Saigo Takamori - The Last Samurai Documentary
The man known to history as Saigo Takamori was born on the 23rd of January 1828 at Kagoshima in the very south of Kyushu, the southernmost of the large islands which make up Japan, Kagoshima was within the wider region of Satsuma, a district which would play a major role in Saigo’s later career. His father was Saigo Kichibei, the head of a relatively poor samurai family, the samurai were the large class of minor nobility, administrators and warriors who were the bedrock of Japanese society during the country’s medieval and early modern periods, indeed many samurai families could trace their ancestry back several centuries. Saigo’s family’s traditional role had been to act as household soldiers to the feudal lords of southern Kyushu, although by the nineteenth century Saigo’s father was performing a role as a division chief in the domain offices of the regional exchequer, and so, while Saigo was born into a humble, even poor family, they had an honourable background within the samurai class. Saigo’s mother was Shiihara Masa, we know little about her and indeed a great many of the specifics of Saigo’s early life are unfortunately shrouded in mystery, however, Saigo was the eldest of seven children she bore and the Takamori household would have included members of the extended family such as Saigo’s grandparents, so that at its fullest extent the family constituted sixteen members. The family lived a frugal life and later memoirs recollect the crowded conditions of the family unit, with shortages of many household necessities.
A move to a larger house around the middle of the century did not relieve this situation very much and throughout Saigo’s childhood and teenage years his father was forced to borrow extensively to keep the family functioning. Saigo would have grown quite quickly as he entered his teenage years, the Saigo men are recorded as having been very large, generally more than six feet tall, and this imposing stature, along with his weight of approximately 200 pounds in later life has contributed to Saigo’s reputation as a formidable warrior. Saigo’s life, the myths around him to this day, and the circumstances of how he became known as the Last True Samurai, cannot truly be understood without looking at the politics of nineteenth century Japan and the process of modernisation which was occurring as the country was opened up to Western ideas. The peculiar geography of Japan made it a country which was perhaps ripe for the form of dispersed power and governance which characterised it for many centuries, the Japanese Archipelago consists of hundreds of islands, most of them very small, and the bulk of the country consists of four main islands, at the centre of these is the largest island, Honshu, in the centre of which, the city of Tokyo sprawls today, to the north of Honshu is the second largest island, Hokkaido, while to the south are the two smallest of the four main islands, Shikoku and Saigo’s home island, Kyushu. At the outset of the nineteenth century the country was still in the political, cultural, social and economic state which it had been for centuries, this was a feudal society, at the very top was the emperor, who resided in the ancient imperial stronghold of Kyoto in central Honshu, however the office of emperor was generally largely ceremonial in Japan, power was effectively wielded by the Tokugawa or Edo shogunate which had ruled the country since 1603, the shoguns might be said to have been the Japanese equivalent of the European kings of Europe in the late middle ages, in that they were at the head of a nobility who were in every way below them. The Tokugawa clan governed Japan from the city of Edo, or what is now called Tokyo, below them were a series of daimyos or lords, each administering a han or feudal domain, there were several dozens of these and they varied in extent and strength, for instance, the region from which Saigo hailed was known as the Satsuma domain, a large han which covered much of southern Kyushu, another prominent area which would play a major role in the politics of mid-nineteenth-century Japan was Chonshu, a domain on the western extremity of Honshu island.
Each daimyo in turn had many samurai castes serving under them, they performed various administrative and military roles, the military capacities of the samurai by necessity, had been more pronounced in the medieval period, as foreign invasion from mainland Asia and civil war had wracked Japan in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, but as the country enjoyed a prolonged period of peace under the Edo shogunate in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the samurai had gradually become more of an administrative class, responsible for everything from taking censuses to collecting taxes within the domains. The country was also deeply traditional in its social and cultural values, with a strong adherence to the tenets of Neo-Confucianism, and the teachings of the philosopher Confucius as well as his subsequent followers, moreover, this system was extremely uniform as Japan was an ethnically homogenous country. In order to protect the traditional culture of Japan, the shogunate had elected to adopt a strategy of isolation when the first European traders and diplomats had begun arriving from Portugal and the Dutch Republic in the seventeenth century, this was to prevent the conversion to Christianity of the Japanese by Jesuit missionaries and also to tightly restrict the influence of European merchants and regulate Japan’s trade with them. A window to European contact was, however, maintained through the port city of Nagasaki on the northwest coast of the island of Kyushu, here Dutch merchants were allowed to maintain a tightly regulated trading and diplomatic station throughout the seventeenth century.
