Japan in East Asian History: From the Medieval Through the Premodern Periods

Historical Trends in Eurasia and Japan: From the Mongols to the Manchus


There is a tendency for historians to study Japan within the limited regional context of East Asia—China, Korea, and Japan. Sugiyama Kiyohiko illustrates how a broader, Eurasian perspective can shed new light on Japanese historical trends in the medieval and early modern periods.

In the context of world history, Japan is usually subsumed under the category of East Asia (or the Far East), generally defined as the three major cultures that used the Chinese writing system: China, Korea, and Japan. But it would be a mistake to imagine that Japanese culture can be fully understood within the confines of East Asia thus defined, or that its history is somehow divorced from the broader currents of Eurasian history. To be sure, Chinese civilization and culture played a crucial role in Japan’s development, especially in the early stages of its history. But as far back as the medieval period, Japan began to experience the direct impact of larger political developments on the Eurasian continent. The first of these was the rise of the Mongol Empire in the thirteenth century.

The Mongol Unification of Eurasia

In the past, historians tended to view the Mongol Empire and its expansion over much of Eurasia as the triumph of raw military might and destructive power. Nowadays, they are more likely to regard it as the high water mark of Eurasian political unification. Born on the Eurasian steppes, the Mongol Empire expanded quickly as it took control of oasis market towns and trade routes. In their heyday, the Mongols not only wielded great political power but also played an important role in protecting and extending transportation and trade networks and in stimulating the movement and exchange of people, goods, and information across the Eurasian landmass. Today, Japanese scholars refer to the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries as the “Mongol Period,” and regard it as a time of fertile Eurasian interaction and integration preceding the the Age of Exploration.

On the eve of the Mongol conquests, the political map of Eurasia was highly fragmented, with control divided among a large number of relatively small states. In continental East Asia, China was split between the Jin Dynasty of the Jurchens in the north and the Southern Song Dynasty in the south. These were flanked by the Goryeo Kingdom on the Korean Peninsula, the Kingdom of Dali in present-day Yunnan Province, and the Tangut Empire (or Western Xia Dynasty) in the northwest. Central and Western Asia was likewise a collection of small polities, including those controlled by the Western Liao (Kara-Khitan Khanate), Khwarezmids, Ghurids, and Rum Seljuks, each divided into numerous local regimes. (Europe was similarly fragmented in the same period.)

The man who transformed this landscape was a Mongol tribal leader by the name of Temujin, who performed the astonishing feat of uniting the scattered tribes of nomads who had ranged the Mongolian steppes for the previous three and a half centuries. At a council of Mongol chiefs in 1206, Temujin assumed the title of Genghis Khan, leader of the Greater Mongol Empire. Through a series of conquests Genghis and his successors rapidly extended Mongol control east and west across Eurasia. By the time of Kubilai Khan (r. 1260–94), Genghis’s grandson, the Mongols’ eastward thrust had vanquished the Jin, the Southern Song, the Western Xia, and Dali, while reducing Goryeo to a vassal state. Their westward advance penetrated Europe as far as modern-day Russia, Ukraine, and Poland. On the West Asian front, they sacked Baghdad and destroyed the Abbasid caliphate.

While there is no question that the success of these campaigns rested on the power and prowess of the Mongols’ mounted armies, there was more to the Mongol Empire than military muscle. The nomadic state (a type of polity that originated with the Scythians in the west of Eurasia and the Xiongnu in the east and reached its apogee in the Mongol Empire) was ruled by nomads, but it was not made up of nomads alone. It was a kind of federation, under the political and military control of nomads but comprising the diverse inhabitants of the oases and agricultural regions. This population included international merchants, who were charged with conducting trade and diplomacy. The makeup of the federation was ethnically, linguistically, culturally, and industrially complex. Although centered on the military might of its nomad armies, the Mongol Empire expanded and functioned thanks to the combined military, diplomatic, trading, and production capabilities of the various nomads, international traders, farmers, city dwellers, and merchants united under Mongol rule.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in China, where Kubilai Khan founded the Yuan Dynasty. In addition to building his capital at Daidu, which was eventually to become Beijing, he constructed a network of canals, roads, and post stations that connected the city with Eurasia’s major land and sea routes and opened it up to people, goods, and information from around the world. The wealth and magnificence of the East during this period is vividly described in Books of the Marvels of the World, based on Marco Polo’s account of his travels.

