Friday, January 21, 2005


Poor ships, not divine hand, saved Japan


The Australian
January 20, 2005

SCIENCE has dealt a blow to a Japanese legend which says the country was twice saved from a Mongolian fleet thanks to a "divine wind," or kamikaze, that destroyed the invaders' ships.

A 900-ship fleet, sent by the Mongolian emperor Kublai Khan in 1274, met resistance from Japanese samurai before being forced into retreat by bad weather and was then ripped to pieces by the kamikaze.

Kublai Khan tried again eight years later, amassing a vast fleet of 4,400 ships from China and Korea, most of which were sunk by strong winds off the island of Takashima, in southern Japan.

Ancient documents describing winds that blew down trees suggest that there was indeed a big storm in Japan in 1281, although the evidence is unclear as to how bad the winds really were and how they might have affected the Mongolian fleet.

New evidence, though, suggests that poor design and shoddy workmanship may have been the principal cause of the Mongols' defeat, the British weekly New Scientist says in its next issue, out on Saturday.

Randall Sasaki, an archaeologist at Texas A&M University, has pored over fragmented remains of the 1281 fleet that were found in 1981.

Of about 700 pieces of ship hauled up from the seabed off Takashima, none was larger than 3m, and most are between 10cm and 1m.

The find initially disappointed many who had hoped for something bigger, but a closer examination of these pieces has given insights into Mongolian workmanship, New Scientist says.

Sasaki has studied around 500 of the fragments and says many of the timbers have nails placed very close together, sometimes with five or six in the same location.

"This suggests the timbers were recycled to construct these ships," he told New Scientist. "Also, some of the timbers were themselves of poor quality."

As for the design of the ship, Chinese documents suggest that many of the vessels in the 1281 fleet were flat-bottomed river boats, which would have been unstable in the open sea.

"So far, we have found no evidence of sea-going, V-shaped keels at Takashima," says Kenzo Hayashida of the Kyushu Okinawa Society for Underwater Archaeology, which found the remains of the fleet in 1981.

Sasaki hopes more will be revealed by sonar and ground-penetrating radar, for less than 0.5 per cent of the site where the fleet sank has been studied so far.

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