This regulation of the country’s contact with the outside world continued throughout the eighteenth century and seems, in retrospect, a wise decision, given the manner in which the European powers encroached into and then subjugated India and much of southern Asia during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. But much of this was beginning to change by the time Saigo was born and particularly in his early adulthood. During the first half of the nineteenth century Japan began to suffer from major economic, cultural and social disruption as there was increasing pressure to allow the Western powers, in a rapidly expanding world, to have greater contact with Japan, in particular the United States, Britain, France and the Netherlands had an interest in gaining greater access to Japan, its markets and its power groupings. A sign of how these Western powers were aggressively trying to open Japan up to the outside world, can be seen through the actions of the United States in the mid-1850s, in 1853 a United States Navy commodore by the name of Matthew Perry arrived in Japan and threatened to attack the Japanese capital if he was not given a diplomatic audience, this was an effort at intimidation which bore considerable success, and a year later on the 31st of March 1854 the Convention of Kanagawa was agreed. This was a treaty between the shogun of Japan and the United States government, through it Japan was effectively pressured into ending its two centuries long policy of isolation by opening several further ports to American traders and diplomats, in the years that followed new technologies and cultural ideas would arrive from America, Britain, France and elsewhere bringing great instability to this inherently conservative and traditional culture. However, there was another very strong element driving the modernisation of the country, that came from within Japan itself, many people in Japan and within the feudal political class believed that the seclusion policy which had been followed for two centuries, had actually weakened the country and any ability it might have had to advance technologically and administratively would only increase Japan’s ability to defend itself from outside interference and aggression such as the United States had shown in 1853 and 1854, the idea here was that Japan might better protect itself from the Western powers by becoming more like them, this view would have enormous consequences for the politics of Japan in the second half of the nineteenth century.
By way of contrast to what was occurring in the country around him, as he entered his early manhood Saigo began to adopt many of the trappings of traditional Japanese culture and other eastern belief systems, for instance, he espoused the values of Zen Buddhism and the Neo-Confucianism of the Chinese philosopher, Wang Yang-ming, whose writings promoted the ideas of committed convictions and affirmative action in the world, and this was reflected in Saigo’s own personal motto or creed which was ‘Revere Heaven, love man’, this intellectual makeup certainly points towards Saigo being a committed adherent of traditional Japanese values. It was also in his earlier adulthood that he first developed the habit of becoming an avid letter writer and poet, some of this sedentary activity may have been due to his health, as his sheer size meant that he often fought as a sumo wrestler, but he also suffered from a rare disease associated with obesity known as filiariasis, this cause episodic illnesses which forced Saigo to have to rest for prolonged periods, during which he would write extensively. Much of Saigo’s life story takes place in his later years and there are often major blank spots when it comes to assessing his life in his twenties and thirties, and some accounts written later are of dubious accuracy, however we do know that he worked as a magistrate’s assistant for some time in the Satsuma domain and was also trained as a scribe’s copyist, as a result he developed the skills of a Japanese calligrapher. More revelatory is an incident which occurred in 1849, when Saigo was just 21 years of age, at this time a dispute arose between some clan members in Kyushu, centring around whether Japan should open up to outside influences or adopt a more traditional approach to its politics and society, Saigo was in favour of opening up and modernising the country, the first sign we see that the man known as the Last True Samurai was no staunch adherent to preserving a traditional Japanese society. The years that followed brought both successes and hardships, Saigo married Suga Ijuin in 1852, but the marriage proved problematic and a divorce was arranged within two years, a further marriage followed to Otoma Kane, known as Aigana, in the late 1850s and Saigo would eventually father five children, four sons and one daughter, more troubling was an exile of several years which he endured, to one of the smaller Japanese islands, the result of having becoming embroiled in a succession dispute within the hierarchy of the Satsuma domain. Despite this, things though began to progress in a remarkable upward curve following his return to Kyushu in the early 1860s, in 1864 he was appointed as War Secretary for the Satsuma domain and the emissary for the region to the imperial capital at Kyoto, this latter appointment was much the more significant, as it brought him into contact with the court of Emperor Komei, the 121st Emperor of Japan, this occurred as much discussion was underway there about the future direction of Japan, following the first opening up of the country to modern Western influences.
