Sucker Punch’s upcoming game Ghost of Tsushima is definitely interesting not just because it’s the newest labor of love from a relevant first-party studio that created quite a few classics for PlayStation consoles, but also because it explores a unique setting and a historical period that has not received much of the spotlight in this industry.
Of course, you could look at it on a superficial level and be sold on the cool factor of feudal Japan, but diving deeper into the history of the events selected by Sucker Punch, you’ll notice that there is more to it than meets the eye.
First of all, let’s take a broad look at the history of the Mongol Invasions of Japan. The plural is due to the fact is that two were attempted, a few years apart: the first happened in 1274, and the second in 1281.
Ghost of Tsushima is said to be set during the first invasion in 1274, but we’ll look at both to get a more exhaustive picture of the events. Do keep in mind that different sources often present relevant differences in details (especially the number of soldiers on the field and ships at sea, but it’s not limited to that). We’re talking about almost 750 years ago, and the archival organization was spotty at best, even more so since many battles were fought in remote locations, far from the seats of the central government of the nations involved.
In the second half of the thirteenth century, the power of Kublai Khan (grandson of Genghis Khan) was at its apex, having established dominance over Northern China, all the way to the Middle East, and southern portions of Russia. Even the kingdom of Goryeo (that spanned the Korean Peninsula) had retained its independence only formally and was de facto a vassal of the Mongol Empire. Japan was next.
In 1266, Kublai sent two ambassadors with a letter addressed “to the King of Japan” that translates as follows:
“Cherished by the Mandate of Heaven, the Great Mongol emperor sends this letter to the king of Japan. The sovereigns of small countries, sharing borders with each other, have for a long time been concerned to communicate with each other and become friendly. Especially since my ancestor governed at heaven’s command, innumerable countries from afar disputed our power and slighted our virtue. Goryeo rendered thanks for my ceasefire and for restoring their land and people when I ascended the throne. Our relation is feudatory like a father and son. We think you already know this. Goryeo is my eastern tributary. Japan was allied with Goryeo and sometimes with China since the founding of your country; however, Japan has never dispatched ambassadors since my ascending the throne. We are afraid that the Kingdom is yet to know this. Hence we dispatched a mission with our letter particularly expressing our wishes. Enter into friendly relations with each other from now on. 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.”
Despite the fact that the letter was rather courteous for Mongol standards, the diplomatic platitudes and promise of friendly relations appeared to conceal a much more practical message: “become vassals like Goryeo, or be subjugated with force.”
The letter, alongside a second from the King of Gyoreo, Chungnyeol, was forwarded to the Japanese Imperial Court in Kyoto and to the Bakufu (Shogunate) in Kamakura and arrived two years after its departure, in 1268. Factions within the court debated how to respond to the letter, and ultimately the decision was taken not to respond at all. The vague wording of the message and the lack of clear terms probably led the Japanese to believe that Kublai was already set on conquest, making a response superfluous. The only choice seemed to be between surrender and war, and the Japanese weren’t keen on surrendering.
There are actually theories that argue that the letter might have had the honest intention to seek friendly relations in order to sever the Japanese commercial links with Southern Sung (the southeastern area of China) that the Mongol Empire was preparing to invade. Yet, we’ll never know what could have happened if the Japanese court had interpreted it that way.
Following the decision to ignore the message, the Bakufu led by Shikken (Regent of the Shogun) Tokimune Hojo immediately begun to solidify its defenses against a possible invasion, while the Imperial court under Emperor Tsunehito ordered for prayers to be recited across Japan, asking the gods for divine protection.
Having received no answer, Kublai sent his ambassadors to Gyoreo again at the end of 1268, and King Chungnyeol forwarded his own envoys to Japan once more. This time, there was no letter, as the envoys were simply seeking an answer to the previous message. The Imperial court called for moderation, but the Bakufu was set on its hard line and refused to respond. The Korean envoys kidnapped two islanders in Tsushima (this is the first time the island was involved in the buildup of the conflict) and returned home.
The two islanders were returned by another delegation the following year, and again the imperial court’s intent to provide an answer was blocked by the Bakufu, which was effectively in control of the government and of the military.
Kublai finally decided that he had enough of Korean mediation, so he ordered a new envoy to go to Japan directly at the end of 1269. He reached the coast of Japan in 1272, but once more he was sent home empty-handed. One last mission led by the same Mongol ambassador reached Japanese territory in 1273, but access to Kyoto was once more denied. Every attempt by the Mongol Emperor to receive any kind of response from either side of the Japanese government had failed. It was time for war.
