and listening to the advice of his advisors he is considered wise. Kublai is sent to take the Song Dynasty. As he is on his way he receives word that his brother the khan is dead. He keeps this from his army and continues his march anyway. He moves his army into position but the Songs negotiate a peace though fighting would continue for several more years. In 1276 they would capture the child emperor. This takes the fight out of the Song warriors though they keep fighting resignedly until surrendering in 1279. But that's getting ahead of myself. After the original peace with the Song, the successful Kublai returns to Mongolia from his campaign to find his little brother had usurped him while he was away with the support of most of the khans. In 1260 Kublai has himself declared the true Khan. According to his faction he was the true legitimate Khan because, according to legend, as a child Kublai was anointed by Genghis himself. This claim is backed by Italy’s own Marco Polo. This leads to a big civil war. Very Julius Caesaresque, Kublai has the support of the armies while his baby brother has the support of the government. Kublai eventually wins but the empire is wounded which kind of marks the beginning of the end of the great mongol empire.
With the civil war over, Kublai is officially Khan of Khans and after finally realizing grandpa Genghis’s dream of conquering China Becomes khan of khans and emperor of China starting the Yuan dynasty in 1271. Kublai is recorded in China as the first emperor of the Yuan dynasty. He considers China the heart of his empire and makes Zhongdu (zong-you) his capital. Zhongdu by the way is modern day Beijing and had been the seat of power for the Jin dynasty. His advisers instill in him the importance of the relationship between a ruler and his people, and contrary to what Machiavelli says, it is important to be loved by the people.
Let us now step away from the inner workings of the Khans and look at the Mongol expansion into the Goryeo kingdom of Korea. Originally the Mongols came into Korea in 1219 to defeat a mutual enemy that had invaded the Korean kingdom of Goryeo. In 1225 The mongols decided that Korea was their vassal state and needed to pay tribute. The Koreans were understandably, less than thrilled and killed the messenger. The Mongols used this as an excuse to invade, like they really needed an excuse… and launched a campaign in 1231 against Goryeo which surrendered the following year. A portion of the people led by Choe Woo fled to the island Gangwha which they fortified. The move was to give them a defensible position and to play on the Mongols fear of water at this time. When thinking of the mongols it may help to think of the Dothraki from the Game of thrones series. Displeased, this prompted a second invasion of Korea leaving North Korea in Mongolian hands while Gangwha still eluded them.
In 1235 they invade again but are still unable to take the island fortress. So instead they burn the surrounding farms and cut off supplies to the island effectively starving them out leading the Koreans to negotiate a peace in in 1238. In 12 47 They come in again after Goryeo refuses to move the capital from Gangwha to the mainland where they were more accessible to the Mongols and could therefore be more easily controlled. This loses most of its force in 1248 with he death of the current Khan. This same song and dance is repeated in 1251. In 1253 the attacks begin in earnest, the people flee into the mountains and Goryeo Generals begin to defect and lead the Mongols in wiping out the opposition until They finally agreed to mongol terms in 1254. Peace was short lived when Goryeo reneged on the agreement and went so far as to punish the negotiators who agreed to the terms and killing the family of a general that had defected to the Mongol side. To add insult to injury, the “royal” hostages that were given to the mongols to ensure the peace, turned out to be fakes. This led to another round of retaliatory conquest in 1254. Yes, the peace did not even last a single year. The Mongols, overcoming their fear of the water order the defectors to build them ships and began a naval campaign the next year. In 1258 Members of the Goryeo government assassinated the head of the Choe family who had been leading the resistance and again sought peace. They agreed to the Mongol’s terms, for reals this time, and became an autonomous state under the control of the Mongols.
With Korea in the fold, Kublai looks across the water, tells his advisors to hold his beer because he bets them he can take over Japan. Nobody really knows for sure why he decided to move against Japan. Some people say it is for the resources (Kublai’s buddy Marco Polo calls it a land of gold, (think El Dorado)) this would also put the Mongols in charge of trade, some say it's for the military power, The Japanese warriors were known for their skill in combat, especially the famous Samurai. Adding these to his military collection would be pretty neat. Not to mention the superiority of the Japanese weapons and armor and the secrets of producing them. It’s probably likely a combination of these and perhaps more but in the end, since when has a Mongol Khan needed an excuse to conquer a country?
