Games set in Japan, so hot right now. 

If you’re a gamer then you’ve likely been traipsing through the play worlds of video games like Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice or Shenmue 3 for the past year. So you have most probably already seen and been awed by the upcoming game from Sucker Punch Production, the beautiful Ghost of Tsushima.   


This one is a third-person, open-world, action and stealth game exclusive for the PlayStation 4. It’s set in feudal era Japan, in 1274 CE, on the island of Tsushima, during the first of two attempted Mongol invasions of the Japanese Empire. 

You play as Jin Sakai, one of only 80 samurai that stand against the Mongol horde, led by their general Khotun Khan. For Jin, being one of the last surviving samurai, doing battle and successfully kicking out the Mongolian army entails eventually rising above his samurai training and code.

Ghost of Tsushima in game experience

Ghost of Tsushima in game experience

This is because the Mongols outnumber him and also bring new, powerful weapons to bear (like grenades and muskets), that makes a mockery of Jin’s honorable tactics, a vestigial code that will not only lead him to victory but get him speared faster than he can pull out his katana. As the story evolves so does Jin move away from his samurai traditions and become the mysterious and fearsome Ghost, waging his unconventional war through guerrilla tactics in defense of the island and his country. 

While the game world looks gorgeous and the gameplay experience looks intensely promising with innovative features, what interests me more is the factual elements, cultural and historic, that root the game in a reality that may be a faded one, but one that we have on record nonetheless. 

Before the game drops worldwide on June 26, here’s a quick look at the facts in the game world of Jin’s adventure. 

The 19th-century Japanese artist Issho Yada's recreation of the kamikaze or divine wind that prevented the Mongolian invasion of Japan in 1281.

The 19th-century Japanese artist Issho Yada’s recreation of the kamikaze or divine wind that prevented the Mongolian invasion of Japan in 1281

Kublai Khan paused Chinese conquest to invade Japan 

By 1266, Kublai Khan and his royal family were pretty much the ruler over a huge swath of land that stretched from Hungary in the west, up to the Pacific coast of Siberia in the east, including Mongolia and Korea, plus a good portion of China. 

Though some parts of China had still been left unconquered and the main campaign was being waged to subdue the remaining territories, the Mongol chieftain put a halt on the subjugation of the Chinese mainland and instead set his sights on the Empire of Japan across the sea. 

The grandson of Genghis Khan sent emissaries to the Emperor preceded by a “diplomatic” letter. Here’s what the letter said:    

Cherished by the Mandate of Heaven, the Great Mongol emperors sends this letter to the emperor of Japan. The sovereigns of small countries, sharing borders with each other, have for a long time been concerned to communicate with each other and become friendly. . . Hence we dispatched a mission with our letter particularly expressing our wishes. Enter into friendly relations with each other from now on. We think all countries belong to one family. How are we in the right, unless we comprehend this? Nobody would wish to resort to arms.

Screenshot from the game

Screenshot from the game

Two things to take note of here: first, the Khan addressed the Emperor of Japan as “the ruler of a small country,” and second, he advised the same Emperor to pay him tribute. Or else.

Over the next six years, Kublai Khan’s messengers attempted to get a diplomatic envoy to Japan, but they were always rebuffed, not even allowed to dock their ship. Understandably, this pissed off the great Khan. 

There were two invasion attempts 

Ghost of Tsushima is set during the first Mongol invasion in 1274, when the Khan had waited and built his marauding ships for two years before hitting the green light and setting off from the port of Masan in southern Korea. 

It was autumn when around 500 to 900 ships and boats docked around the islands of Tsushima and Iki, the strategic mid-point between the Korean peninsula and the main islands of Japan. 

According to the scroll commissioned by the samurai Takezaki Suenaga, there were approximately 300 citizens living on Tsushima. While there were some samurai and soldiers living on the islands, their resistance was desperate and underwhelming, the Mongols simply swept them over like a giant horde. The scroll records that the Mongol troops slaughtered all the people of Tsushima and Iki, then moved on to the mainland. 

With 40,000 men strong, the first invasion armada landed on the coast of Kyushu, the major Japanese island closest to Korea. Against this huge force, the Japanese Empire was severely outnumbered. With only about 10,000 men, the war effort was almost dead from the get-go with the politics and feuds of the samurai clans a hindrance to wartime unity. 

While the armada was able to make landfall they never got the invasion underway. They were hit by a tremendously fierce storm that battered the armada and caused heavy losses in manpower, equipment, and vessels. Hardest hit were the gunpowder and explosives stockpiles, the lynchpin of Mongol warfare superiority. 

