Mongol invasions of Sakhalin

From 1264 to 1308, the Mongol Empire made several incursions into the island of Sakhalin off the east coast of Siberia to aid their Nivkh allies against the Ainu, who had been expanding north from Hokkaido. The Ainu put up a tenacious resistance, even launching a counter-attack on Mongol positions on the continent across the Strait of Tartary in 1297, but finally capitulated to the Mongol Yuan dynasty in 1308.


The peoples of Sakhalin

The Nivkh people are believed to be the descendants of an indigenous population that inhabited Sakhalin island since the Neolithic period.[1] During the 6th century AD, a confluence of Koryak culture from the north, the Heishui Mohe culture from the west, and indigenous Neolithic Sakhalin culture gave birth to the Okhotsk culture, which was characterized by fishing, sea-mammal hunting, pig breeding, and pottery.[2] This culture expanded rapidly in the 7th century from Sakhalin: to the north, it took over the Kuril Islands and reached as far as the southern tip of the Kamchatka Peninsula; to the south, it crossed the La Pérouse Strait and met the Satsumon culture on the northern shores of Hokkaido.[3] The Nivkh, being the dominant population of Sakhalin before the 12th century, are believed to be the bearers of the Okhotsk culture.[4] They are known in Chinese sources as "Jiliemi" (吉列迷), which became Russified as "Gilyak" in the modern era and later renamed to the endonym "Nivkh" in the 1930s.[5]

As a result of the northward expansion of the Yamato people in Honshu beginning in the 7th century AD, the Emishi were slowly assimilated into the dominant Japanese culture or pushed further north to the island of Hokkaido.[6] The influx of migrants from Honshu to Hokkaido gave rise to the Satsumon culture in Hokkaido, which spread agriculture throughout the island save for the coast of the Sea of Okhotsk facing Sakhalin, which remained under the influence of the Okhotsk culture. Eventually, population pressure and the need for agricultural lands pushed the Satsumon, identified as the precursors of the Ainu people, into warfare with the Okhotsk in the 10th to 11th century, causing the Okhotsk to retreat to Sakhalin. The conflicts of the period were reflected in the yukar oral traditions of the northern Hokkaido Ainu, in which the heroes of the "land people" (yaunkur) prevailed over the "sea people" (repunkur).[7] The Ainu followed up with an invasion into southern Sakhalin in the 11th to 12th century, leaving behind oral traditions telling how the Ainu defeated the Tonchi people there (likely the Nivkhs), and sent them fleeing north by boat. Thus the Ainu settled in southern Sakhalin while the Nivkhs kept to northern Sakhalin and the area around the Amur estuary on the mainland.[8]

Mongol interest in Northeast Asia

As part of the Mongol conquest of the Jurchen Jin dynasty and Eastern Xia, the Mongols took political control of Manchuria in 1233. In response to raids by the Nivkh and the Udege peoples, the Mongols established an administration post at Nurgan (present-day Tyr, Russia) at the junction of the Amur and Amgun rivers in 1263, and forced the submission of the two peoples.[9] The Mongols were motivated by their worldview that heaven had bestowed them the right to rule the whole world, thus unconquered people were naturally rebels upon whom military conquest was justified.[10] The Mongols were also in the process of incorporating the Chinese tributary system for their own political and commercial purposes: the Mongols could manage relations with the peripheral peoples of Northeast Asia while making sure that goods from the region would be available as tribute or trade goods.[11] Sable furs from lower Amur and Sakhalin, for instance, were especially favoured by the Mongol-Chinese upper class at the time.[12] From the Nivkh perspective, their surrender to the Mongols essentially established a military alliance against the Ainu who had invaded their lands.[13]

In addition, some Japanese researchers ascribe another motivation to the Mongols in regards to their subjugation of Sakhalin. Calling the Sakhalin expeditions a "Mongol invasion from the north" (北からの蒙古襲来), proponents of this northern invasion theory connect the events in Sakhalin with the contemporaneous Mongol invasions of Japan in the south, and theorize that the Mongols were interested in a northern route into Japan through Manchuria and Sakhalin. Presumably, the Mongols would sail south from Sakhalin to Hokkaido and invade Honshu from there.[14] However, there are no historical records or maps of the period that reveal a geographic knowledge that Sakhalin was anywhere near Japan, so any intention on the part of the Mongols to use Sakhalin as an entry point into Japan remains doubtful.[15]