In the 8th month of the lunar year, 1266 Kublai writes a letter. Keeping in mind that the Lunar year follows the cycles of the moon and is fluid, it typically begins mid January to mid February somewhere abouts. So this would put the drafting of this letter sometime around September to Novemberish of that year by our calendar. Kublai writes a letter to the “King of Japan” relaying the news that he conquered Goryeo and how the people there were grateful to him for granting them peace and ascending the throne. This made him and the Japanese neighbors and neighbors should live in peace and get along. Who else are you going to borrow a cup of sugar from? Plus, with the taking of Goryeo and the conquest of China, both trading partners with Japan, it was in everyone’s best interest. He points out that Japan has cut off communication with these countries since the Mongols moved in. He plays it off like ‘oh, I’m sure this is just a misunderstanding, my invitation must have got lost in the mail. I’m just letting you know that I haven’t received them yet, but here is my letter offering you peace as a tribute paying vassal state.’ He likens the relationship between himself and his vassal states to a father and his children. And since they are all family, they shouldn’t fight. He says “We think all countries belong to one family. How are we in the right unless we comprehend this? Nobody would wish to resort to arms.” That was an excerpt directly from that letter which has been preserved by the Japanese to this day. It is currently in the buddhist Todai-Ji temple in Nara, Japan.
Whether they were ignoring the Khan and his right to call them a vassal, or they saw it as an insult that they would not dignify with an answer or as some people theorize, given Japan’s isolationist tendencies, when a diplomat from a foreign power showed up, they didn’t know how to respond so instead of saying something wrong, they said nothing.
No matter the reason, the messengers were sent back with no reply. The mongols felt insulted by this but in an impressive show of restraint, instead of invading at the smallest provocation as we have seen the mongols do in the past, Kublai Khan gave them a few years to consider, then sent another letter in 1268. He engages in a letter writing campaign, sending a combination of his Mongol ambassadors and Korean messengers to persuade the Japanese but they were met by the defense minister of the West and made to wait in their ships, unable to even land, while the message was relayed on to the government only to be told: no comment. The Japanese government wanted to negotiate but seeing as to how this was during the Kamakura Shogunate, headed by the regent Hojo Tokimune acting as Shogun and therefore he held the only real power in the land and he was resolute. There would be no bargaining or negotiation. Instead he had the areas closest to Korea fortified and braced for attack. The Khan continued writing letters and sending emissaries until 1272 when he decided enough was enough. In 1274 he took action.
In November of that year, Kublai Khan got an army made up of Mongols along with Chinese and Korean conscripts and set sail from Korea in somewhere around eight to nine hundred ships. Now the numbers here are tricky. There are accounts of the events on both sides and both sides kinda fudge the numbers a bit to make themselves look better. The mongols say the Japanese had over one hundred thousand troops to make them feel better about themselves while Japanese accounts say the Mongols outnumbered them by at least ten to one, intimating by association that one Japanese warrior was worth ten or more mongols. There is even artwork from that period depicting one Samurai single-handedly routing entire Mongol forces. Best estimates put the main force of the Japanese at around four to six thousand against the fortyish thousand mongols, Chinese and Korean soldiers. Not good odds. To bring this account full circle, on November fifth, (another reason to remember, remember the fifth of November) the mongol army made landfall on the island of Tsushima. So yes, for those who have played the game and wondered, as i did, ‘did any of this actually happen or was it just a story concocted by the developers?’ In 1274 a Mongol horde stormed the beaches of Tsushima. The shogun left it to his gokenin, or local lords slash generals to gather their armies and defend their lands themselves. This means the Mongols did indeed invade and were met by an army of the people of Tsushima led by the lord of the island, in this case, one So Sukekuni at Komoda beach. Vastly outnumbered, this force was quickly defeated. That is where the game deviates from history. There was no scrappy young samurai who survived to gather the scattered remnants of the resistance to drive the mongols back into the sea. The defenders fought valiantly but in the end were slaughtered and the island was used as a staging point for subsequent attacks.
While the Samurai fought bravely and well, accounts have the samurai Sukesada killing at least 25 men in single combat. The Japanese were vastly outnumbered but were highly skilled. Their long, sharp katanas were much more effective than the mongol short swords and the heavy armor of the samurai offered much greater protection than the leather the mongols wore. What we really see here is a difference of philosophies and ways of life. The samurai from a young age train from morning to night in striving for perfection in their given pursuits. They view life as an art to be mastered whether pursuing painting or poetry or martial prowess. They are one with themselves and their weapons. And since this philosophy applies to smithing their arms and armor, they have the best gear. Combined with their work ethic, they are the perfect warriors who earn every bit of their legendary status. They follow the code of bushido and would rather die than suffer dishonour. War becomes to them another art and largely consists of a collection of individual one on one combats between warriors on a battlefield instead of an all out free for all. Combat was more focused on the individuals in this period.
