Sucker Punch‘s Ghost of Tsushima will debut on July 17, 2020, but it’s heir to a long and illustrious tradition of samurai-themed video games. Though hundreds of titles in that vein have been released over the years, this one has a chance to stand out, and not just because it’s a lavishly produced open-world title and possibly one of the last major PS4 releases before the PS5 debuts. Ghost of Tsushima has a chance to make its mark thanks to its setting, which covers a period of samurai history that gets comparatively little pop-cultural attention: The Mongol invasions of Japan.
Ghost of Tsushima‘s Mongol Invasions
The Mongol Invasions were a pair of attempts by the Mongol Empire of the 13th century to subjugate Japan. Both times, the Mongol armies attacked and sacked Tsushima island, a trading hub located almost exactly between the Japanese main islands and the Korean peninsula. The first invasion, which took place in 1274, forms the basis of the events of Ghost of Tsushima. The invasions’ significance in Japanese history can’t be understated: They marked one of the only times in recorded history that Japan defended itself against a foreign invasion, as well as one of the few times a samurai army would go to war against a non-samurai foe.
Like most wars, the Mongol Invasions stemmed from a failure of diplomacy. Kublai Khan, grandson of Genghis Khan and ruler of Mongol Empire, was still in the midst of conquering China, as his Yuan Dynasty was warring against the southern Song Dynasty. Japan, through the ruling Kamakura Shogunate, maintained diplomatic and economic ties to the Song, a fact that was not lost on the Great Khan. He sent envoys, demanding Japan become a vassal of the Yuan instead, and when the Shogun rejected the offer, he ordered his vassals in Korea (then known as Goryeo) to build ships and supply soldiers for an invasion.
(Picture credit: The Samurai Sourcebook, Stephen Turnbull 1998)
The Great Khan sallies forth
A massive fleet of 900 ships carrying an army of over 40,000 Mongol, Han Chinese, Korean, and Jurchen troops set sail from Happo, (a port city near modern-day Busan, South Korea) and crossed the straits. The invasion fleet’s first stop was Tsushima island, ruled by the Sou clan. The clan leader, Sukekuni Sou, met the landing Mongols near Komodahama with a force of eighty mounted samurai and an unspecified number of foot soldiers. They were quickly overwhelmed and killed. Since Ghost of Tsushima‘s main character Jin Sakai is reportedly the sole survivor of a “massacre” at the game’s outset, this battle might have served as the inspiration for that moment.
Beyond Sukekuni’s last stand, most of the widely available records focus more on the Mongol landings at Hakata than on Tsushima. Most note only that the Mongols ravaged Tsushima (and the neighboring island of Iki) for a couple of weeks before moving on to land at Hakata bay (near modern-day Fukuoka city) to face forces assembled by the local lords under the shogun’s orders. Even the Though the residents of Tsushima and Iki would likely disagree, to historians of the time the sacking of those islands was something of a footnote, a prelude to the “main event” that was the invasion proper. However, it’s safe to conclude that the brief occupation was not peaceful: The Korean Goryeosa historical document notes that the Mongol army (which included many Korean troops) killed a large number of people on the island. Members of the Sou clan would survive to rebuild, though, and the Sou would go on to become prominent intermediaries in Japan-Korea relations, all the way up to the Meiji Restoration in the 19th century.
(Picture Credit: Komoda Shrine, Tsushima via The Mongol Invasions of Japan 1274 and 1281, Stephen Turnbull 2010)
On landing at Hakata, the Mongol army faced resistance from samurai commanded by Tsunetsugu Dazai Shouni, the regional governor. The Mongols’ numbers, technological advantages, and combat experience put the Japanese forces on the back foot, and by nightfall, the invaders had made far enough inland to threaten Dazaifu, the regional capital. However, the Mongols declined to press their advantage. According to the Yuan Shi, a Yuan Dynasty record, mounting fatigue, potential Japanese reinforcements, and the injury of Liu Fuxiang, a senior Mongol commander, prompted the Mongols to reconsider pushing forward. After burning the town of Hakata, they conducted a tactical withdrawal, choosing to spend the night on their ships before sailing back to Korea. Fortune favored Japan further. Overnight, a fierce storm developed, dashing many ships on the rocks and killing almost one-third of the Mongol army. This, and a storm that would later impact the second invasion in 1281, helped reinforce the notion of the kamikaze, a divine wind that protects Japan.
(Picture credit: Mouko Shurai Ekotoba, Museum of Imperial Collections)
The impact of the Mongol attacks
The Mongol Invasions had a lasting effect on samurai history, not least for the initial shock the Mongol approach to combat delivered to the defending samurai. According to the Hachiman Gudoukun, a “pop history” of the time that contained records of the invasion, the Mongol armies advanced in dense formations, throwing loud explosives and defended by wooden shields. By comparison, samurai warfare of the time was practically genteel, opened by single combats and archery duels between elite warriors on both sides. Samurai would step forward to declare their names and achievements, calling for a worthy adversary from the opposing side. This time, though, the samurais’ foes couldn’t speak Japanese, much less honor the rituals of samurai warfare that had gone largely unchanged since the 10th century. The samurai would be forced to change to match an unfamiliar foe, and this changing of tradition to adapt to a new status quo is, in a way, reflected in Jin’s transition from “samurai” to the titular “ghost” of Ghost of Tsushima.
