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Doom was closing in. It was greeted with anxiety but without surprise. Its coming had been foreseen. Two centuries earlier — in the seventh year of the Eisho Era, 1052 by the Western calendar — humanity had entered the degenerate age of Mappo, the Latter Days of the Law. So taught the Buddhist sages.

What did this mean, practically speaking? Political disorder, cosmic disorder, evil beyond anything imaginable — or maybe good beyond anything imaginable, for had not Amida, the “Buddha of boundless light,” vowed eons earlier to save all who faithfully called on him?

The principal preachers of the new Amidist sect were Honen (1133-1212) and Shinran (1173-1263). Their vision of a “Pure Land” of radiant jewels, glittering palaces, celestial music and “the light radiating from the Buddha” took hold among a population slowly sinking into earthly despair. Only believe, pleaded Honen and Shinran, and rebirth in the Pure Land will surely follow.

Nonsense, sneered the third great preacher of revivalist “Kamakura Buddhism” — so named for the Kamakura Period (1185-1333) in which it thrived. “Pure Land”? No such thing, scoffed Nichiren (1222-82) — not while humanity remained mired in sin. He saw one way out: mass conversion to his own teaching — which was what? A notion so unprecedented in Japanese history that Nichiren was exiled, arrested and very nearly executed for his temerity. The traditional Buddhist sects, powerful though they were, had always acknowledged themselves servants and protectors of the state. They did not, unlike the contemporary European medieval Christian church, claim to be its masters. Nichiren made that claim for them. For Nichiren, religion — Buddhism — was paramount; the state, secondary.

Scorning all efforts to silence him, he preached on. The earthquake of 1257 was nothing, he said; likewise the famine and plague that followed. Worse was coming. What could be worse? A foreign host, unleashed by heaven to chastise a sinning nation.

How many Japanese at that point would even have heard of the Mongols, let alone quailed at the mention of their name? How much did Nichiren himself know? And yet “they blew up like a hurricane,” writes historian J.M. Roberts, “to terrify half a dozen civilizations, slaughter(ing) and destroy(ing) on a scale the 20th century alone has emulated.”

The story begins with the conquests of Genghis Khan early in the 13th century. By the time his grandson, Kublai Khan, forced himself on Japan’s attention, the Mongols ruled the largest land empire in history, twice the size of the Roman Empire at its peak. China, Korea, Russia and Central Asia were swallowed; Eastern Europe barely escaped.

In 1268, Kublai dispatched a letter to the “king of Japan.” “We,” it read, “the great Mongolian Empire, have received the Mandate of Heaven and have become the master of the universe. Therefore, innumerable states in far-off lands have longed to form ties with us.”

Why not Japan? asked Kublai. “From now on,” he wrote, “let us enter into friendly relations with each other. Nobody would wish to resort to arms.”

Master by conquest of half the globe and yet reluctant to “resort to arms”? A strange note to strike — what did it mean? Japan by then had had no official relations with China in almost 400 years. Merchants and monks still traveled back and forth on private business, but neither the military government in Kamakura nor the Imperial court in Kyoto had very clear notions of what was transpiring in the country that once had been Japan’s revered teacher in the arts of civilization. Maybe this is why, as historian George Sansom puts it, “The Japanese at first made the mistake of despising their enemy.” Kublai’s letter went unanswered, his envoys dismissed with contempt. Subsequent Mongol envoys were beheaded.

Still Kublai remained patient — why? “The use of military force without reason,” he wrote shortly afterwards, “runs counter to Confucian and Buddhist teaching. Because Japan is a divine country, we do not intend to fight with force.” This too was ignored.

Patience has its limits. The Mongol fleet sailed at last, on the third day of the 10th lunar month of 1274. First to feel its wrath were the tiny islands of Tsushima and Iki, whose inhabitants, writes Sansom, “were treated with revolting cruelty.” Then it was Kyushu’s turn. But the harsh lessons of war, in this the only foreign invasion Japan had ever suffered, or ever would suffer until the Americans came calling in the 19th century, were destined to be taught by the insular Japanese, and learned, at great cost to themselves, by the world-conquering Mongols.

Where were Japan’s poets and bards in those fraught years? Alive and well — busy composing the magnificent Tales of the Heike in memory of the civil wars (1156-85) that marked the nation’s passage from elegant, decadent, aristocratic pacifism to one of the hardiest militarisms the world has ever known. Celebrated in history and nationalist mythology for the “divine wind” (kamikaze) that blew the Mongol fleet to smithereens in 1274 and again in 1281, Japan’s most heroic battles escaped the shaping hand of literary genius — there is no Tales of the Mongols.

Typhoons played their part, no doubt, but Japanese defenders — numbering in the hundreds against thousands; fighting “in loose formation or in no formation at all” (Sansom) against a tightly drilled, highly disciplined army; wielding swords against poisoned arrows and catapults and Chinese firearms — surely deserved a better memorial than history or literature has accorded them.

While the fighters fought and the winds blew and the nation stiffened its defenses against anticipated future invasions, prayers rang through the land. “Here is what I have heard,” wrote an anonymous court noble in the 14th-century chronicle The Clear Mirror. “Just as the Great Wisdom (Sutra) recitations at Iwashimizu (Temple) reached their climax, a single black cloud suddenly appeared in the clear sky. … Huge waves sprang up, and the entire invasion force drowned in the wild waters. It was wondrous proof that ours is indeed the land of the gods” — a notion with a long and baleful history ahead of it.

This is the final installment of a two-part series. Part one, “Doomsday fever spurs a religious revolution,” can be found at bit.ly/1Ez5mIO.

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