For the mongols it was a different matter entirely. It was more of a team effort with squadrons of skilled horsemen who acted in concert and could change direction based on auditory signals from gongs and drums and the like. What they lacked in swords and armor they made up for in firepower. Literally. This is one of the earliest accounts of the use of gunpowder outside of china. They used hand grenades and explosive shot fired from catapults. They also used Heavy composite bows with arrows that could pierce armor. Another thing in favor of the mongols were shields. The Japanese of this time used shields to defend their archers, but they had no place on the battlefield. The mongols on the other hand carried shields and would march in tight formation creating a wall of shields in front of them. While the Japanese were steeped in tradition and fought for honor, the Mongols were more adaptable and fought to win. This difference is highlighted in the Hachiman Gudokun, a Japanese text to Hachiman, the Shinto god of war, believed to have been written between 1299 and 1318.
...Whenever the (mongol) soldiers took to flight, they sent iron bomb shells flying against us, which made our side dizzy and confused. Our soldiers were frightened out of their wits by the thundering explosions; their eyes were blinded , their ears deafened, so that they could hardly distinguish east from west. According to our manner of fighting, we must first call out by name someone from the enemy ranks, and then attack in single combat. But they took no notice at all of such conventions; they rushed forward in a mass, grappling with any individuals they could catch and killing them.
The samurai may have been masters of their art of war but they were completely unprepared for this alien form of fighting.
While The main battle took place at Komoda beach, smaller forces also struck elsewhere on the island. With the main force of defenders dead, the Mongols took a few days to hang out, burning the buildings and slaughtering the locals before heading to the island of Iki on the thirteenth which received much the same treatment. Their forces, led by Taira Kagetaka were fought to a stalemate on the first day, then retreated to take refuge in the more defensible Hinotsume castle in the hopes that the shogun would send reinforcements to aid in the defense of the island. When no reinforcements came, the castle was eventually taken. At this failure, Kagetaka and his family and followers committed suicide.
The Mongols did a little island hopping, making pit stops at Takeshita Island and Matsuura. On November nineteenth they arrived at Hakata Bay. Hakata Bay was where the Shogun had predicted the force would land and so had taken time to prepare, set up defenses and gathered an army of probably around four to six thousand men. The battle lasted all day. The Japanese fought valiantly but by the end of the day they had lost a large chunk of their army. Wounded and heavily outnumbered, They retreated back to the old moated Mizuki castle to brace for the final blow. But that blow would never come. At this point stories and accounts differ. Some say it was because the death of their commander Lou Fuxiang, some because they were cut off from their supply lines, some say the mongols were warned by a Korean soldier who sensed a coming storm and advised them to weather it in their ships. It has even been suggested that this was never intended to be a conquering army, just a recon mission to assess the enemy’s defenses. Whatever the reason the mongols boarded their ships to escape the storm, putting out into the bay some distance, probably to avoid being dashed on the shore. This turned out to be a mistake. The storm was a vicious one that resulted in a massive typhoon that severely damaged the fleet. Many ships were destroyed and upwards to a third of the mongol force were killed. On November twentieth, After this disaster, the mongol army fled back to Korea. These storm winds were thought to be the work of Hachiman responding to the Japanese prayers for protection from the greater force and came to be known as kamikaze, the divine winds. This is where that phrase originated.
Kublai Khan switched back to diplomatic mode and restarted his letter writing campaign, sending a group of mongol ambassadors in 1275. Flush with their victory and considering themselves blessed by the gods, the Japanese didn’t just ignore the mongols and send back no reply, they replied by marching the ambassadors to the beach and beheading them. Kublai Khan tried again in 1279 with the same results. After this second round of decapitations, the Khan got the hint: there would be no negotiations. In 1281, the mongol army came a knocking once again and this time they brought more friends. This time the nine hundred ships and forty thousand soldiers that launched from Korea were joined by another thirty five hundred ships manned with upwards to a hundred thousand troops from china. With this massive army and two pronged attack, the mongols were back in action. The Smalller Korean force set out and On June ninth, 1281 the mongols hit Tsushima again (setting the stage for a possible sequel to the game) followed by Iki on the fourteenth. According to records, the force was ordered to stop here and wait on Iki before attacking with the main force in concert. Perhaps in a fit of overconfidence, this order was disobeyed and After this stroll down memory lane, the mongols arrived in Hakata bay for round two on June twenty third while a second smaller force attacked the Nagato province on the twenty fifth. This force was defeated and retreated back to Iki.
