Kamikaze by James Delgado [A Review]

Kamikaze: History’s Greatest Naval Disaster by James Delgado was an absolute treat. It is an investigation of Khubilai Khan’s failed invasion of Japan in 1281. With a sceptical eye and a thirst for the best explanation, Delgado shares what the historical and archaeological facts can tell us about what really occurred more than seven centuries ago. In order to make a case, Delgado also shares considerable context, from the rise and personality of Khubilai Khan, the history of his other invasions and of the Kamikaze legend, famously reborn in the twentieth century. All this in a short and engrossing book.

Cover image of Kamikaze by James Delgado

Before reading Kamikaze by James Delgado, there are probably two things you already know. The first is that, in 1281, Khubilai Khan, a grandson of Genghis Khan, having completed his defeat of the Song Dynasty and conquered China, launched an invasion of Japan. Facing inevitable defeat against overwhelming forces, the Japanese Emperor Kameyama prays to his ancestors, specifically the God/Emperor Hachiman, to deliver victory and they are sent the ‘Kamikaze’, which destroys the Mongol/Chinese fleet.

The gods had saved Japan. Khubilai Khan abandoned his dreams of conquest and Japan’s shores were not threatened again by an invader for the next seven centuries. Japan, it was now clear, was divinely protected land, ruled by a living god who had called on heavenly intervention in the form of a “kamikaze,” a divine wind.

The second is that towards the end of the Second World War, again facing inevitable defeat against overwhelming forces, the Japanese resurrected the legend of the Kamikaze to advocate for desperate tactics, most famously the use of suicide bombers.

While the second of these is an irrefutable historical fact, the first is obscured by the passage of more than seven centuries, a legend that has undulated over that time and a dearth of written or physical evidence of the events. Delgado casts a sceptical eye over the evidence to share with the reader what little we can say for certain about the events from the 13th century and what theories could possibly explain the evidence we do have. But, in this short book, Delgado does much else besides, leaving me feeling like I had discovered a little non-fiction gem!

Early in the book, that additional information provided by Delgado means reading about the unlikely rise of Khubilai Khan, his war against the Song Dynasty and his motivations for invading Japan. The invasion that ended with the Kamikaze was in fact Khubilai’s second attempt at invading Japan, the first having also ended in obscure if less dramatic circumstances. Delgado also discusses the evolution of Chinese ship building and the extent of maritime trade between China, Korea and Japan of the era.

Moving on to the Kamikaze event, Delgado shares what little we know from contemporaneous accounts. He discusses the history of the Kamikaze legend; from its origin long after the events, to being largely forgotten, to its resurrection, as well as the motivations behind the legend and what that can tell us about its relationship to historical fact. As far as physical evidence is concerned, Delgado, himself a marine archaeologist, shares a history of the archaeological work done at the site. This includes the findings that have confirmed Hakata Bay and the island of Takashima as the location of where Khubilai’s invasion met its end, along with the problems the findings have created for those hoping to arrive at a consistent or conclusive theory as to what really took place. If this is indeed the site of Khubilai’s fleet, why have no ships been found? If a horrific storm destroyed the fleet, why are so many artifacts found intact?

The catastrophic destruction of the ship or ships at Kozaki Harbour in 1281 could be explained by the wave energy of a super typhoon, except that such a storm would not have left intact jars and pots, or a closely associated group of artifacts like those around Wang’s bowl – the armour, helmet, arrows and human bones – that suggest a ship breaking apart and quickly settling down onto the seabed. Why did the ship or ships break apart so completely?

Again, Delgado’s scepticism is a real asset here. He clearly does not want to ruin the readers enthusiasm for a fascinating bit of history, but neither does he want to endorse romantic notions without evidence. He delivers the facts to the reader with their issues and the theories that might best explain them. There is potentially much more to be discovered at the site, but at the time of writing, all archaeological work had ceased due to lack of funding.

If this was all Kamikaze contained it would still be a fascinating and enjoyable book, except there is much more!

In order to give context to the Japanese invasions and the motives and moods of Khubilai Khan, Delgado also shares a bit of the history of Khubilai’s subsequent failed invasions of Vietnam and Java. Both are fascinating. The Vietnam invasion was thwarted thanks to the man who would become a national hero to the Vietnamese, Trần Hưng Đạo (aka Trần Quốc Tuấn). His strategy for defeating Khubilai’s forces are not coincidentally similar to those used against the French, Japanese and Americans centuries later. The Java adventure is no less extraordinary in how Khubilai’s forces were first used and then betrayed by Raden Wijaya.

Khubilai either hadn’t read his history or chose to ignore it, nor did he seem to have a clear sense of who he was dealing with – but then he had proven that with the Japanese.

All this is contained and well-told in a book that, not including notes and references, is less than 200 pages. Because this is a short book, the incredible stories of these later military misadventures are only told in overview but are no less fascinating for readers unfamiliar with them. The main point in sharing them is to show the pattern and trend of Khubilai’s thinking as the Emperor ages and becomes careless, disorganised and impulsive, and to place the Kamikaze event within their context. It builds to Delgado’s concluding thoughts of what to make of what really happened in the 1281 invasion of Japan, of how we might discern fact from legend.

The results from all three seasons not only added even more evidence to the unfolding story of Khubilai Khan’s navy and its destruction. They also made it possible, for the first time in modern times, to radically reinterpret the events of 1281.

My only minor criticism of Kamikaze is that I would have liked more detailed maps of the relevant areas and more pictures of the artifacts being described. Otherwise, Kamikaze is a book I am glad to have found; a fascinating story so well told it was hard to put down.

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