In 1866, Saigo was central to a diplomatic shift which was critical in the shaping of Japanese politics in the years that followed, the mid-1860s had seen conflict between Saigo’s own domain of Satsuma and that of Choshu on the western extremity of Honshu island, but in 1866 the two sides were brought to peace and an alliance arranged between them, Saigo, in his role as a Satsuma official, attached to the imperial court at Kyoto, was the primary architect of this treaty. All of this was highly significant, as it relates profoundly to what is known in Japanese as Bakumatsu, a phrase which is typically used to describe the years in the mid-1860s during which the Edo or Tokugawa shogunate came to an end, much of this centred on the brief reign of Yoshinobu Tokugawa, the fifteenth Edo shogun, who ascended to power the same year that Saigo organised the treaty between the Satsuma and the Choshu. Under Yoshinobu a major attempt to overhaul and reform the government was undertaken, the hope was that the rule of the country through the shogunate and the existing system of domains or hans could be preserved, as it would have stood for over two centuries if it was renewed and certain reforms would be introduced to strengthen it. But Yoshinobu soon ran into widespread opposition, particularly from the Satsuma and Choshu domains, which Saigo had negotiated the treaty with a year earlier, they argued that a revitalised shogunate would undermine both the emperor and traditional values and united around a motto which proclaimed, ‘revere the Emperor, expel the barbarians’, calling for greater power to be given to the emperor.
They were referring to the Emperor Meiji, who had succeeded as the 122nd emperor in February 1867 when he was just fourteen years old. In response to this pressure, Yoshinobu resigned on the 9th of November 1867 and left office ten days later, however, it is clear that this was not a genuine resignation, but was intended as a political move, whereby the shogun would pressure the emperor into making a public declaration of support for Yoshinobu and the institution of the shogunate, if this was Yoshinobu’s plan then it failed spectacularly, as on the 3rd of January 1868, the process of the resignation and termination of the shogunate was completed and the direct rule of Japan, was now placed back into the emperor’s hands. This is what is known as the Meiji Restoration, or what at the time was referred to as the Honourable Restoration, Saigo was central to it, having brought an alliance of Satsuma and Choshu troops east towards Kyoto, late in 1867, and so, the Meiji Restoration began at dawn on the 3rd of January 1868 when troops under Saigo’s command seized control of the imperial palace at Kyoto, the young emperor Meiji was now urged by these armed newcomers to make a declaration that shogunate rule was indeed at an end and that rule by the emperor was now restored, although power would effectively reside henceforth in the hands of a council of state and a bureaucratic administration. Saigo would play a prominent role in this government, contradicting the modern depictions of Saigo as a traditionalist, determined to resist the modernisation of Japan and preserve the old samurai order.
In January 1868, he was front and central to the Meiji Restoration, an event which was effectively a coup d’état, by an alliance of various individuals to overthrow the Edo or Tokugawa shogunate, which had governed Japan for two and half centuries, these had been two and a half centuries during which, the Edo shogunate had overseen the Seclusion policy and tried to retain Japan’s traditional culture, this was the shogunate which Saigo Takamori played a prominent role in overthrowing in the early days of 1868. The Meiji Restoration, however, did not go unchallenged, on the 17th of January 1868, just two weeks after it began, the shogun, Yoshinobu, made a political declaration that he would not simply be removed from office by the proclamation of the 3rd of January, this was effectively a declaration of war, and by late January, fighting had broken out between, on the one hand, forces led by the Satsuma and Choshu domains supporting the Emperor, and on the other, the traditional supporters of the shogunate, this civil war would last for a year and a half and has been termed the Boshin War, meaning the War of the Year of the Yang Earth Dragon. The two sides were unevenly matched in this conflict, the imperial forces, the core of which was formed by the Satsuma and Choshu domain warriors led by Saigo, were generally armed with better Western weapons, provided by countries such as the United States and Britain, but the shogunate forces, whilst carrying firearms and other Western weaponry, had lesser lines of supply, and were generally forced to rely on older model guns. This Western supplied and trained imperial army was led throughout much of 1868 by none other than Saigo Takamori, on the 29th of March 1868, he won a significant victory on his way to Edo, at the Battle of Koshu-Katsunuma, against the shogunate forces and he then proceeded to surround the shogunate stronghold at Edo later that spring, the shogun’s army minister negotiated a surrender of what had been, the traditional seat of government since the early seventeenth century, just weeks later. The fall of Edo, or the Edojo Akewatashi as the event had become known, was to become famous as the pivotal moment in the formation of the later Japanese Empire.