Mongolian Maritime Expansion and Japan

After vanquishing the Southern Song in 1276, Kubilai Khan exploited the sophisticated shipbuilding, navigational, and maritime know-how concentrated in China’s Jiangnan region by sending expeditionary forces throughout maritime Asia. Almost all these invasions were held off by fierce local resistance, but they achieved their main purpose, which was not so much to subdue the region militarily as to expand trade and secure trade routes. By the end of the thirteenth century the Yuan Dynasty had commercial ties with virtually every corner of Asia.

Japan was no exception. The Yuan sent expeditions to Japan twice, in 1274 and 1281, both of which ended in military failure. These were the so-called Mongol invasions, also known in Japan as the Battle of Bun’ei and the Battle of Kōan. On both occasions the Mongol fleet arrived in Japanese waters and exchanged hostilities with defending Japanese forces, only to be routed by a severe storm, which the Japanese later dubbed the kamikaze, or “divine wind.” For Japan, a relatively isolated island nation, this was an unprecedented and momentous historical event, but for the Mongol Empire, it was just one in a series of naval adventures undertaken in the aftermath of its land conquests. From the Mongols’ standpoint, there was nothing uniquely valuable about Japan and therefore no reason to commit their full military power to the invasion. The theory that the invasions were inspired by descriptions of Japan as a “land of gold,” as in Marco Polo’s account, is not substantiated by historical records.

Although the Mongol invasions prevented Japan and the Yuan Dynasty from establishing diplomatic relations, they did not put an end to contact between Japan and the Eurasian continent. On the contrary, private maritime trade and human exchange accelerated in the years that followed. Since Japan stopped sending official missions to the Chinese court in the ninth century, the gap had been filled by private sea merchants from the Jiangnan area, who frequently arrived in Japan bearing Chinese goods. This flow of people and goods increased during the Mongol era, with the ports of Ningbo in Jiangnan and Hakata in Kyūshū as the main terminals. Hakata thrived as a base for Chinese sea merchants and became a huge center of the Japan-China trade. This resulted in a very different type of interaction from that which prevailed during the Tang Dynasty, when Japanese emissaries had journeyed to the capital Chang’an to observe and import Chinese systems. The commerce-centered relationship of later years brought the Japanese into direct contact with the elegant culture of the Jiangnan region, which had a major impact on Japan. As this suggests, interaction between Japan and the continent during the Mongol period was predicated on the separation of politics and economics.

The Rise and Fall of the Ming

The Mongol Empire represented the pinnacle of the nomad state, but it could not transcend the inherent weaknesses of such a state. As a peripatetic people living in a harsh environment, nomads rely on strong, capable leaders. For this reason nomad rulers were elected on merit, and no law of succession existed to ensure a smooth transfer of power. Moreover, nomadic peoples for whom the basis of wealth was the movable asset of livestock were accustomed to divide their estate among multiple heirs. Even after the creation of a vast empire, each nomad leader continued this tradition by parceling out fiefdoms among his sons and other male relatives. As a consequence, by the fourteenth century a gradual decline in the monarch’s central authority and conflicts over succession had eroded the cohesive power of the Yuan government and other Mongol regimes across Eurasia. Compounding the empire’s problems was a succession of natural disasters, famines, and plagues (among which we can count Europe’s Black Death) that swept Eurasia in the fourteenth century, destabilizing governments all over the continent. In China, a rebellion spearheaded by the White Lotus Society spread and escalated until in 1368 the rebel leader Zhu Yuanzhang (1328–98) proclaimed himself emperor. Adopting the reign name Hongwu, he founded the Ming Dynasty, with its capital in modern-day Nanjing.

From the standpoint of Chinese dynastic history, 1368 thus marks the end of the Yuan Dynasty and the beginning of Ming. But viewed objectively, from a broader Eurasian perspective, the rise of the Ming did not mean the end of the Yuan. When the Yuan court abandoned Daidu and retreated to the Mongolian steppe, it was merely relinquishing its territory south of the Great Wall. The domain controlled by this northern court—often called the Northern Yuan Dynasty—was comparable in extent to that founded by Genghis Khan. In addition to Mongolia to the north, a number of lesser Mongol leaders controlled territories bordering China to the northeast (Manchuria), west (Gansu), and southwest (Yunnan).