Expeditions into Sakhalin (1264–1286)

Soon after receiving the surrender of the Nivkh, the Mongols received reports of the Nivkh being invaded yearly by the peoples of the east, namely the Guwei (骨嵬) and the Yiliyu (亦里于). "Guwei" was the name that the Nivkh used to refer to the Ainu people,[17] while "Yiliyu", which means "deer" in Tungusic languages,[18] could refer to any of the Tungusic peoples like the ancestors of the Sakhalin Uilta.[19] The Mongols attacked the Ainu on Sakhalin on 30 November 1264,[18] but the Ainu returned the next year to attack the Nivkh, killing some of their warriors. This time, however, the Mongols only sent supplies of food and weapons.[19]

Following the formal establishment of the Mongol Yuan dynasty in China in 1271, Taxiala (塔匣剌) of the Mongol eastern expedition army attempted to invade Sakhalin in 1272 and 1273, but he was not able to cross the raging Strait of Tartary.[20] Seeking the advice of the local Udege people around Nurgan, Taxiala was told that he must wait for the strait to freeze in the winter months, then he could march his army across the ice into Sakhalin where he would find the lands of the Nivkh and the Ainu.[20] This was certainly possible since the strait was only about four miles wide at its narrowest point, and the Ainu and Nivkh had long made use of this fact.[11] Armed with this knowledge, Taxiala petitioned the Yuan court for another expedition against the Ainu in 1273, but this was rejected.[21] However, the Mongols appeared to have learned the lesson, as subsequent Mongol expeditions into Sakhalin all happened during winter months.[22]

The next record of an invasion on the Ainu was in 1282, when Jurchens under Mongol rule were sent to aid the war effort by making boats to ship supplies across the sea.[23] In 1284, a Mongol expedition was postponed from September to November out of fears that the windy seas might topple the supply boats.[24] Following that campaign, the Mongols sent large armies up to 10,000 men for the expeditions of 1285 and 1286. Led by Tata'erdai (塔塔兒帶) and Yangwuludai (楊兀魯帶), the expeditions sailed across the sea in 1000 small boats carrying 10 men each.[23] Judging by the relatively small population of the Sakhalin Ainu in later centuries, it is unlikely that the Ainu could have mustered a force large enough to defeat the Mongols with such numbers in open combat.[25] The Mongol armies apparently reached the southern tip of Sakhalin at this time, since ramparts of a Mongol-Chinese fort dated to the 13th century were discovered at Cape Crillon. The ramparts, called the Shiranushi earthwork (白主土城) by Japanese archaeologists, were markedly different from Ainu chashi and is the only fortification of a continental type found on Sakhalin.[26] Japanese researcher Kazuyuki Nakamura believes that the Shiranushi site should be identified as the Guohuo fort (果夥) mentioned in the Yuan source Jingshi Dadian (經世大典, "Compendium for governing the world"), and that it was built by the Mongols to stem Ainu invasions from Hokkaido.[27]

The Ainu counterattack and the end of the conflict (1287–1308)

To support the continual campaigns into Sakhalin, the Mongols established military-agricultural colonies near the Amur estuary around 1285, populating them with Han Chinese exiles of the newly-extinguished Song dynasty. This did not last long, however, as the rebellion of the Mongol prince Nayan in Manchuria forced the troops to withdraw from the Amur region in 1287.[28] Perhaps reflecting the diminishing Mongol influence in the area, two Nivkh who had been centurions (百戶) in the Mongol military defected to the Ainu in 1296, and the next year an Ainu force under the chieftain Waying (瓦英) crossed the strait on Nivkh boats and raided settlements on the continent.[29] The Nivkh that were still aligned with the Mongols warned that the Ainu planned to cross the sea from Guohuo when the sea freezes, and that they were going to attack the falconers of the Amur estuary. These falconers, which included some Nivkh, were targeted by Ainu raiders for their falcons—the feathers were an exotic trade good—and for their supplies from China due to their status as slaves of the Mongol imperial court. Thus warned, when the Ainu invaded the Amur estuary in mid-1297, the Mongols caught up with them and defeated the invading Ainu near Lake Kizi.[30]