Yoshinobu himself was at Edo and now agreed to renounce any future claims to the shogunate, he was spared his life though and moved to Shizuoka not far from Edo, where he enjoyed a relatively quiet retirement and lived until 1913, and as a symbolic statement of the end of the shogunate-era and the start of a new period of imperial rule, Edo was renamed, on the 26th of October 1868, when it became known as Tokyo. Despite the capture of the capital of the shogunate and the capitulation of the shogun, the Boshin War nevertheless continued for another full year, a diverse coalition of forces opposed to the Meiji Restoration fought on, largely occupying strongholds in the north of Honshu and on the island of Hokkaido, a breakaway Republic of Ezo was formed on Hokkaido, which survived through the winter of 1868 to 1869, as the fighting lulled, owing to the deteriorating weather, however, once the campaign recommenced in the spring, the remaining opponents of the Meiji Restoration were quickly defeated, and on the 27th of June 1869, the Republic of Ezo was ended and its proponents accepted the new governmental arrangements, the Boshin War was over. The new Meiji imperial government was not an autocracy, it would be headed by the Emperor Meiji, but with a modern Western-style government of ministers and bureaucrats effectively running it, at the pinnacle of this new government was the Council of State, known as the Dajokan. It might have been expected that Saigo Takamori, having played such a key role in the events which had ensured the success of the Meiji Restoration, both politically and militarily, would have played a major part in this regime, but this was not to be the case, in 1869 the emperor bestowed Saigo with the highest honours awarded to anyone who had contributed to the Meiji Restoration, not least for his central role in the capture of Edo, these he modestly turned down, a highly curious decision, moreover Saigo now promptly retired to his homeland of Satsuma on Kyushu, seemingly uninterested in helping to run the government he had played such a prominent role in bringing to power.
During his political exile the new imperial regime had many pressing tasks to undertake, the emperor’s residence was transferred from Kyoto to Tokyo, cementing the former shogunate capital as the national capital and administrative centre of the new regime in modern times, the domains or hans were transformed into prefectures and there was now an effort to modernise the system of government throughout Japan. Perhaps most pressingly the new order adopted a policy of clemency towards the many supporters of the former shogunate throughout the country, this policy was supported in the immediate aftermath of the war by Saigo, and was also argued for, by the foreign representatives of the European powers, many of whom now had diplomats present at the imperial court, as a result, a great many of those who had opposed the Meiji regime during the Boshin War, faced one to three years in prison being later released and, often occupying prominent governmental positions afterwards. Additionally, there was a gradual movement now, to begin reforming and abolishing the samurai class within Japan, the idea here was to reform traditional Japanese feudal society and begin creating a modern society of business people, administrators and labourers, many prospered as a result, by taking up positions within the new centralised Meiji administration, but many samurai were being pushed into poverty as a result of these reforms in the years ahead, it is important to remember that Saigo did not enter any form of protest against these measures in the immediate aftermath of the Boshin War, his revolt, when it came years later, was in direct contrast to his earlier positions. In fact, Saigo was actually preparing to return to government office, in 1871 he was persuaded by a delegation sent to him on Kyushu to leave his retirement and join the new government, this was intimately associated with the Iwakura Mission, a near two year mission undertaken by a group of fifty leading government ministers, officials and scholars from Meiji Japan to the United States and several European countries, the mission was aimed at furthering diplomatic ties between the Western powers and the new regime in Tokyo, but also to give these leading Japanese political figures a much greater sense of what Western modernity was and how the example of the Americans and Europeans could be imitated back home in Japan, Saigo’s return to government in 1871 was in order to act as a leading figure in Japan, while the Iwakura Mission was to learn how to modernise the country abroad. A sign of his instant authority upon his return to public life was seen in his appointment as commander of the recently established Imperial Guard, which consisted of approximately 10,000 troops, he was also made a member of the Council of State or Dajokan, his position here was as Sanji, the equivalent of a minister without portfolio. Through this time, Saigo played a role in the ongoing process to abolish the hans or domains and replace them with prefectures, thus, by the early 1870s the approximately 260 domains had been transformed into a system of over 300 urban and rural prefectures, one of the most consequential aspects of this, was that the government in Tokyo now had centralised control over administration of these districts, most significantly the collection of taxes, however, the reforms further weakened the samurai class as the rights of administration, taxation and other civic duties which had been performed by the traditional feudal classes were now increasingly transferred to Western-style bureaucrats in Tokyo, Saigo was central to this process and certainly did not oppose it.