Looking at a political map of Eurasia as it stood in the early years of the Ming Dynasty, it is China that appears embattled and isolated. Although it had succeeded in driving the Northern Yuan beyond the Great Wall, in addition to the threat of invasion by land, the Ming Dynasty had to contend with increasingly powerful Wokou (“Japanese pirates”), bands of coastal pirates based on the islands off Kyūshū. When the Hongwu emperor sent emissaries to Goryeo, Japan, and Ryūkyū on the ostensible mission of announcing his accession and seeking tribute, he was in fact acknowledging the weakness of the new regime by asking these lesser states to recognize his regime and cooperate in curbing piracy.

After succession to the Northern Yuan throne shifted from Kubilai Khan’s descendents to another branch of the Mongol royal family, the Great Khan’s power continued to wane, and a succession of coups and counter-coups by competing warlords ensued. But despite these internal conflicts and power struggles, the Northern Yuan held firm against Ming forces, and the Great Wall—which underwent considerable construction and fortification from the early Ming on—became China’s de facto border.

To cope with these security threats on land and sea, the early Ming government adopted the highly unusual policy of claiming a government monopoly on commerce and exchange with the outside world. This meant that the only legal form of international commerce was the exchange of gifts with foreign tribute missions. Private trade with foreign countries was outlawed. Under this principle of the inseparability of politics and economics, the Ming succeeded in bringing the coastal attacks under control by the early fifteenth century. But this was not the end of its troubles. In the north, the Mongols were applying military pressure to push for trading rights. And when maritime trade picked up again around the end of the fifteenth century, the economic inducements to ignore the government’s restrictions proved irresistible.

Throughout the region, power began to shift toward those with the ability to amass wealth from this trade and use it to defeat their rivals by force. In Japan, this trend is embodied in the competing daimyō of the Sengoku (Warring States) period and the three warlords who eventually unified the country by force: Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and finally Tokugawa Ieyasu. In Ming China, trade along the southeastern seacoast and the northern frontier concentrated immense wealth and power in the hands of local landowners, merchants, and other influential figures who were nominally loyal to the Ming but increasingly likely to defy its wishes. The same applied to the garrison forces that the court stationed at great expense to guard the frontier and the coast. This phenomenon is epitomized in the career of Zheng Zhilong (1604–61), a merchant, smuggler, and military commander who amassed a huge fortune by controlling trade in the East China Sea.

In the north, the Mongol ruler Altan Khan (1507–82) led a succession of raids against the Ming and eventually succeeded in achieving his aim of forcing the Ming government to grant the Mongols trading rights. Hohhot, the southern Mongolian city where Altan Khan had established his capital, became a thriving center of trade. Trade with Ming China was also a motivating factor in the abortive Japanese invasions of Korea launched by Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537–98) between 1592 and 1598. In this respect, Hideyoshi’s invasions were comparable to the military campaigns waged by Altan Khan. Altan Khan’s Mongols subsequently settled into a peaceful relationship with Ming China, and Hideyoshi’s dreams of conquest died with him. But no sooner did these threats recede than a third menace emerged from the grassy plains of Manchuria: the Jurchen leader Nurhaci (1559–1626), founder of the Qing Dynasty.

The Qing as a Eurasian Empire

The Jurchens, a Tungusic people of Manchuria, had previously established the Jin Dynasty in northern China, but came under the control of the Yuan and Ming governments after the fall of the Jin. The situation began to change in the sixteenth century, when a lively trade sprang up between China and Manchuria centered on furs and ginseng from the northeast, luxury items much in demand among the affluent of Ming China. The profits from this booming trade fueled the rise of powerful, competing Manchurian warlords. Eventually, one of these strongmen, Nurhaci, united the Jurchen clans and proclaimed himself khan of the Later Jin Dynasty. His son and successor, Hong Taiji (r. 1626–43) pushed into southern Mongolia and subdued the Chahar Mongols, descended from the Northern Yuan. After this victory, Hong Taiji renamed the Jurchen people the Manchu, and in 1636 he proclaimed himself emperor of the Qing Dynasty. In this way the Manchu resurrected and assumed the power and status of the khanate under such Mongol leaders as Genghis and Kubilai Khan. In 1644, as the Ming Dynasty fell to rebellion, Manchu forces crossed the Great Wall and seized Beijing, proclaiming it the new Qing capital. Thus the Manchu Qing emperor acceded to the imperial throne of China.

