Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Mongol Buffoonery: History Channel's Ancient Discoveries

One of our favorite sports is watching The History Channel's attempts at presenting programming dealing with pre-modern Japanese history. The quality of the shows tends to range from brutal (see 'Musashi') to laughable (see 'Ancient Astronauts'). Still, we feel compelled to watch-it's like watching a train wreck occur in slow motion. Even though you know things will end badly, you can't tear yourself away.

Such was the case in February 28th's broadcast of "Ancient Discoveries: Ancient Super Navies". One of the segments of the show dealt with Kublai Khan's invasions of Japan (along with his Korean and Chinese allies) in 1274 and 1281. While we stumbled across the program in the midst of airing, it showed that it was every bit the sloppy, cobbled together mess we've come to expect from History Channel. It established its credibility right off the bat by stating that Kublai Khan invaded Japan in 1274 in order to stop Japanese pirate invasions of the Asian mainland. While Khan's motivations for invading Japan are complex and a subject of some debate (usually centering on 'manifest destiny', reports of staggering Japanese wealth, or the most likely, the desire to keep Japan from aiding Khan's enemies in the Southern Song Dynasty), stopping pirate raids was not among them. This sounds like information imparted by a Korean historian (who for all the rancor shown towards Hideyoshi's invasions of Korea some 300 years later seem to forget their own invasion of Japan here)-it's a popular theory in Korea that they convinced Khan to attack Japan in revenge for the pirate raids of the mid-13th century. There's no evidence to back it up-not to mention the last pirate raid against Korea took place in 1265, some 10 years before the first invasion, hardly giving Khan a reason for aggression.

The show is using severely outdated sources for its presentation. They use the wildly exaggerated claims of 100, 000 troops for the Mongol forces and of course credit the failure of both invasions not to the tenacity of the Japanese defenders (particularly in 1281) but to the typhoons that wreaked havoc upon the Mongol fleets. Thomas Conlan, along with many Japanese historians, have convincingly demonstrated that the typhoons just 'put the exclamation point' on the Mongol defeats-the Japanese had already stopped their foes.

The History Channel even fails basic math. The origins of the word 'kamikaze' are examined (the 'divine wind' that 'stopped' the 1281 invasion), and it's stated that 500 years later the Japanese used it as their rallying cry when mounting suicide attacks against the American fleet in WWII. Actually, 500 years would put things at 1781, and unless they hope to tie this in with an 'Ancient Astronaut' theory, way, way off. Then just to show they can go the other way, while staging a demonstration of the 'zhen tian lei' (Mongol 'thunder crash bombs'), they claim that it has been 'over a thousand years' since one was detonated. Even making the dubious assumption that 1281 was the last instance of these bombs being used, that would put things at 2281-some 270 years in the future.

And while the reenactment/demonstration of the 'thunder crash bombs' is the high point of the segment, they manage to botch it as well. For starters, they make an elliptical shaped bomb rather than the round ones depicted in the Suenaga scrolls and the ones found by archaeologists. This completely changes the ballistic nature of the resulting explosion, invalidating their results. And they claim that the charge would have a '100% kill ratio within 20 feet'-oh, please. It would surely do lethal damage at random points within that perimeter, but there would be many spots not covered in the spread as well. They finish off things by stating that had the 'kamikaze' not hit, these bombs would have completely incinerated the Japanese fleet. WHAT Japanese fleet? The Japanese had a low number of small fishing boats they had commandeered from local fisherman they used to conduct raids on the Mongols, but absolutely NOTHING in the way of an organized fleet.

Finally, they roll out the Moko Shurai Ekotoba scrolls of Takezaki Suenaga as if they've been tightly guarded secrets that the History Channel has just managed to uncover at the Hakozaki Shrine. Of course, these scrolls have been a well-known Japanese national treasure for hundreds of years (with the original being held by the Imperial Household Agency) and were hand copied hundreds of times through the centuries (with the Hakozaki copy being one of these). They use the scrolls to demonstrate that the 'thunder crash bombs' were used during the battles, even though Conlan has also shown that these bombs were added to the scrolls decades after they were first drawn. Although archeological evidence has verified the existence (and presumably the usage) of the bombs among the remnants of the Mongol fleet, the scrolls originally had no evidence of them (and were later added to bring them into line with written accounts).

Other episodes of interest to followers of J-history: Ancient Secret Agents covers ninja and Ancient Special Forces spotlights the horro (the 'arrow catchers' worn on the back of elite samurai battlefield messengers). We're sure we'll run across them at some point-we can hardly wait.


  1. I can't trust anything from the History Channel. It's all highly suspect.

  2. Excellent article! I will post on the HMGS-Midsouth.org website. I feel such terrible shame facing people from other countries when they ask why The History Channel is so bad. I really have no answer other than they make a profit at selling this stuff.

    Again, this site proves its immense value with a very entertaining breakdown of the real history. The only thing I would ask for are recommendations on books, documentaries and films you think cover this period more accurately.

  3. A shame History Channel is following the MTV formula: flash and noise but no real substance.