However, problems were brewing within the government, ones which would create fresh unrest and disenchantment in Saigo with the new dispensation, this related to two particular policy issues: that of conscription to the military and the new Meiji regime’s foreign policy, particularly its relations with Korea. Military conscription was favoured by a faction within the government, who were strongly influenced in their thinking by how European armies were organised, this involved conscription of civilians to make up the army, however, an opposition group within the administration, believed that the introduction of a European-style military conscription system would serve to further undermine the samurai class, which had a virtual monopoly on military service during the shogunate, given how much the samurai class had lost already as a result of reforms such as the transformation of the daimyos or domains into prefectures, it was felt that it was best to leave responsibility for warfare in Japan in their hands for the present time. Saigo’s views on the conscription matter are somewhat unclear, he did not make a public declaration on it, as the debate was underway in the course of the early to mid-1870s, it was a curious silence for one of the most significant military leaders of Meiji Japan, however, he might have been increasingly sympathetic towards the samurai class and the privileges they were losing in this respect, nevertheless, he failed to speak out in defence of the samurai class and the conscription act was eventually passed, again, this is hardly in line with the view of Saigo as a stalwart defender of traditional Japanese society and in particular the samurai class. The issue of Korea was more convoluted, the peninsular kingdom was Japan’s closest neighbour on the Asian mainland and had always maintained diplomatic ties with Japan, even during the island nation’s period of isolation from the world, ruled since the fourteenth century by the Joseon Dynasty, Korea was an absolute monarchy, one which shared many cultural traits with Japan, most notably the prevalence of Confucianism to the country’s culture and life.
Despite this long history of relations, the Korean kingdom had refused to recognise the Meiji regime in Japan in the late 1860s, this entrenchment continued into the early 1870s and had become a major issue in Japanese politics by then, particularly so as three diplomatic missions dispatched from Japan to Korea in a short period of time, were each rebuffed by the peninsular kingdom. As a result in 1873, a series of debates were held within the Meiji government over what should be done in relation to Korea, these have become known as the ‘Seikanron’, literally meaning ‘Advocacy of a punitive expedition to Korea’, during these Saigo argued forcefully that Korea’s stance was a grave insult against Japan. He is said to have proposed that he be sent to Korea as a special envoy to represent Japan and that during this mission, he would contrive to have himself killed by the Koreans, a development which would provide the government with a clear excuse to go to war with the Koreans, the story may either be of doubtful authenticity, or indeed it might be the case that he made the proposal, not as something which he realistically wanted to see carried out, but as a means of swaying members of the Council of State to use other methods. In particular plans were afoot at this time to potentially employ thousands of unemployed and increasingly disenfranchised members of the samurai class in a projected invasion of Korea, Saigo may have wished to see this happen, not least because his own disaffection with the government was growing, feeling that he had been left to lead the government in Tokyo, but with little actual authority to do anything during the absence of the Iwakura Mission. Whatever the actual goal of Saigo’s proposal, we are clear on the conclusion to the Seikanron debates, Saigo, as head of the War Party, largely succeeded in convincing the emperor of the virtue of going to war with Korea, however, at this critical juncture, the Iwakura Mission, which as we have seen, had been on a travelling diplomatic and research mission across the United States and Europe for the previous two years, finally returned to Japan, several of its senior members now implored the emperor to scrap the plan, arguing that the country’s resources would be better used on modernising the country in line with what they had observed on their travels, rather than pumping resources into a costly war with Korea, this Anti-War Party won the day. In protest, Saigo resigned from his government offices and returned once again to his native Kagoshima in 1874, he was not alone and many other senior officials did the same, along with scores of the officer class of the Imperial Guard, who Saigo had been commander of since 1871, thus, the Korean issue had created the first major split within the government of the Meiji regime, the country, already facing the issue of a disenfranchised and increasingly volatile class of samurais who had lost their positions as a result of earlier reforms, now had a small, but also a significant group of former government officers and soldiers spread around the country, who were disaffected with the direction of the country’s politics.