While all this diplomatic back and forth was happening, the Bakufu was making use of the time to warn warriors from across Japan about the danger of invasion, and to move forces to western Kyushu. The Mongols, on the other hand, were busy establishing the Yuan dynasty, defeating the last pockets of resistance to their rule in Gyoreo, and making serious headway in Southern Sung. This freed enough forces to mount an attack on Japan.
In 1274, they assembled a fleet of 15,000 Mongol and Chinese soldiers — supported by upwards to 8,000 Koreans — and embarked on 300 large ships and over 400 smaller ones (it’s worth mentioning that many historians consider those numbers overblown, as is common in ancient sources).
The first shots of the invasion were fired on the relatively undefended island of Tsushima on October 5th, 1274. In the afternoon, the inhabitants of the islands were surprised by the sight of the Mongol armada sailing offshore. At around 4pm, eight ships left the formation, and about 1,000 Mongol soldiers landed on Komodahama (Komoda Beach). They were confronted by roughly 80 samurai supported by the local population and led by the local governor, Sokekuni Sou.
By early evening, the Mongols had completely secured the coast and advanced on the island’s towns, setting them ablaze. The remaining samurai attempted a final cavalry charge, but that proved completely ineffective. The defenders of the islands were all slaughtered, alongside many villagers and fishermen. Sokekuni Sou himself died in battle.
Before his death, Sokeuni ordered two retainers to escape the island on a small boat. The two, named Kotaro and Jiro Hyoue, were tasked with the mission to inform the authorities in Kyushu of the incoming invasion. They managed to successfully perform their mission and went on to fight during both invasions. They were ultimately killed in action in 1281 during the battle of Taka Island.
This was the first time the samurai encountered a very different enemy, employing completely unknown tactics. Japanese warriors were used to fighting among themselves in a relatively ritualized manner, with battles made mostly of individual duels during which the combatants even went as far as calling each other out by name before engaging. Archery was quite advanced, but there was little notion of using it as a strategic weapon, with the samurai aiming their bows precisely to pick out single targets instead of massing their fire.
On the other hand, the Mongols did not stand on ceremony. While their most fearsome weapons were their cavalry and mounted archers, they had come by sea, so most of them were on foot. They resorted to massed infantry attacks and formations (similar to phalanxes) that would open and encircle the few that managed to get close. They also didn’t have any qualms against skewering enemy horses on their spears. Their composite short bows were technically superior to the samurai longbows, and they were employed differently by shooting large volleys high into the sky, that then rained onto the enemy ranks. They even used poison, fire, and explosive arrows, alongside grenades made with ceramic spheres packed with gunpowder used to wreak havoc and terrorize horses.
Interestingly, there are conflicting accounts on how effective Japanese archery and tactics really were against the Mongols, with mentions of sniping officers from afar being definitely successful. Some sources also suggest that Mongol formations weren’t as cohesive as others allege. Yet, one detail is interesting: the early Tachi blades used by the Samurai were too long and thin, causing them to often snap when impacting against the thick boiled leather armor worn by the Mongols. This triggered a process of revision of the Japanese sword that would lead to the creation of the shorter and sturdier Katana as we know it.
After taking Tsushima, the Mongols moved on Iki Island on October 14th and Hirado Island, Taka Island and Nokono Island between October 16th and 17th, overwhelming and crushing the Japanese defenders. The way to Japan was open.
The Mongol army finally landed at Hakata Bay in Kyushu on October 19th, starting a series of engagements known as the Battle of Bun’ei. Japanese forces in the area are often counted under 6,000 even if different accounts vary wildly. Both sides actually seemed to think themselves outnumbered, and it’s probable that the numbers were effectively rather even on the ground, while the Mongols enjoyed only naval superiority.
By order of Tokimune Hojo, the Japanese had spent the months before the invasion rebuilding several castles between the coastline and the local seat of the government in Dazaifu, alongside fortifications and tall bulwarks.
The Japanese commanders were rather inexperienced in controlling large units, as the latest major conflict in Japan had happened in 1221, over fifty years before. This caused the Mongols to advance rapidly breaking through the initial opposition led by Yasunari Kikuchi and Kakue Shoni. However, Shoni’s samurai managed to inflict heavy casualties on the invaders, and his son Kagesuke managed to severely wound Mongol Commander Liu Fu-Hsiang in Akasaka by shooting him from his horse with a well-aimed arrow.
