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Marco Polo’s Description in The Book of India



The Venetian Marco Polo’s explorations of the India in Chapter 5 of his Description of the World started with describing the island of Japan in the Ocean Sea. He put effort in describing the Mongols’ maritime war with Japan. While his account can be called into question, as other scholarly sources also contest his account of the maritime invasion of Japan. In general, the naval prowess of the Mongolian invaders is inflated in Marco Polo’s recounting of the events, while scholars are considerably more measured in their assessment of both Mongolian ambitions and naval power. These embellished details are challenged by both scholars and primary sources. An overview of both the historical situation at the time and the war itself will shed light on the topic and clear up discrepancies between Marco Polo’s version of the events and the version of the other powers around him.





Figure 1. The Khan’s great fleet repelled by Japan’s natural barriers.


Prelude to War

The Mongols empire were a powerful empire originally led by Genghis Khan that devastated Song China in the 13th centuries. The Mongols perceived themselves as having acquired the Mandate of Heaven from the failing Song. The Mandate dictated that those who are capable of ruling must also be fit to rule. It would not be long before Kublai Khan, the successor of the Mongol Empire, would set his eyes on Japan. Marco Polo, in this case, was correct in identifying the reasons for this as being “driven by a desire for wealth, especially gold and pearls.”[Rhode, Grant. “Mongol Invasions of Northeast Asia, Korea, and Japan.” Boston University. p. 23.] This is in accordance with his description of Japan as possessing “pearls in abundance.”[Polo, Marco. “Book of India.” p. 145.] The wealth of the island was related to Kublai Khan, with whom Marco Polo had served extensively in his travels through Asia. Informed of all this wealth, and eager to possess it, Kublai Khan sent two envoys to the Japanese military leadership to inform them of the Khan’s presence and interest in the region. Naturally, this task was accomplished with the utmost of tact, but the Japanese leadership was wary, perceiving that “Mongol power was now directed toward Japan.”[Yamada, Nakaba. “Ghenko: The Mongol Invasion of Japan.” London. 1916. p. 77] Polo relates this as Kublai Khan immediately sending two “barons” backed by military force to take the island. Although a minor discrepancy, it does set the overall tone of unreliability for his version of the event.

Discrepancies in Primary Sources

The primary takeaway for what proceeded the actual invasion of the island is that even the Mongols were forced to submit to the law “that great land powers do not inevitably become great sea powers.”[Rhode, Grant. “Mongol Invasions of Northeast Asia, Korea, and Japan.” p. 24. ] The result of the conflict is not in dispute, but the primary discrepancy between Marco Polo, Chinese, and Japanese accounts is the role that the typhoon played in the destruction of the Mongolian fleet. Polo represents something of a tempering of the Japanese embellishment of the event as an act of almost divine intervention, sparing the Japanese mainland from the worst of the Mongol horde. The Chinese account in the yuan-shi, as well, is unequivocal about what happened: “a great storm and many warships were dashed on the rocks and destroyed.”[Delgado, James. “Kublai Khan’s Lost Fleet.” p. 11. ] One Japanese primary source, written by a courtier, claims that “the reverse wind must have arisen from the protection of the gods!”[Ibid. p. 11. ] This reverse wind is so savage that the Mongolian fleet is demolished right from the get go, and only a handful of prisoners are taken alive. Clearly, the Japanese military leadership are depicted in this account as victorious and exalted over the rag-tag survivors of the doomed invasion. The Japanese account is no doubt embellished, while the Chinese description of the events is more muted. Marco Polo himself writes that the Mongols fled when they saw the storm was brewing, and 30,000 men ended up stranded on yet another island where they were “very grieved.”[Polo, Marco. “Book of India.” p. 145.] Figure 1, on the other hand, provides an evocative illustration of what occurred from the Japanese perspective.

The pivot on which these discrepancies rest is whether or not the Mongolian invasion was repulsed due to poor preparation on the part of Kublai Khan, unused to the logistics of naval warfare, or on the part of the Japanese themselves, exemplified in the divine typhoon that handily destroys the Mongolian fleet. Polo is more tempered in his assessment of the events, but that does not prevent him from including these more fantastical details. One such detail is that Japan contains a literal palace of gold. Doubtless, the role the Mongols played in their own defeat is underplayed by all three accounts. This is the way Marco Polo’s account cannot be said to be especially reliable. All of this happened during the Battle of Hakata, when one morning the Japanese forces had awoken to find the Mongolian ships had vanished. Polo’s account is filled with examples of the competence and ingenuity of the Mongol forces. In one case where a magical stone protected a number of war prisoners from being beheaded, they were clubbed to death instead. The point is that far from depicting the military prowess of the Mongols translating easily into prowess in the sea, other sources actually consider the disappearance of the ships a tactical retreat. Although nothing can be said for sure, it is certainly plausible that “the fleet may have weighed anchor and simply headed for home, realizing that the Japanese, alerted to the invasion, were too formidable to defeat with the forces at hand.”[Delgado, James. “Kublai Khan’s Lost Fleet.” p. 11. ] Polo is apparently reluctant to attribute the failure of the invasion to the Kublai Khan’s generals themselves. Storms abound in Polo’s narratives, but the Mongolian forces are always capable of redeeming themselves by capturing cities after being put to flight by the weather.

Logistical Failure

The point of the preceding discussion is that Marco Polo, admiring and being in service to Kublai Khan, downplayed the element of simple tactical and strategic failure that dogged the invasion from the beginning. While the Chinese and Japanese accounts each formally agree on the event of the typhoon, Polo is quick to deflect the dangers posed by the weather as merely an opportunity for further Mongolian victories. Simply put, “the Mongols suffered significant defeats at sea based on their lack of knowledge of ships, the sea, and seamanship.”[Rhode, Grant. p. 31. ] In other words, the damage caused by Japan’s infamous storms was merely a confirmation of deeper logistical failures and oversights at the heart of the




Marco Polo wrote of his designs on the islands of Japan. His narrative of the events does little to clarify the exact reasons for why the Khan’s forces failed to take Japan. Japanese accounts claim it was the divine force of a reverse wind, while the Chinese sources simply state that the wind had pushed back the fleet and destroyed them. The main reason why Marco Polo’s account is unreliable because it conflates a natural disaster with a strategic one. It is the case that the Mongols did not adequately prepare to translate their land power into the sea. While this might be “mythologized” as a typhoon dispensing divine justice on the would-be aggressors, this is not something that Polo considers. His account is straightforward and yet deceptive in the way it reduces the role the Khan and his strategists played in his own invasion. Polo’s unreliability can be explained primarily by his allegiance to the Khan during his travels in Asia. More to the point, his dependency on his patron rested on not casting any doubt on that patron’s ability to extend his power beyond the traditional borders. The Japanese account is also exaggerated, but for the same understandable reasons. Only a pragmatic understanding of what it takes for former steppe nomads to launch a full-scale naval assault on the islands of Japan can clear up the discrepancies in all these different accounts. This is how all different aspects of the maritime world influence and determine Marco Polo’s understanding of that world.