The Ainu were recorded to have made one more raid on the continent in 1305, which evaded the Mongol army.[29] In 1308, the Ainu chieftains Waying and Yushannu (玉善奴) communicated through the Nivkh that they desired to surrender. The Ainu sent an ambassador to Nurgan with gifts of swords and armours and promised to pay a tribute of furs every year. With this, the war between the Ainu and the Mongols was over.[31]


The Mongol invasions represented the first time Chinese influence was directly extended to Sakhalin.[32] Even before the end of hostilities, the Ainu and the peoples of the Amur region had been secretly trading valuable furs with the connivance of the Mongol officials in Nurgan.[33] Soon after the subjugation of the Ainu, Ainu elders made tributary visits to Yuan posts located at Wuliehe (兀列河; in the Tym River basin), Nanghar (囊哈兒; near present-day Langry), and Boluohe (波羅河; Poronay River), and received gifts in return, making presenting tribute a form of trade.[34] The center of the northern trade gradually shifted to Chinese posts in the Amur Estuary and on Sakhalin following the Mongol conquests,[35] and Sakhalin itself became a conduit of trade between the Mongol Empire in mainland Eurasia and the Japanese archipelago.[32] The Mongols retreated from Sakhalin after 1320,[36] and tributary trade in Sakhalin and the Amur basin ceased in the mid 14th century as the Yuan dynasty fell into decline.[33] The Chinese under the Ming dynasty re-established a presence in the area in 1409 and collected tribute from the Nivkh and the Ainu until late 15th century.[37] Regardless of the political situation, a network of trade linking Manchuria, Japan, and Kamchatka with Sakhalin at the center persisted until the 18th century.[38]

The Mongol peace put a stop to the conflicts between the Nivkh and the Ainu, with the Ainu keeping to southern Sakhalin, leaving the north to the Nivkh. Hostility gave way to a relationship characterized by intermarriage, commercial trade, and cultural exchanges between the two peoples. A number of important cultural elements that became the hallmarks of modern Ainu culture, including the iomante bear ceremony, were introduced to the Ainu from the Okhotsk culture carried by Nivkh as a result.[39] For the Nivkh, the increasing focus on trade led to the rise of the ethnographic Nivkh culture at the expense of the original Okhotsk culture: while rituals involving orcas and bears remained, other cultural characteristics like pottery disappeared.[40]

The peace between the Nivkh and the Sakhalin Ainu as well as the Mongol presence in Sakhalin also meant that the Hokkaido Ainu could not freely migrate to Sakhalin across the La Pérouse Strait as they had done over the centuries. The population pressure that pushed the Ainu north now encountered resistance, and the resulting reaction in the southern direction brought the Ainu into increasing conflict with the Japanese. Around the time of the Mongol invasions of Sakhalin, the Ainu of Tsugaru rose up against the powerful Andō clan (安東氏) of northern Japan in a war that lasted from 1268 to 1328 called the Ezo Rebellion (蝦夷大乱).[41] The war, which was described by the 13th century Japanese Buddhist monk Nichiren as a disaster on par with the Mongol invasion of Japan in 1274 and 1281,[41] caused the Andō clan to splinter and might even have contributed to the fall of the ruling Kamakura shogunate in Japan.[42] Despite the commonly accepted cause of the war being trade disagreements and religious differences between the Ainu and the Andō clan,[43] Mongol action in Sakhalin might have had a hand in creating and amplifying the conflict.[41] The so-called "Mongol invasion of Japan from the north" was therefore an indirect one at most, in the opinion of Kazuyuki Nakamura.[44]



  1. Zgusta 2015, p. 81.
  2. Zgusta 2015, p. 84.
  3. Zgusta 2015, p. 83.
  4. Zgusta 2015, p. 91.
  5. Zgusta 2015, p. 71.
  6. Zgusta 2015, p. 58.
  7. Zgusta 2015, p. 60.
  8. Zgusta 2015, pp. 93–4.
  9. Nakamura 2010, p. 415; Stephan 1971, p. 21.
  10. Hudson 1999, p. 227.
  11. Walker 2001, p. 132.
  12. Trekhsviatskyi 2007, pp. 145–6.
  13. Zgusta 2015, p. 96.
  14. Nakamura 2010, p. 413. Nakamura names Susumu Emori (1990) and Shoichi Oba (1998) as populizers and proponents of the "Mongol invasion from the north" phrase. Walker (2001, p. 133) also says the Mongol move into Sakhalin in part "stemmed from a desire to find a passageway into Japan".
  15. Nakamura 2010, p. 428.
  16. Hudson 1999, p. 226.
  17. Zgusta 2015, p. 36.
  18. Nakamura 2010, p. 415.
  19. Trekhsviatskyi 2007, p. 140.
  20. Nakamura 2010, p. 417.
  21. Nakamura 2010, p. 417. Trekhsviatskyi (2007, p. 140) interpreted the relevant passage in the History of Yuan as Taxiala failing to succeed in this expedition instead of not being given permission. Original quote in History of Yuan 8:151: 征東招討使塔匣剌請征骨嵬部,不允。
  22. Trekhsviatskyi 2007, p. 141.
  23. Nakamura 2010, p. 418.
  24. Nakamura 2010, p. 416.
  25. Trekhsviatskyi 2007, pp. 141–2.
  26. Trekhsviatskyi 2007, pp. 143–4.
  27. Trekhsviatskyi 2007, p. 144; Nakamura 2010, p. 427.
  28. Nakamura 2010, p. 419.
  29. Nakamura 2012, p. 139.
  30. Trekhsviatskyi 2007, pp. 142–3.
  31. Trekhsviatskyi 2007, p. 143.
  32. Hudson 1999, p. 228.
  33. Trekhsviatskyi 2007, p. 145.
  34. Walker 2001, p. 133; Trekhsviatskyi 2007, p. 150.
  35. Walker 2001, p. 133.
  36. Stephan 1971, p. 21.
  37. Trekhsviatskyi 2007, p. 151.
  38. Hudson 1999, pp. 228–9.
  39. Zgusta 2015, p. 100.
  40. Zgusta 2015, pp. 100–1.
  41. Nakamura 2010, p. 427.
  42. Tanaka 2000, p. 78.
  43. Tanaka 2000, p. 161 note 86.
  44. Nakamura 2010, pp. 427–9.

Works cited

  • Hudson, Mark J. (1999). Ruins of identity : ethnogenesis in the Japanese Islands. University of Hawai'i Press. ISBN 9780824864194.
  • Nakamura, Kazuyuki (2010). "Kita kara no mōko shūrai wo meguru shōmondai" 「北からの蒙古襲来」をめぐる諸問題 [Several questions around "the Mongol attack from the north"]. In Kikuchi, Toshihiko (ed.). Hokutō Ajia no rekishi to bunka 北東アジアの歴史と文化 [A history and cultures of Northeast Asia] (in Japanese). Hokkaido University Press. ISBN 9784832967342.
  • Nakamura, Kazuyuki (2012). "Gen-Mindai no shiryō kara mieru Ainu to Ainu bunka" 元・明代の史料にみえるアイヌとアイヌ文化 [The Ainu and Ainu culture from historical records of the Yuan and Ming]. In Katō, Hirofumi; Suzuki, Kenji (eds.). Atarashii Ainu shi no kōchiku : senshi hen, kodai hen, chūsei hen 新しいアイヌ史の構築 : 先史編・古代編・中世編 (in Japanese). Hokkaido University. pp. 138–145.
  • Stephan, John (1971). Sakhalin: a history. Oxford: Clarendon Press. ISBN 9780198215509.
  • Tanaka, Sakurako (Sherry) (2000). The Ainu of Tsugaru : the indigenous history and shamanism of northern Japan (Thesis). The University of British Columbia. doi:10.14288/1.0076926.
  • Trekhsviatskyi, Anatolii (2007). "At the far edge of the Chinese Oikoumene: Mutual relations of the indigenous population of Sakhalin with the Yuan and Ming dynasties". Journal of Asian History. 41 (2): 131–155. ISSN 0021-910X. JSTOR 41933457.
  • Walker, Brett (2001). The conquest of Ainu lands : ecology and culture in Japanese expansion, 1590–1800. Berkeley: University of California Press. ISBN 9780520248342.
  • Zgusta, Richard (2015). The peoples of Northeast Asia through time : precolonial ethnic and cultural processes along the coast between Hokkaido and the Bering Strait. Leiden, The Netherlands. ISBN 9789004300439. OCLC 912504787.

Further reading

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