It is this last stage of his life which has been explored in most of the depictions of Saigo as the great defender of traditional Japanese culture, for instance, in the 2003 film The Last Samurai, the main character of which is based on Saigo in all but name, events largely focus on this particular period of his departure from government through to his death. Following his retirement from the government in 1874, he once again returned to his native Kagoshima on the southern island of Kyushu, here he quickly turned his hand to setting up a school, called the Shi-gakko, literally meaning ‘private school’, this comprised a series of three military academies, these were a school for the teaching of children, another for the training of infantry, and an artillery school, the Shi-gakko also placed an emphasis on Neo-Confucianism and traditional Japanese values. More broadly, however, the Shi-gakko quickly became a magnet for disaffected samurai from all around Japan, who flocked there to study under Saigo, it is estimated that at its height, there were nearly 20,000 students there, on the surface, there is no obvious explanation for why this might have happened, Saigo had been one of the central characters involved in the Meiji Restoration of 1868, which had led to the overthrow of the shogunate, and this in turn had allowed for the effective destruction of the samurai class in the years that followed by the Meiji regime, not least through the prefectures policy which Saigo had played a central part in implementing. It is evident though that Saigo had undergone a spiritual shift in the early 1870s, perhaps in response to the visible evidence of the suffering which much of the samurai class were now experiencing in Japan and the trappings of new wealth which he witnessed everywhere in Tokyo amongst other members of the government, in particular, acts against the wearing of topknots amongst the samurai class seemed to Saigo as pointless and excessive regulations by the new regime. Perhaps most saliently he was troubled by the speed of Westernisation occurring in Japan, Saigo had largely become involved in the civil war and the Meiji Restoration in the belief that the best way to defend Japan from the aggression being displayed by the United States, Britain and others was to adopt certain parts of their society, particularly their weaponry, and use it to keep them out and defend Japanese society, but with the passage of over half a decade since the inception of the Meiji regime, what he was now seeing was the beginnings of a much too all-encompassing modernisation and Westernisation of Japanese society. Whatever the explanation for this change in approach, the government in Tokyo was soon viewing the Shi-gakko and the gathering of thousands of samurai there as a major cause for concern, this was particularly the case because Saigo’s supporters occupied many of the key governmental positions at Kagoshima and the wider Satsuma region, as they passed through the school, graduates were then being appointed to local offices and given further positions of authority in the locale, consequently it was perceived that Saigo was now building up a very strong power base in the region and that this could serve as a stronghold from which to undertake a rebellion against the Meiji regime.
Concerns about this were especially acute as a number of localised samurai revolts against Meiji rule had broken out elsewhere across the Japanese islands in the mid-1870s, largely in response to Tokyo’s decision to end a special rice stipend, which had been established for disenfranchised samurai years earlier, a form of welfare compensation to aid those who had lost their positions and livelihoods as a result of the modernising reforms of the Meiji government, Tokyo believed that Kagoshima could soon be the site of another such samurai revolt, though one on a scale not seen elsewhere. Thus, the final acts of Saigo’s life were ushered in, to a large extent through the opening of the Shi-gakko and the government’s concerns about his intentions, though he can hardly have anticipated anything like it, when he established the school in 1874, this would lead eventually to a situation in which Saigo became immortalised and mythologised as the Last True Samurai and the defender of the traditional Japanese order. While it is possible that Saigo was plotting something at Kagoshima, the rebellion which was to follow was almost entirely created by the Meiji government’s reaction and indeed overreaction to developments at Kagoshima, in December 1876 several dozen policemen were sent to the region, ostensibly to impose Tokyo’s authority, but it was soon discovered that their actual mission had been to assassinate Saigo.
