The Last Samurai: an unswerving rebel
Born in Kagoshima in the Satsuma Domain (present-day Kagoshima Prefecture), Saigō Takamori (西郷隆盛, 1828-1877) was one of the pro-imperial samurai supporting the Meiji Restoration. He has often been called the “last true samurai”.
Saigō was the eldest of seven children in a destitute Satsuma samurai family. He nevertheless received the austere education and stern military education Satsuma was renowned for. After having served as a provincial official for ten years, he moved to Edo (modern-day Tōkyō) to attend Shimazu Nariakira (島津斉彬, 1809-1858), his lord and daimyō of Satsuma.
When Commodore Matthew C. Perry arrived in Edo Bay in 1853 causing a major political crisis in Japan, the shogunate took the unprecedented step of summoning the daimyō to ask for their advice. Nariakira argued for a nationwide defence effort by strengthening the military organisation of each domain and for closer ties between the shogunate and the imperial court. He appointed Saigō as the retainer in charge of promoting his political plans.
Saigō had always been an opponent to the Tokugawa shogunate. When Ii Naosuke, the tairō (regent) of the shogunate, initiated a massive and ruthless purge against those opposing his policies, Saigō escaped to Satsuma where he tried to commit suicide by jumping from a boat. He was however rescued and exiled by the domain elders to Amami Ōshima Island from 1859 to 1864. During his three years of exile, he married a local woman and fathered two children with her. As his wife was a commoner from Ōshima, she was not allowed to follow him to Kagoshima when he was recalled in 1861.
Nariakira’s younger brother, Hisamitsu (島津久光, 1817-1887), the regent for Nariakira’s underage son Tadayoshi (島津忠義), intended to lead a large Satsuma force to Kyōto and Edo to support the “sonno joi” (尊皇攘夷, lit. “Revere the emperor, expel the barbarians”) movement, a plan Saigō thought to be premature and imprudent. When he hurried to Kyōto to prevent the uprising, Hisamitsu misinterpreted Saigō’s intentions as treason and banished him to Tokunoshima Island as a criminal.
While Saigō was incarcerated, the political tensions in the country escalated further, prompting many of the unruly Satsuma samurai to consider leaving the domain to intervene directly in national affairs. Consequently, in 1864, Hisamitsu pardoned Saigō who he thought to be the only person capable of controlling the firebrands and sent him to Kyōto, together with Ōkubo Toshimichi and Komatsu Tatewaki, to take charge of domain policy in national affairs.
In Kyōto, he allied with samurai from the Aizu Domain against the forces of rival Chōshū who had attacked the imperial gates in an attempt to regain their influence at court. In August 1864, Saigō led the first punitive expeditionary army of the shogunate against Chōshū, negotiating a generous agreement that ended the fighting, thereby paving the path for the subsequent Satsuma-Chōshū Alliance against the shogunate. Encouraged by the young Tosa samurai Sakamoto Ryōma, Saigō and Kido Takayoshi of Chōshū agreed that Chōshū would provide supplies for Satsuma troops in Kyōto and that Satsuma would procure Western arms for Chōshū. Saigō also promised to intervene at the imperial court on behalf of Chōshū. When the shogunate tried to attack Chōshū for the second time in 1866, Satsuma remained neutral, while Chōshū repelled the Tokugawa forces on all fronts.
In the wake of their defeat, the shogunate began to implement political reforms and convened a national conference with the major daimyō to restore shogunal prestige. In November 1867, Tokugawa Yoshinobu resigned and handed over political power to the emperor hoping to retain his influence as the most powerful among the daimyō. When Saigō insisted on the expropriation of the Tokugawa, fighting resumed. The shogunal forces were defeated in the battles of Toba and Fushimi, leading to the last chapter of the Tokugawa Period, the Boshin War, in which the pro-imperial troops easily crushed the resistance of the last shogunal armies.
After the Meiji Restoration Saigō became an advisor to the Meiji emperor. Although Ōkubo, Yamagata Aritomo and Iwakura Tomomi organised the new Meiji administration, Saigō’s cooperation was essential for the success of challenging programs, such as the establishment of a conscript army and the abolition of the domains.
In 1873, while many senior statesmen like Ito, Ōkubo or Kido were abroad on the Iwakura Mission, Saigō pressed the caretaker government to invade Korea, to punish it for an alleged insult and for not opening diplomatic relations with the Meiji government. When the Iwakura Mission returned to Japan in September 1873, Saigō’s plan was rejected, partly from budgetary considerations, and partly from the realisation of the military weakness of Japan compared with Western countries, leading to bitter resignations of several government figures, including Saigō, who returned to Kagoshima with thousands of his samurai adherents.
Satsuma Rebellion (1877)
Saigō soon gathered more supporters among disenchanted samurai and those harbouring ill intentions against the central government. To provide these disaffected warriors with useful occupations, he and his friends established a network of private military schools (私学校 shigakkō) which emphasised military training and soon dominated the local Kagoshima government.
Saigō was a conservative, old-style samurai, who still lived with the values of honour and purpose. In January 1877, he led the Satsuma rebellion and attacked the government troops in Kumamoto sending 40,000 men, mostly peasants armed with guns, against a force of 300,000 samurai officers and conscript soldiers. The ensuing six-week battle ended in a victory for the government’s conscript army.
Saigō and the last 400 of his loyal men retreated to Kagoshima, where he committed seppuku after having suffered a severe hip injury in battle on September 24, 1877. Although he ended his life as a rebel, his popularity soared, as he was seen as a protester against arbitrary government.
Others admire him as a paragon of virtue, considering him the last real samurai to die as such. A famous bronze statue of Saigō in hunting attire with his dog stands in Ueno Park, Tōkyō. Made by Takamura Koun, it was unveiled on 18 December 1898. A reproduction of the same statue stands on Okinoerabujima, where Saigō had been exiled. Saigō’s last stand against the Meiji government in the Battle of Shiroyama was the historical basis for the 2003 film “The Last Samurai”. Katsumoto, played by Ken Watanabe in the movie, is based on Saigō.
- Jansen, Marius B.; The Emergence of Meiji Japan, Cambridge University Press 1995
- Jansen, Marius B.; The Making of Modern Japan, Cambridge 2002
- Nussbaum, Louis-Frédéric; Japan Encyclopedia, Harvard University Press 2005
- Ravina, Mark; The Last Samurai: The Life and Battles of Saigo Takamori, Wiley 2005
Saigo Takamori (Image credit: NDL)
Saigo's statue in Ueno Park (Photo credit: Japan Reference/JREF)
Brush painting of Saigō: rendered by his neighbour in Kagoshima in 1927 (Photo credit: Kagoshima Pref.)
Baido Kunimasa, Curious Southwestern Stories of Kagoshima Prefecture: The “Saigo Star”: Toward the end of the Satsuma Rebellion, an unfamiliar red star shone in the night sky, and rumours circulated that the star must be an incarnation of Saigo Takamori, who was leading the rebellion. One of the stories went that with the help of a telescope you could see Saigo himself within the star. The controversy culminated to the point that newspapers had to report that the star was simply Mars appearing close to Earth. (Image credit)