The whole time the mongols had been away, the Japanese were preparing a welcome party for them. They fortified the place like crazy. Building forts and putting up huge walls at possible landing sites, they drove metal spikes into the mouth of the river and along the coasts of possible sites to prevent ships from being able to safely land. These forts and defenses were also permanently manned and garrisoned by a standing army. Many of these defensive measures can still be seen today. The shogun virtually drove the country to bankruptcy to do all this but I can imagine it was a great ‘I told you so’ moment when those ships finally showed up on the horizon. At any rate, the defenses paid off because the mongols, with the few ships they were able to get ashore were unable to make it past the walls from which the Japanese army showered them with arrows. The wounded mongols took their ships and retreated to the islands of Shiga, Noki and Iki. During this time the Japanese Samurai led daring raids against the Mongol ships. They would go out in a small boat, board the ship, slaughter the crew and burn the ship. In this way they were picking off the Mongol fleet one ship at a time. The Hachiman Gudokun gives accounts of some of the successful raids. For example, Kusano Jiro is said to have rowed out one night, boarded a ship, single handedly killed twenty one mongol warriors, taking their heads back with him as trophies before torching the ship and making a clean getaway. According to the records, the next day Kawano Michiari and his uncle Michitoki took a boat each to do their own raid. Being day time, they were more easily spotted by the mongols who began firing arrows. Michitoki was killed and and Michiari wounded, taking arrows in the shoulder and arm. Despite his injuries he still went on to board and kill many mongols before making his getaway. This defense of Hakata bay came to be known as the battle of Koan.
Enter the Chinese force. The two forces meet up and take Taka island from which they stage an all out attack on Hakata once again. The battle rages on for two weeks, coming to a stalemate. Back aboard their ships, the mongols hang out, licking their wounds. On August twelfth the Japanese pick up their raiding again. In response the mongols lashed their ships together with chains and made bridges between them by stretching boards across, essentially making a large platform to fight on. When one ship was attacked, the crews of the other ships could easily lend aid. These attacks do not seem to be as successful because of this as there are no existing accounts of them by the Japanese as there were before. The Mongols seem dismissive of these raids now. An excerpt from the History of Yuan, a Mongolian account of these attacks reads
Japanese war craft, being small in size were no match. Those which came up to attack were all beaten off. The whole country therefore was trembling with fear. In the markets there was no rice for sale. The Japanese ruler went in person to visit the Hachiman shrine to make supplication. He also had a royal rescript read at the shrine of the sun goddess, imploring that the country be saved in exchange for his own life.
The Mongols seem preeety confident now. But apparently the gods had been listening to the prayers of the Japanese once again because on August fifteenth, kamikaze strikes again. Sensing the storm coming, the mongols try to sail for safety but, in the words of Marco Polo, …”When they had sailed about four miles, the gale began to freshen and there was such a crowd of ships that many of them were smashed by colliding with one another.” This near obliterated the fleet. Modern archaeologists posit this mass destruction was due in large part to the rush job Kublai Khan had put on these ships. These ships the Khan had had build by the Chinese on the fly were shoddy, many missing keels and they had a weak mast step, which is bad news when facing wind. Quality over quantity Kublai. The ships may have also still been lashed together in their haste to get away, hampering the getaway and forcing the tight quarters that was ultimately their downfall. Some accounts put losses at a full half to two thirds of the Mongolian army. A Chinese survivor reports that the Mongol general Fan Wenhu took the ships in best condition and ran home, abandoning the army. The remnants of this once great army were hunted down at the leisure of the Japanese and were either killed or captured and THEN executed. The only ones to be shown any leniency were the Chinese of the southern Song dynasty who were historically allies of Japan until their recent defeat and conscription into the mongol army and were therefore there against their will,
After this loss and coupled with other defeats in Vietnam and Java, while Kublai never gave up on bringing them into the fold, continuing to send diplomats to try to arrange peace, the mongols would never try to attack Japan again.
The Japanese always expected a third attack and would spend the next thirty years in a state of preparedness. Whether it was the collapsing of Mongol power or the continued divine protection of the Japanese gods, that third attack would never come. This divine physical display of divine protection led to a surge of religious belief throughout the country.
This was the first time Japan had really been exposed to international politics and it was their first taste of war. Up til then they had only experienced skirmishes at best. This was a watershed moment for the Japanese and would change their culture and worldview forever after.