Then on the 30th of January 1877 a government warship was sent to Kagoshima to remove the weapons and artillery stored in the local arsenal there, this was the immediate spark of the conflict and in the days that followed, several groups of samurai from the Shi-gakko, involving perhaps over a thousand students in all, attacked several government buildings in the region, including the Somuta Arsenal, which they carried weapons away from. It is generally understood that Saigo was not involved in this initial unrest and had not been planning any sort of revolt against the government at Kagoshima, but the wheels of rebellion were already in motion now, consequently, Saigo reluctantly became the leader of what is now known as the Satsuma Revolt. The initial stages of the rebellion were characterised by a relative standoff, in February the government sent a warship, the Takao, to Kyushu to reconnoitre the area and see what exactly was occurring, meanwhile Saigo was considering trying to de-escalate the entire situation by travelling to Tokyo and affirming his support for the regime, the only major conflict at this early stage involved a siege of Kumamoto Castle by Saigo’s supporters, which was initiated on the 19th of February, the castle held out, but many of its defenders fled the stronghold to join Saigo’s forces, which were now in excess of 20,000 men.
In response, the government had dispatched thousands of men to Kyushu under the command of General Kuroda Kiyotaka and General Yamakawa Hiroshi, they quickly engaged the enemy on the 4th of March at Tabaruzaka near Kumamoto, some 100 kilometres to the north of Kagoshima, here Saigo brought 15,000 men into the field, but was outnumbered considerably by the government troops, the fighting lasted several days and was characterised by chaotic hit and run skirmishes, as poor weather limited the use of firearms and Saigo and his samurais were able to make use of their knowledge of the surrounding region, by mid-March both sides had lost several thousand men, but given his numerical inferiority, Saigo was forced to break off and begin retreating towards Kagoshima. In the weeks that followed, Saigo’s forces were also forced to break off the siege of Kumamoto Castle, thereafter the government forces slowed their advance, while they waited for reinforcements, but by the start of the summer they undertook an inexorable march south towards Saigo’s position, weeks of a cat and mouse pursuit followed across southern Kyushu, picking off men as they went, so that by mid-August, Saigo’s forces were reduced to about 3,000 men, these made a stand on the slopes of Mount Enodake, where hundreds were killed or committed suicide to avoid capture, about 500 men, including Saigo himself escaped, they would now make their last stand at their leader’s hometown of Kagoshima. At Kagoshima Saigo began fortifying the hill of Shiroyama which overlooked the settlement, from early September onwards, the government forces under the command of Yamagata Aritomo, numbering perhaps as many as 30,000 men, did not arrive for three weeks.
On the 23rd of September an unconditional surrender was demanded, and when it was refused, the attack commenced that evening, heavy bombardments shook the hill as the government artillery opened fire on Shiroyama in the hours that followed, contrary to beliefs that the samurai still fought with traditional weapons at this time, Saigo and his men actually defended themselves as best they could from atop Shiroyama using Snider-Enfield breech-loaders. The artillery barrage continued through the night, before Aritomo ordered a frontal assault on the hill as the sky was beginning to brighten towards dawn on the morning of the 24th, close quarters fighting continued for some time, but the result was inevitable against such a numerically superior enemy, and as dawn broke Saigo was surrounded by just a few dozen followers. There are numerous versions of exactly how the Last Samurai died, one contends that he moved down Shiroyama hill after leading a heroic final charge and after being mortally wounded, one of his few surviving followers by the name of Beppu Shunsuke helped him to commit seppuku or ritual suicide, others have even gone so far as to suggest that he survived the battle, escaped and fled overseas to Russia or some other location.