The Changing Way of the Samurai
The changes to samurai doctrine extend to more than just tactics. Ghost of Tsushima shows Jin Sakai using a classical Japanese katana in combat, but in reality, this is something of an anachronism. The design of the “Sakai blade” shown in the game would only have been in its earliest stages of development at the time of the Mongols’ arrival at Tsushima.
13th-century samurai were much more likely to use the tachi, an earlier form of the Japanese sword. Reflecting the role of a samurai as a mounted warrior at the time, tachi were cavalry swords, with a more pronounced curve in their blade, ideal for slashing downward from a saddle. Tachi were slung on the armor with their edges pointed down, making them easier to draw while on horseback.
Ironically, it would be the Mongol invasions themselves that would spur development of samurai swords in the direction of the katana. Tachi-wielding samurai encountered difficulty fighting Mongol soldiers on foot. They couldn’t cut through the enemy’s hardened leather armor without their blades chipping and breaking. To accommodate the changing conditions of close combat, the tachi evolved into the katana. Its blade was slightly shorter and less curved, making it more suitable to stabbing as well as slashing attacks in close quarters while on foot. Rather than being hung, katana were secured with a special sash around the waist, with their edge pointing up, allowing a skilled samurai to draw the sword and cut an enemy in a single smooth motion.
Sucker Punch itself has confirmed it’s aware of this historical inconsistency, admitting that some equipment and techniques will appear a bit “out of time,” added in service of bringing that more popular image of samurai as expert swordsmen to life. The vagueness in records surrounding what actually happened on Tsushima in those days is a convenient excuse for this sort of creative liberty-taking. Sucker Punch and other creators with stories can then claim they don’t have to worry too much about contradicting historical details.
For what it’s worth, trailers for Ghost of Tsushima do show Jin wearing more period-accurate armor. Some of his armor shows off the large, flat shoulder plates distinctive of the Heian and Kamakura eras of armor design. The shoulder plates were ideal for defending against arrows, in keeping with the samurai specialty of accurate marksmanship. Later armor from the sengoku period would shrink the plates on the shoulders for greater flexibility, and add thicker torso protection, thanks to the increasing spread of firearms in the 16th century.
Regardless, it’ll be interesting to see what other details and research Sucker Punch chooses to incorporate in Ghost of Tsushima, and what other liberties it chooses to take.
Though accessible media surrounding Tsushima and the Mongol Invasions is uncommon compared to other samurai periods, it does exist. If you’re interested in seeing more, consider checking this stuff out:
(Picture credit: The Mongol Invasions of Japan 1274 and 1281, Richard Hook 2010)
The Mongol Invasions of Japan 1274 and 1281 – Part of the Campaign series of military mini-histories and written by author Stephen Turnbull, this book provides an easily accessed single-volume account of both invasions, bringing information from sources on both sides of the conflict. The book is available on Amazon and via Osprey Publishing.
Total War: Shogun 2 – Rise of the Samurai – UK-based studio The Creative Assembly outdid themselves when they revisited the Japanese setting for their 2011 strategy game, crafting an evocative picture of Sengoku-era Japan. But the game’s Rise of the Samurai expansion turns the clock back even further, to the 11th-century Gempei Wars, the wars that helped form the very idea of the samurai in the first place. The game is available on PC via Steam.
Angolmois: Record of Mongol Invasion – This anime series might be the most recent, relevant, and accessible work available to anyone interested in reading more about Tsushima. Based on a manga by Nakahiro Takagi, Angolmois is quite literally a story about what happened when the Mongols attacked Tsushima in 1274. Heavily fictionalized, it plays off a folk legend of an “army” of exiles and criminals who were believed to have aided the Sou clan’s warriors in resisting the Mongol occupation. In a sense, the ragtag fighters pull their own Ghost of Tsushima moment, using guerrilla tactics and subterfuge to undermine the numerically superior invaders. Angolmois is streaming on Ani-One and Crunchyroll.
13 Assassins and Zatoichi – While Ghost of Tsushima clearly aims to evoke classic samurai films with its “samurai cinema” visual modes, I’d bet the full-color work of Takeshi Miike lives closer to the game’s heart. The ultraviolence of 13 Assassins and deliberate, stylized anachronisms of Zatoichi capture the same spirit as Sucker Punch’s game seems to aim for: History as a mood, rather than a dry record of events.
Nichiren and the Great Mongol Invasion – This 1958 film by Kunio Watanabe focuses on the adventures of Nichiren, a legendary Buddhist priest and founder of his own sect of Buddhism. While the film itself is focused more on morality plays and Nichiren himself, it does capture the sense of crisis that surely accompanied news that Japan was about to be invaded by the world superpower of the time.
Ghost of Tsushima will be released for the PS4 on July 17, 2020.[Editor’s Note: Additional sources and details were added covering the Mongol landings at Hakata and the end of the initial invasion. Language was clarified in one point so as not to sound authoritative or suggest no records exist, as well as more clearly note that creators taking liberties with historical detail or appropriation could then claim this as an excuse, rather than the absence of detail excusing inaccuracies.]