Tokyo University of Foreign Languages
The Japanese Origin of the Chinggis Khan Legends
47th Meeting of the PIAC, Cambridge 2004
The common Japanese of today, when hearing the word “Mongols” or “Mongolia”, immediately thinks of three different tales: one, the forefathers of the Japanese Imperial Family were the horsemen of the Mongolian Plateau, who came through the Korean Peninsula to conquer Japan; two, Chinggis Khan the founder of the Mongol Empire was really Minamoto no Yoshitsune, a Japanese general; and three, the plan of a Mongol invasion of the thirteenth century failed by the typhoon caused by a Divine Wind (kamikaze), which saved Japan from a Mongolian subjugation.
The first two are not historical facts but sheer fiction; nevertheless almost all Japanese know the stories. I would like to discuss the story today that Chinggis Khan was as a fact Minamoto no Yoshitsune, a Japanese general, when this tale was born and why the Japanese liked this story so much. As a matter of fact, this tale was born right here in Cambridge.
Kencho Suyematsu, born in 1855, was discovered by the great statesman Hirobumi Ito, entered the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and ordered to study in Cambridge, England, on a national expense in 1879, to obtain a Bachelor of Arts and a Master of Law. In his Cambridge years he published in English “The Identity of the great conqueror Genghis Khan with the Japanese hero Yoshitsune, An historical thesis” (London, printed for the author by W. H. And L. Collingridge, Aldersgate Street, E. G., 1879). This pamphlet immediatedly attracted attention of the Japanese readers, and its Japanese version was published in 1885 to a wide acclaim.
Minamoto no Yoshitsune was a younger brother of the founder of the Kamakura Shogunate of Japan. He was a genius strategist but fell out with the elder brother and was killed at mere 31 years of age in the Tohoku area of Japan in 1189. All the Japanese loved him, which gave rise to a story that he lived despite historical facts to the contrary, and fled away to Ezo, or Hokkaido. After the opening of Japan to the foreigners, the story expanded that he in fact went from Hokkaido to Sakhalin, from where he reached the Asian Continent.
Suyematsu’s arguments for the identity of Chinggis Khan with Minamoto no Yoshitsune are all absurd, nevertheless, in 1924 after the Japanese dispatch of troops to Siberia, there appeared another book based on Suyematsu’s arguments became a runaway best seller. Kencho Suyematsu was later to become the Minister of Communications and the Minister of Home Affairs, as well as a son-in-law of Hirobumi lto. He wanted to show the greatness of Japanese writing in English that Chinggis Khan known well in the West was in fact a Japanese. Contrary to the first intention on the part of Suyematsu, however, the fantasy was encouraging great enough to the fellow Japanese to go visiting the strange land of continental China. Moreover, the Japanese feeling of strong affinities with the Mongols can be greatly contributed by this theory.
Editor’s note: No Proceedings were produced at the 47th Annual Meeting of the PIAC. The article was published separately: