The True Story behind GHOST OF TSUSHIMA │Yokogao Magazine (2024)


Written By Gill Princen

The True Story behind GHOST OF TSUSHIMA │Yokogao Magazine (1)

Written by Gill Princen

In 2020, Sucker Punch Studio gifted the world with one of the most immersive samurai games to date. Ghost of Tsushima invites us into the world of Jin Sakai as he single-handedly repels the Mongol invasion of Tsushima, pushing the samurai code to its limits. In this article, we delve into the real story that inspired Ghost of Tsushima.

In this article

  • The Mongol menace and Tsushima's early encounters

  • The Invasion of 1274

  • The Siege of Iki

  • Tsushima's Strategic Significance

  • The Kamakura Bakufu and Japan's Defense Strategy

  • The Battle Tactics of the Samurai

  • The Aftermath of the Invasions

  • Tsushima in Later Centuries

  • The Braveness of Tsushima

The island of Tsushima, located between the southern coast of Korea and Japan's Kyushu, holds a story of valor and devastation that has resonated through the centuries. Due to the mountainous land, many of the islanders became fishermen to provide for themselves. Yet some turned to piracy, targeting the Korean coast just a short journey away. These Japanese pirates, known as wakō, thrived during the 13th century when Korea was under constant threat from an even greater menace: the Mongol Empire.

The Mongol menace and Tsushima's early encounters

For three decades, the Mongol forces relentlessly invaded Korea, forcing King Gojong into refuge. During this period of instability, Japanese pirates seized the opportunity to raid the Korean coast repeatedly. These raids did not go unnoticed by the Mongol rulers. The Great Khan, Kublai Khan, became aware of Japan's existence and its rumored wealth. In the 1260s, he began sending envoys to Japan, demanding that they acknowledge his supremacy. Due to its strategic location,Tsushima became a key stopover for these envoys. However, Japan's military government, the Kamakura Bakufu, led by Hojo Tokimune, consistently refused to even meet with Kublai’s representatives.

In 1269, a group of returning envoys captured two fishermen from Tsushima, Tojiro and Yashiro, and brought them before Kublai Khan. The Khan, displaying his might and grandeur, demanded that they convey his message of respect and submission to Hojo Tokimune. Despite this dramatic gesture, the fishermen’s return did not alter Japan’s stance.

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The Invasion of 1274

Kublai Khan's patience wore thin, and with the establishment of the Yuan Dynasty in 1271, he prepared for invasion. By November 1274, an armada of approximately 20,000 troops, comprising Mongols, Chinese, Jurchen, Khitans, and Koreans, set sail from Korea. Tsushima, the first target, was in the path of this massive force. The island’s military governor, Sō Sukekuni, faced the daunting task of defending Tsushima with a meager force.

As the Mongol fleet approached on November 4th, a fire broke out at Tsushima’s shrine to Hachiman, the god of war. White doves, seen as Hachiman’s messengers, gathered on the shrine's roof, interpreted by Sukekuni as an ominous warning. Despite the odds, Sukekuni rallied his 80 mounted samurai and retainers to defend Komoda Beach.

At dawn on November 5th, the samurai stood ready. This is where the prologue of Ghost of Tsushima takes place. The Mongol general Ho-tan's forces began disembarking. Sukekuni's warriors, armed with their iconic yumi bows and curved swords, faced a well-organized and heavily armed enemy. The samurai’s initial barrage of arrows inflicted heavy casualties on the advancing Yuan forces, but the sheer number and tactics of the Mongols soon overwhelmed them. Despite their valiant efforts, including a fierce last stand by Sukekuni and his men, Tsushima fell. The invaders committed horrific atrocities, including threading wire through the palms of prisoners to display them gruesomely on their ships.

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The Siege of Iki

Following Tsushima's fall, the Mongol fleet set sail for Iki Island. The deputy shugo, Taira Kagetaka, prepared his defenses, sending women and children to Hinotsume Castle and leading 100 samurai to confront the invaders on the beaches. Despite a determined resistance, Kagetaka's forces were eventually forced to retreat to the castle. Encircled and outnumbered, Kagetaka watched as the Mongols used captured Japanese as human shields. In a final act of defiance, Kagetaka and his family chose death over capture, a fate shared by many of Iki's defenders.

News of the Mongol atrocities on Tsushima and Iki spread quickly through Japan, galvanizing the nation. The regent Hojo Tokimune famously declared “Katsu!” (Victory), symbolizing Japan's resolve. Although the Mongols launched a second, even larger invasion in 1281, they were ultimately repelled by a combination of fierce Japanese resistance and devastating typhoons, later dubbed the "divine wind" or kamikaze.