Historians seem to agree that the storm of 1274 was a typhoon, but what was indisputable was that the surviving fleet was forced to limp home and report back failure to the Khan. The people of Japan rejoiced, crediting their gods with the miraculous “divine wind” that had swept the horde from their shores.  

But Kublai Khan wasn’t a ruler to be dissuaded so easily. 

So seven years later, in 1281, he tried again. This time he sent an even larger invasion fleet and two separate forces, all in all numbering 140,000 men on approximately 4,400 ships. The Japanese warriors were going to be overrun and subjugated, no two ways about it.  

Though the Japanese warriors were better prepared and forewarned this time, even engaging in daring nighttime raids to burn ships and waging naval warfare to decimate the Mongol force, there was still a prevailing sense that they were just chipping away at the flanks of a behemoth.  

So it was immensely fortunate that another typhoon of unusual ferocity and gale force winds came down on the Mongol armada on Aug. 15, 1281. 

The storm battered the ships and drowned the invading soldiers, many of whom were just new conscripts from recently conquered lands. The soldiers who didn’t drown and made it to shore were quickly hunted down by the Japanese forces waiting on the beaches. Reduced to hundreds, very few returned to the Mongol heartland. 

The second “divine wind” of the gods had struck their enemies down again, claimed the Japanese people, even attributing the summoning of the typhoon to the emperor. Ancient art of the event, the expulsion of the Mongol horde, has since abounded.


Shaken, the Khan came to believe Japanese propaganda, too. That the archipelago was protected by strange gods and their supernatural powers. He abandoned any further efforts at conquest and left the islands alone from then on. 

Bushido was useless against the Mongols 

Of course, the samurai army set out to fight against the Mongols in their traditional way of honorable fighting. 

The Bushido Warrior Code stated that, to save the rest of the army, a lone samurai would often volunteer to fight mano a mano against the opposing army’s champion, declaring his name and lineage and then deciding the fate of the battle with a clash of swords between two fighters. 

The Mongols were ignorant of this code, however. So whenever some lone samurai stepped forward from the field and away from the ranks, they’d simply do what they did best: swarm like a horde into battle.

I can imagine the terror and frustration of the common Japanese soldiers forced to witness such barbarity on the battlefield. It likely wasn’t very good for morale to see your clan’s champ get mowed down by Mongol hooves.  

In addition to their tactical superiority through unit-intensive and team-coordinated fighting, the Khan’s forces also used poison-tipped arrows, explosive grenades shelled from a great distance, rudimentary muskets, and the short Mongol bow that had incredible range fired by expert archers trained from childhood to hit a moving target on horseback. 

In the gameplay of Ghost of Tsushima, this is why Jin must shed the tactics of Bushido to become the feared Ghost, using many fighting methods that his samurai brethren would frown on, if not consider dishonorable.     

Akira Kurosawa Japan GIF by Turner Classic Movies - Find & Share on GIPHY

The legend of the kamikaze is true 

In both invasion attempts by the Mongols, the kamikaze, or “divine winds,” were what kept Japan from becoming an occupied territory and vassal state of Kublai Khan.   

In the aftermath of the typhoons the Japanese believed that the emperor himself had petitioned the gods and they had sent the storms to preserve the empire from the barbaric Mongols, thus proving that the archipelago was blessed with their care and a special, holy place.  

Expulsion of the mongols art

Expulsion of the mongols art

Hundreds of years later, the same theme of the kamikaze would be used by another Japanese ruler, Emperor Hirohito, to inspire his troops to rally against the Allied forces during WW2. He cajoled the air force pilots to become his “divine winds” by crashing into the enemy forces and sacrificing themselves in honorable suicide. 

In 2014, geologist Jon Woodruff from the  University of Massachusetts Amherst claimed that he and his team had uncovered evidence that the legend of the ancient kamikazes during the Mongol invasion of the 13th century were not legend at all, but rooted in uncovered evidence. 

Woodruff’s team has found confirmation in Japanese lake beds, near the locations of shipwrecks that were claimed as part of the Khan’s destroyed armada. They also found excavated sediments from under lake bottoms that indicated typhoons were more common in the western Japan half a millennium ago, more so than today. 

The science team dated carbon samples in the sediment layers associated with the two largest storms. The data they gathered suggested both storms occurred at the right time to be the kamikazes that saved Japan. Two of the sediment layers may even have been laid down by the very typhoons that inspired the kamikazes.

Ghost of Tsushima will have its global release on June 26.

Source: Manila Bulletin (