'The Bay Was Packed With Ships'
How did a 'divine wind' save Japan from Mongolian invaders 700 years ago?

By Hideko Takayama

Aug. 16 issue - Kublai Khan was a conqueror of boundless appetite. When Japan refused to obey and pay tribute to the Mongolian ruler, he was outraged. Twice during the 13th century he sent massive fleets to invade Japan, possibly trying to seize its storied gold. Each time, though, the khan's aggression was repelled not by the Japanese military but by sudden storms that killed most of the invaders and destroyed their ships. The Japanese dubbed these storms kamikaze, or divine wind.

That's the myth, but what exactly happened in the high seas more than 700 years ago? Archeologists have been trying for decades to nail down the specifics. From which direction did the kamikaze blow? How strong was it? For that matter, how big were the Mongolian ships? And how did they manage to sink? Now, more than seven centuries after the fact, Japanese archeologists are finally getting some answers. Artifacts uncovered in an expedition that ended last week tell more about the battles that took place off the coast of the tiny island of Takashima at the mouth of Imari Bay, 1,000 kilometers southwest of Tokyo.

Digging up the sea bottom to salvage the pieces from the Mongols' invasions is a difficult task, to say the least. Excavations that started in the 1980s, now led by Kenzo Hayashida, archeologist and president of the Kyushu and Okinawa Society for Underwater Archaeology, managed to uncover many ceramic jars used for containers. In recent years his team found Mongolian pottery-shelled bombs, swords, large anchors and a bowl with Chinese characters that belonged to a 100-man unit under a commander named Wang. In July his team of scientists and divers worked on a site about 70 meters from the shore and 13 meters below the surface of the sea. By pumping water through a hose and suctioning up the sand, they found human-skull parts, animal bones, timbers from the ships and an anchor rope.

Hayashida and his crew fell short of finding an intact ship. The reason: shipworms most likely have reduced these once mighty vessels to shards. "It is like having 4,000 different sets of puzzles," says Randall Sasaki, a graduate student in the nautical-archeology program at Texas A&M University who was a member of Hayashida's team. "Those pieces were put in a blender of sea and were mixed together. It is difficult to figure out which piece goes to which ship." Judging by the hundreds of wooden pieces the team turned up, as well as those from earlier expeditions, Hayashida thinks that some of the ships of the Mongolian fleet could have been 40 meters, and made in Chinese or Korean ports.

Today the island (population: 2,800) is covered with lush green pine and sweet-acorn trees, and the fishermen pride themselves on their tasty blowfish. It's hard to imagine that this bucolic island was the site of two of the biggest and most devastating sea battles in history. Experts say that some 40,000 soldiers aboard 900 wooden ships attacked northern Kyushu in 1274 and killed virtually Takashima's entire population. For some unknown reason, the fleet left after two weeks and was destroyed by the divine wind on its way back home. In the second invasion, in 1281, 140,000 soldiers arrived in 4,400 ships. When the typhoon hit Imari Bay that summer, about 3,000 ships and 100,000 soldiers are believed to have vanished under the sea.

Shinji Takano, archeologist with the Nagasaki Prefectural Board of Education, thinks that the fleet gathered in the bay to let the typhoon pass. A study of a Southern Sung dynasty military ship excavated in China, which may have been similar in design to the Mongolian ships, shows that a wind of nearly 200kmh would have been enough to destroy the ships. Takano thinks that a mega typhoon wind blew from the south to the shore. "The bay was packed with their ships. They must have tied their ships to one another to stay together," he says. The strong wind and high waves probably crushed them, and they sank.

Hayashida's expedition is hardly the last word. So far his team has not covered even 1 percent of the battleground. If he can find the money and manpower to continue his work, we can expect a lot more details to unfold about the Mongolian invasion attempts.

© 2004 Newsweek, Inc.