We can entirely discredit the latter legend, though he may have committed seppuku, the most likely eventuality, though, based on the admittedly inconclusive accounts of the battle, was that he was shot at some point in the final assault in the hip and stomach and died from these wounds, this was most likely how the man known to history as the Last true Samurai died. The Satsuma Rebellion was the most significant and also the last of the series of samurai rebellions which the Meiji government faced throughout Japan in the aftermath of the Meiji Restoration, it had been enormously costly, with over 400 million Yen spent on suppressing it, while Japan’s national income shrank considerably as a result of the economic damage wrought across Kyushu during 1877. But a military point had perhaps been made, specifically the Satsuma Rebellion proved that commoner conscripts, armed with modern artillery and rifles, were far more effective than samurai troops, whose banzai charge and other tactics could have little impact against the new armed forces, thus, the samurai came to an end not least because of a specific element of Japan’s modernisation, which was the military revolution which came with it. However, the adherence to Japanese traditions remained, and still remains, a powerful feature of Japanese national life, when Saigo’s crusade is depicted as the final stand of an older Japanese culture in the face of a foreign or external system of modernisation, this is just simply not accurate, a great many aspects of Japan’s ancient culture and belief systems lived on long after the samurai order became obsolete. Like the story of the Last Samurai, the story of Japan’s development in the years that followed, is more complex than a binary tale of supposedly good traditionalists battling bad modernists, Meiji-era Japan would also have advancements in the years that followed, as the economy grew, industry expanded and the country was rapidly modernised, already in 1872 the country’s first railroad had been laid down, telegraph lines connected the major cities within a few years of Saigo’s death and a European banking system was in place by 1882. By the early twentieth century Japan had become a modern industrialised nation, one which was capable of imposing a stunning defeat on Russia in a brief war between the two nations in 1904 and 1905, thus, fifty years after the United States had been able to force the country to end its policy of seclusion, Japan was once again able to stand on its own on the world stage, while the ethical values of the Japanese Empire might have declined immensely as the twentieth century went on, this earlier modernisation is the converse to the story of the Last Samurai, one in which the modernists in Japan rapidly developed the country in a very successful fashion.
What we are we to make of Saigo Takamori? Western audiences have become familiar with his life story in recent years, almost entirely due to the 2003 film, The Last Samurai starring Ken Watanabe as a fictionalised version of Saigo named Katsumoto, this, as the title would suggest, presented the classic interpretation of Saigo as the noble samurai leader engaged in a war against a destructive and immoral modernising Meiji regime, but while the appearance of the film was helpful in drawing attention to this somewhat obscure figure, it does not present the whole story. There are considerable reasons to suggest that Saigo deserves to be remembered as the Last True Samurai, in 1877 he led the biggest samurai revolt that occurred against the Meiji regime, he was also a member of the samurai class himself and seemed to become increasingly disillusioned with the speed of Westernisation and modernisation in Japan as the 1870s proceeded, furthermore Saigo displayed features which were characteristic of a strong adherence to traditional Japanese culture, particularly in his large output of writings, poems and calligraphy, much of which discussed Confucianism and displayed an ardent concern for the poor and peasantry of Japanese society, there is also little doubting that in his later years he became increasingly concerned with how the samurai class was being undermined by the reforms of the Tokyo government. However, what is most salient in any evaluation of Saigo’s life, is that he was a primary actor in the Meiji Restoration of 1868 which overthrew the traditional shogunate rule of Japan and introduced a government which adopted many of the trappings of modernisation, admittedly, he did retire from events thereafter until 1871, and even after his resumption of an active role in government in the early 1870s, he displayed some resistance to certain modernising policies. But there is no doubting his central role in the destruction of the two and a half century old shogunate which had overseen the policy of secluding Japan from the world and allowing institutions such as those of the samurai to be preserved throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and some of the nineteenth, the circumstances of the Satsuma Revolt and his death therein, cannot absolve him fully from this earlier role, and as such the moniker of the Last Samurai or the Last True Samurai must be applied with some caution to Saigo Takamori, he was a product of his time, a symbol of how Japan was caught and being pulled between the twin forces of traditionalism and modernisation. Nonetheless, for the founders of this channel, Saigo Takamori is an especially important historical figure, as although the romantic depictions of him and his rebellion against the modernised forces of imperial Japan may not be entirely accurate, the central message of his fight and sacrifice is incredibly important for all people across the world to remember. This is because as the relentless march of technology and free markets increasingly render nations’ borders and even national cultures and traditions, obsolete, Saigo Takamori’s story reminds us that we must never forget who we are or where we came from and that our ancestors, although long gone, still have a right to be honoured, revered and heard, as without their hard work, bravery, intelligence and sacrifice, we would not have the many comforts and privileges we enjoy today and if this channel has any purpose, it is to remind those who are innocent or have perhaps forgotten, about their nation’s historical figures, history and traditions, as we all of us, stand on the shoulders of giants.
What do you think of Saigo Takamori? Should he really be thought of as the Last True Samurai or was he actually part of Japan’s modernising political establishment, simply stumbling into the rebellion which has made him famous? Please let us know in the comment section, and in the meantime, thank you very much for watching.