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Tsushima's Strategic Significance

Tsushima's geographical location made it an essential strategic point between Japan and the Korean Peninsula. Throughout history, this position made the island a focal point of both commerce and conflict. The strait separating Tsushima from Korea is only about 50 kilometers wide at its narrowest, facilitating not only trade but also the swift movement of military forces. The island's rugged terrain and limited agricultural resources meant that its inhabitants often relied on the sea for sustenance, turning to fishing, trade, and piracy.

The wakō pirates of Tsushima were feared along the Korean coast. These pirates were not just lawless marauders; they were often well-organized and formidable in battle. Their raids were both a means of survival and a significant economic activity. The proximity of Tsushima to Korea made it a convenient base for these operations, allowing the pirates to strike quickly and retreat to safety.

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The Kamakura Bakufu and Japan's Defense Strategy

The Kamakura Bakufu, Japan's military government at the time, faced a challenging task in defending the country against the Mongol threat. Led by Hojo Tokimune, the Bakufu was a disciplined and resilient administration. Tokimune himself was a warrior with a deep sense of duty and honor. His refusal to submit to Kublai Khan's demands was rooted in a strong belief in Japan's sovereignty and the divine protection of the gods.

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When news of the impending Mongol invasion reached the Bakufu, Tokimune ordered the construction of defensive fortifications along the coast of Kyushu. These included stone walls and wooden barricades designed to impede the Mongol forces. The samurai warriors of Japan were also put on high alert, ready to defend their homeland with their lives.

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The Battle Tactics of the Samurai

The samurai of Tsushima and Iki fought with a distinctive style that emphasized archery, horsemanship, and close combat skills. The yumi, a longbow, was their primary weapon, allowing them to rain arrows upon their enemies from a distance. In close combat, they wielded curved swords that were the predecessors of the famous katana. The samurai's code of honor, Bushido, dictated their conduct in battle, emphasizing courage, loyalty, and self-sacrifice.

Despite their skill and bravery, the samurai were severely outnumbered and outgunned by the Mongol forces. The Mongols employed a range of tactics, including psychological warfare, to demoralize their enemies. The sight of prisoners used as human shields was a terrifying spectacle designed to break the resolve of the defenders.

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The Aftermath of the Invasions

The Mongol invasions left a lasting impact on Tsushima and Iki. The islands were devastated, their populations decimated, and their communities shattered. However, the stories of bravery and sacrifice from these battles became a source of inspiration for future generations. Memorials were erected to honor the fallen samurai, and their deeds were celebrated in songs, stories, and historical records.

The failed Mongol invasions also had significant repercussions for the Mongol Empire. The loss of ships and men, coupled with the harsh conditions and fierce Japanese resistance, marked a turning point in the empire's expansionist ambitions. The "divine wind" that destroyed much of the Mongol fleet was seen by the Japanese as a sign of divine intervention, reinforcing their belief in their country's divine protection.

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Tsushima in Later Centuries

In the centuries following the Mongol invasions, Tsushima continued to play a critical role in Japan's interactions with Korea and the broader region. During the late medieval and early modern periods, the island became a hub for trade and diplomacy. The Sō clan, which ruled Tsushima, played a pivotal role in managing relations between Japan and Korea, facilitating trade and cultural exchange.

The legacy of the Mongol invasions also influenced Japan's military strategies and coastal defenses in later periods. The memory of the invasions and the threat they posed remained vivid, shaping Japan's approach to maritime security and defense.

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The braveness of Tsushima

The tale of Tsushima is a reminder of the islanders’ resilience and bravery in the face of overwhelming odds. Their story is one of sacrifice and defiance, etched into the annals of history as a testament to the indomitable spirit of those who stood against the might of the Mongol Empire. The battles of Tsushima and Iki are not just episodes of military history; they are stories of human courage, endurance, and the unyielding will to protect one's homeland.

The legacy of these battles continues to inspire and resonate, underscoring the timeless values of honor, duty, and sacrifice. As we reflect on these events, we honor the memory of those who fought and died, and we recognize the profound impact of their actions on the course of history. The epic of Tsushima is not merely a chapter in Japan's past; it is a beacon of resilience and a reminder of the enduring power of the human spirit.

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The True Story behind GHOST OF TSUSHIMA │Yokogao Magazine (2024)


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