At Torikai-Gata, Japanese commander Takesaki Suenaga attacked an army of thousands of Yuan soldiers and managed to hold them long enough, allowing the arrival of reinforcements under Michiyasu Shiraishi, who ultimately pushed the Mongols back and inflicted heavy casualties.
Wounded Mongol commander Liu Fu-Hsiang discussed what to do with other generals, and he ultimately withdrew the army to the perceived safety of the ships (some sources also state that they were short on arrows, which contributed to the decision).
The Japanese took advantage of their smaller crafts to perform effective night-time surprise attacks on the withdrawing fleet, while fifty small vessels were loaded with hay and used to set some Korean ships on fire. Many of the enemy soldiers were killed, unable to employ their superior ranged weapons on the cramped decks of their ships. Korean commander Hong Dagu opted to withdraw back to the safety of the continent, but a typhoon struck the fleet and caused a large number of ships to sink, drowning most of the remaining army.
This was the first of the two typhoons that have been defined as the notorious “Kamikaze” (divine wind). Yet, rather interestingly, the violence of the alleged typhoon is emphasized much more in Mongol and Korean sources than in Japanese ones. A contemporary Japanese source defines the meteorological condition as a simple “reverse wind,” while the term “Kamikaze” related to this event appears in other local sources only much later. The existence of conflicting reports could indicate that the alleged typhoon might have been more of a convenient excuse for the Mongol officers to explain the defeat at the hand of the Japanese samurai.
This was the end of the first Mongol invasion of Japan.
Neither side appeared to consider the result decisive: Tokimune Hojo and his retainers immediately realized that the key to their success laid in their entrenched fortifications, which kept the Mongol invasion force confined in the coastal area. They set out to strengthen them, including the construction of large stone walls on coastal beaches. The largest of these fortifications was a huge wall protecting Hakata Bay, measuring 12.4 miles long and approximately 15 feet high.
Tokimune’s cousin Sanemasa was also appointed as military commander of all forces in middle and southern Japan, while a permanent coastal garrison was created. A pre-emptive raid against Mongol forces in Goryeo was also planned but was never executed.
On his side, Kublai Khan simply decided that the failure of the first invasion was due to lack of manpower. The invasion force was relatively small by Mongol standards, especially considering that the area to subjugate was quite large. The reason lays probably in the fact that the Mongol Empire was used to find local allies in the countries it invaded to bolsters its ranks. This did not happen in Japan, leaving the invading force quite lean.
Kublai also counted on the possibility that the first invasion could have shaken the Japanese resolve. He sent five envoys with the order of inviting the Japanese Emperor to the Mongol court to pay homage and pledge fealty. In 1275, they landed in Kyushu after being denied entrance at the port of Murotsu.
Tokimune Hojo ordered the emissaries to be arrested and brought to him in Kamakura. They asked the Shikken to consider an alliance with the Mongol Empire and presented him with gifts. Yet, Tokimune had them all beheaded. Quite obviously, the first invasion had not intimidated him at all.
In the meantime, Kublai was beginning preparations for a second invasion. He ordered the king of Goryeo to raise an army of 20,000 men and build 1,000 ships. To them, he would add 50,000 Mongol soldiers that he could easily spare after having conquered Southern Sung in 1279. Another fleet of 2,600 ships carrying 100,000 Chinese and Mongol soldiers was also being readied on the Yangtse river. Other sources mention 10,000 Korean soldiers, 15,000 Mongols in Korea, and 100,000 soldiers in China on 3,500 ships. Many historians feel that those numbers were greatly exaggerated, as it was unrealistic for militaries of the time to organize such a large naval invasion. Some estimates go as low as 10,000, but 70,000 men in total is a more widespread theory.
While preparations were underway, a last diplomatic expedition comprised of five ambassadors was sent to Japan, but Tokimune got his hand on those unfortunate souls as well, and all five were beheaded once again. So much for intimidation.
At the beginning of 1281, Kublai Khan finally gave the order to strike. Unfortunately for him, not all of his forces were ready, and the fleet in China was delayed by logistical problems and epidemics. The Korean admirals decided to set sail on their own instead of waiting for their Chinese allies, and on May 21st, they attempted a new landing on the shores of Tsushima.
This time around, the local garrison was much better prepared, and they offered fierce resistance, quickly forcing the landing force to withdraw and sail back to Korea.
