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Kublai Khan's Lost Fleet: The Discovery that has turned a myth into history

Many of the most significant events in human history are often still wrapped between reality and legend or, more simply, known through written sources that amplify the facts.

This is what has happened to what, until now, could be considered one of the most impressive invasion attempts of ancient history: the attempted invasion of Japan by Kublai Khan.

According to written tradition, in 1281, the then emperor of China and the Great Khan of the Mongols, Kublai Khan, nephew of the dreaded Genghis, tried for the second time to invade Japan. Two fleets from southern China and Korea, for a total of 4500 ships and 150,000 men, head towards the archipelago with the intention of punishing the small country that refused to establish the tributary relationship with the Empire.

The sources want this imposing fleet, which according to the numbers could be considered the largest fleet organized for an invasion before D-day, was stopped twice (in 1274 and 1281) by a typhoon, commonly known as "Black Current", which the Japanese baptized the "divine wind", or the kamikaze.

This important event that, if it had had a different outcome would have changed the history of Asia and influenced that of the whole humanity, was known exclusively through the pages of Yuan Shi, or the Chronicles of the Yuan Dynasty and, after centuries, was now reduced to legend told at school.

But where was the huge fleet sunk in 1281? And that of 1274?

 

Project history

The search of the Fleet began around the end of the 1960s, when the Japanese Government, with the aim of restoring prestige (after the results of the Second World War) to the Emperor and his connections with the divine, undertook to identify those archaeological sites linked to events that, in some way, could favor this policy.

What better example than the event that saw the intervention of the "divine winds", sent by godsin order to save the "elected country" from the foreign invader?

The task was entrusted to the one who, even though he was not an archaeologist, is considered the "father" of modern Japanese archeology, Mozai Torao who, based on written sources, identified what could presumably be the area of ​​the disaster, or Takashima island, in Nagasaki Prefecture.

The doubts fell when, among the fishermen of the island who showed him the numerous finds pulled up with nets (all of Chinese origin and dating back to the XIII century), one of them showed him a particular object: a Mongol seal that presented on the face the name of an admiral, in the Pagsh'pa language (the language made by Kubilai to unify his multi-ethnic empire, but which lasted just over 4 years) and on the back the date of manufacture, 1279. There were no more doubts, the seal renamed Kangun Sōhain, became the terminus ante quem and the proof that the fleet had to be sunk there.

Few funds and a still undeveloped methodology did not allow Mozai to achieve great results. Thus it was that, in the mid-1980s, research was inherited by Prof. Hayashida Kenzō, founder and president of the then KOSUWA (Kyūshū and Okinawa Society for Under Water Archeology) today ARIUA (Asian Research Institute for Archeology and Ethnology).

Although not with the same difficulties as Mozai Torao, it was not easy for Hayashida to pursue this research, also because, especially at that time, underwater archeology was not a science taken into due consideration in Japan.

In 2006, the president of IRIAE Daniele Petrella will begin to personally participate in the search of the fleet collaborating with Hayashida and the ARIUA.

Over the years the results obtained were incredible: the discovery of the Fleet changed the knowledge of an entire page of history and Italy, not only played an important role in research, but also had the distinction of being the first western country to structure an official collaboration with Japan in the archaeological field on Japanese territory.

In fact, since 2009, it became the first Italian Archaeological Expedition in Japan with support and funding from the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, and over the years, the Japan Foundation, the Municipality of Matsuura and Nagasaki Prefecture, for Japanese part.

He also enjoyed, for the first few years, the collaboration of the Superintendency of the Sea of ​​the Sicilian Region and of the late Sebastiano Tusa in person, as well as technical sponsors such as Isotta.

Not only the discovery has thrown new interest in underwater archeology, so much so that it has started dedicated courses in Japanese universities, but has also stimulated the interest of other scholars, such as Randy Sasaki of the Kyūshū National Museum and of Prof. Ikeda Yoshifumi of Ryūkyū University.

 

Methodology

The work done over the years has been meticulous and hard. The surveys were carried out de visu, that is, with ARA dives that beat the whole coast of the island of Takashima through underwater investigation grids.

Studies of ancient currents, the nature of the seabed and other geophysical elements have further helped investigations.

The cataloging of the thousands of wooden components of the ships and their reorganization has allowed the understanding and reconstruction of the type of ships used by the Khan.

 

Goals achieved

The goals achieved were mainly:

  • The first, most obvious, is the finding of the Fleet

  • The second, is to have reported an event from myth to history.

  • The third, to have understood an extremely important event for the history of humanity.

  • The fourth, to have given to the island of Takashima the opportunity to develop tourism dedicated to the Fleet and its history, which allowed the construction of accommodation facilities and new infrastructures such as the bridge linking the island and the mainland.

  • Years of scientific and popular publications on the main magazines in the sector and beyond, as well as interventions by the IRIAE team on world television channels, have given the right resonance to this incredible expedition. This was mainly due to the tireless work of IRIAE Communications Manager, Marco Merola

  • In 2014, the President Daniele Petrella, Director of the Expedition, and the IRIAE won, thanks to this expedition, the prestigious Rotondi Award "Saviors of the Art" in the world. The President dedicated the award to the Japanese colleagues and to Hayashida, the real "father" of the research, during the awards ceremony.

 

What could still be done?

Now the expedition has reached its peak, in relation to the possibilities currently achievable. Where there were more sponsors and funding, it would be appropriate to investigate the deep water, because certainly the rear of such a large fleet will be sunk even in marine areas far from the coast.

 

Pubblication

For research-related publications, here is a link

 

Responsible

Daniele Petrella (IRIAE), Director of the Expedition 

Hayashida Kenzō (ARIUA, IRIAE), Director of the Expedition for Japanese side

Marco Merola (IRIAE), Head of Communications

 

Partners

ARIUA (Asian Research Institute for Archeology and Ethnology)

Superintendency of the Sea of the Sicilian Region (From 2011 to 2014)

 

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