The first recorded conflict with a foreign nation involved Kublai Khan and his Mongols.
Kublai Khan – Genghis Khan’s Grandson
Genghis Khan was a famous leader of the Mongols who conquered much of central Asia, including Persia, Turkey, southern Russia and parts or East Asia.
His grandson Kublai Khan conquered northern China and declared himself emperor in 1271, and succeeded in conquering all of China by 1279. The capital of his new Yuan (“Original”) Dynasty moved to Beijing. Mongols held top positions and mainly non-Chinese held second tier positions. He is said to have not trusted the Chinese. Three race distinctions were made: Mongol, Other, and Chinese. Inter-marriage between these groups was forbidden. However all religions were tolerated provided they did not go against the empire.
During his reign over China, the Silk Road flourished. Paper currency was introduced. Relations with the West increased. There were at least nine European embassies in the capital city. One famous visitor to his court was Marco Polo. Arts flourished, in landscape paintings and stage plays. A pony express type messenger system was established allowing quick communications across long distances.
The Mongols were very good fighters on land, especially their cavalry. They had iron stirrups which gave archers on horseback much better stability and accuracy. They used coordinated battle formations rather than individual warrior combat. They had gunpowder, and catapults that launched explosive bombs. At sea, however, they were not so great at fighting.
Conquering China was not enough for Kublai Khan. He wanted more. He set his sights on additional conquests, in particular Japan. This is where Okinawa comes into the story.
Kublai Khan Calls on Okinawa
In 1272 the Mongols sent an envoy to Okinawa and requested from King Eiso that the Ryukyu kingdom submit to Mongol authority, and in addition to supply them troops and other support in their upcoming campaign against Japan. King Eiso rejected their demands and sent them away.
Khan’s First attack on Japan fails
The first attempted invasion of Japan occurred in 1274. The Mongols set sail from Korea with 25,000 troops. They landed at Hakata Bay in Northern Kyushu. The Mongols had a massive cavalry, but no room to maneuver. They also brought their catapults and bombs. The Japanese Samurai defended with swords and bows. After one day of fighting, the Mongols retreated to their ships. That night a typhoon blew in and destroyed much of their fleet. Their invasion had failed and they left.
Mongols Try to Bully Okinawa – but Fail
Kublai Khan was even more determined to invade Japan after this failure, since he concluded he had been beaten by bad weather and not by the Japanese military. He began preparing an even more massive invasion force, and once again sent an envoy to Okinawa demanding their support. This time a military contingent came with them.
The Okinawans refused again, and a struggle broke out. The Mongols were finally driven away but not before taking some 130 Okinawans captive.
Second attack on Japan – the Kamikaze legend
In 1281 Khan launched a fleet of 140,000 troops to invade Japan. Japan by this time had improved their fortifications and were ready. The Japanese held off the Mongols from advancing a beachhead in fierce fighting from June to August. On August 15 a large typhoon descended on the Mongol forces. The ships in the harbor and their troops were severely battered. Many lives were lost. The Mongols stranded on shore were cut down by Japanese swordsmen.
This decisive battle left a strong impression on the Japanese. It was the first time a foreign power had tried to invade their country. The typhoon that saved them was called “Kamikaze”, or “Divine Wind of the Gods”. The Japanese homeland would not be threatened with invasion again until 1945. The Japanese would resurrect the image of the Kamikaze to use suicide bomber attacks against the American ships advancing toward them in World War II.
End of Mongol Rule and the New Ming Dynasty
Kublai Khan wanted to launch a third invasion attempt but by this time the country was suffering from the cost of his previous tries and other public works projects internally. He died in 1294 and the invasion never happened. The Mongol dynasty then split into factions. In the 1350’s and 1360’s there were a series of revolts by several secret groups.
The Yuan Dynasty of Kublai Khan finally collapsed in 1368, and a beggar-turned-revolutionary named Zhu Yuanzhang became the first emperor of the Ming (“Brilliant”) Dynasty.
Relationships between the Ming Dynasty and Okinawa would prove to be very beneficial to the Okinawan Kingdom.