It took a few days for the Mongols to get ready again, and at the beginning of June, both fleets had departed. Only, the Korean one did not wait again to join with its Chinese allies and sailed for Iki Island, where the combined weight of Korean and Mongol numbers managed to overwhelm the defenders.
The next Mongol attack came with two landings at Shika Island, which guarded the entrance of Hakata Bay. One force was led by Korean naval commander Hong Dagu and the other by Zhang Cheng. Japanese forces fought fiercely against the attackers and managed to push them back to their ships, nearly killing Hong Dagu himself. The battered fleet withdrew to Iki once again.
At last, the second fleet from China arrived in July, linking up with the one from Korea. But at that point, Japanese defenders were pouring into Kyushu from all over the country. The walls around Hakata Bay were manned by thousands of samurai warriors. On top of that, small Japanese ships continued to harass the Mongol combined fleet with sudden boarding actions that caused the loss of many soldiers and sailors.
A strong Japanese counterattack landed on Iki island at the end of the month, defeating the Mongol garrison, and forced the invaders to withdraw to Hirado island. At this point, the Yuan adopted a much tighter formation for their ships, actually chaining them together in order to thwart enemy boarding actions.
A stalemate developed, with the Mongol fleet unable to put enough troops ashore to make any headway. Finally, the second massive “Kamikaze” typhoon struck them as the ships were packed in their tight formation, causing many to crash into each other and sink.
Part of the remaining ships sailed back to Korea, while another group led Admiral Fan Wen-Hu and General Chang Hsi escaped to Taka Island. Once there, they were attacked by a combined Japanese army led by Korechika Togo, Sukekado Hagiwara, and Nagahisa Shimazu. The remaining Mongolian forces on Japanese soil were annihilated, and many prisoners were taken and enslaved. Only three were allowed to return home to convey the news of their defeat to Kublai Khan: this marked the end of the Mongol invasions of Japan.
The significance of these battles is rather broad: first of all, it’s one of the few examples of the time in which the feared Mongol Empire was stopped on its tracks during one of its many bids for conquest. On top of that, it’s also one of the first triggers that led to the creation of a national identity in Japan, as one of the very rare cases in which the Samurai fought an external enemy and not among each other. Lastly, the myth of the Kamikaze helped create the belief among the Japanese that they would never be invaded and defeated on their own soil, which was protected by the Gods. This belief extended all the way to World War II.
Taking these aspects of Japanese history to mind, there are a few interesting considerations to make about the choice of Tsushima as a setting for Sucker Punch’s new game.
First of all, it’s just a small part of a much larger conflict. Given the information provided by the developer, the game will be set during the first invasion. The Mongols simply overrun the island’s defenders very quickly, and then moved on, leaving just a smaller contingent to guard the place in order to use it as a resupply depot and staging area. The focus of the invasion was around Hakata Bay, and definitely not on Tsushima.
Another interesting detail is that the landing in Komodahama happened on October 5th, 1274, and the Battle of Bun’Ei ended on October 21st. I couldn’t find clear data on when Japanese relief forces reached the island of Tsushima, but it’s probably not much later. This means that the story of the game is likely to be rather short in terms of timespan, as the first Mongol Invasion had a long buildup, but was ultimately a brief engagement. It’ll be definitely interesting to see if the story will somehow extend to the second invasion. Since forces on the island held back the Mongol tide a few years later in 1281, it’s quite possible that Sucker Punch will decide to include it at the end of the game, or it could even be a good hook for a sequel.
History doesn’t say much about what happened during the occupation, giving the developers quite a lot of freedom on how to shape the story. Japanese sources speak of ruthless cruelty by the Mongols and Korean invaders, who burned down villages and slaughtered many of the inhabitants, including women and children. This is said to have shocked the samurai, as for them warfare was mostly an engagement between warriors, not designed to involve the civilian population more than strictly necessary. Quite a few accounts (some related to Tsushima and some to Iki Island) report grim details of local women being rounded up and having their palms pierced, with ropes passed through the wounds to tie them to the side of Mongol ships. Of course, this kind of account tends to be rather one-sided, but it’ll be interesting to see how the folks at Sucker Punch will decide to depict the brutality of the invasion, and what kind of depth and moral spectrum will be attributed to the enemies.
For now, we can only wait for further information, but I hope you enjoyed this deep dive into the history that will serve as a backdrop for Ghost of Tsushima. As you may have wondered, this is just the first part of two. The second, coming soon, will provide you with a birds-eye look at the island itself, and at the vistas and open-world setting that we can expect to enjoy in the game.