Japan was not unaffected by this turmoil on the Asian continent. After the fall of Beijing, Ming loyalists established strongholds throughout the south, collectively referred to as the Southern Ming Dynasty. But the loyalist camp was unable to overcome internal differences, and these bastions successively fell before the advancing Qing army over the next few years. One of these strongholds, Fuzhou in Fujian Province, was under the military command of Zheng Zhilong, the previously mentioned pirate, magnate, and Ming admiral. On two occasions, in 1645 and 1646, Zheng Zhilong sent emissaries to Japan requesting armed intervention, but the Shōgun Tokugawa Iemitsu (r. 1623–51) refused both requests after consulting with his advisors. With the Qing in control of northern and central China, he saw that it would be sheer foolishness to send a large military force across the sea in support of a dying regime to which Japan owed nothing. But the impact of these events on Japan did not end there, for even after Zheng Zhilong surrendered to the Qing, the resistance campaign continued under his son Zheng Chenggong (1624–62)—known in the West as Koxinga. Koxinga was born in Hirado (Nagasaki Prefecture) to a Japanese mother, and his exploits inspired Chikamatsu Monzaemon’s most popular bunraku puppet play.

Koxinga continued to command loyalist naval forces, repeatedly launching raids on Qing-occupied territory in the south, and he sent a number of emissaries to Japan to ask for assistance. In 1661, a year before the last Ming claimant to the throne was captured by the Qing, Koxinga seized Taiwan (then in possession of the Dutch) and established a Ming loyalist regime. The loyalist regime on Taiwan continued its resistance for the next two decades.

It was the Kangxi emperor (r. 1661–1722)—the fourth Qing emperor and the second to rule over China—who finally destroyed the Zheng fleet and annexed Taiwan in 1683. Kangxi was also busy in the northeastern frontier, engaging with Russian forces to block the Russian Empire’s expansion toward the Amur River and ultimately seizing control of the Amur River valley with the conclusion of the Treaty of Nerchinsk in 1689. Meanwhile, another threat was brewing in the heart of the Eurasian continent in the form of the rapidly expanding Zunghar Khanate, a nation of western Mongols.

From the perspective of Japan, an island nation separated from the Eurasian landmass by water, the 1680s are apt to appear as the beginning of a long period of peace after years of rebellion in China and the nearby seas. But from a Eurasian perspective the decade marked the beginning of a “great game” of military confrontation and diplomatic maneuvering among three empires competing for control over the heart of the continent: the Qing Dynasty, the Russian Empire, and the Zunghar Khanate. The reason for Kangxi’s ban on ships sailing to the southern seas in 1717, when the world was presumably at peace, was a desire to bolster coastal defenses, the better to wage war against the Zunghar in the west. For a great continental empire like the Manchu Qing Dynasty, maritime and land defense were inextricably connected.

This period of tension finally came to an end with the fall of the Zunghar Khanate in 1755, under the Qing emperor Qianlong (r. 1735–96). With the annexation of this “new territory”—or Xinjiang, as Qianlong named it—the boundaries of the Qing Empire reached their furthest extent. As the ruler of this vast and ethnically diverse empire, the Qing dynasty, which started out as the ruling clan of the Manchu people, claimed not only the imperial throne of China but also the Mongol position of great khan. For those living in the interior, the emperor was the protector of Islam and Tibetan Buddhism, while for the Han Chinese and the populations of China’s East Asian tributaries, he was the upholder of ancient Confucian doctrine and tradition.

Eurasian History as a Mirror

As this brief overview indicates, Japan was by no means isolated from developments on the continent, nor was it merely the passive recipient of continental influences.

One of the most fundamental changes in world history was the shift in the main theater of action, from land to sea. This applies not only to the maritime expansion of the European powers but also to Asia, where the focus shifted from the impact of nomadic peoples, which peaked with the Mongol Empire, to that of maritime trade and naval power. In Japanese history, the influence of these trends can be seen in the rise of the Wokou, the military exploits of Hideyoshi, and finally the unignorable presence of the Tokugawa shogunate. From a modern-day perspective, the vast territory of the People’s Republic of China is a legacy of the Manchu Qing Dynasty, which in turn inherited much of its far-flung and complex Eurasian empire from the Mongols.

In these and countless other ways, Eurasian history holds up a mirror in which Japan and China alike can see themselves reflected in a new and revealing light.

Wokou Sugiyama Kiyohiko Mongol Empire Eurasian history Temujin Genghis Khan Kublai Khan Yuan Dynasty Zhu Yuanzhang Ming Dynasty Great Wall Nurhaci Hong Taiji Qing Dynasty