One of the aspects of Japan that attracts many people is samurai. Noble Japanese warriors wielding deadly weapons with codes of honor is a cool concept for many people. Although the blockbuster movie starring Ken Watanabe and Tom Cruise, The Last Samurai, was based on the true Japanese figure, Saigo Takamori, the truth does not always live up to the visions of our minds. The real story is both less enlightening and more moving than the fictional portrayal of Ken Watanabe. This is the story of the true last samurai, Saigo Takamori.
To understand Saigo Takamori, you have to understand the world he was born into. After finally unifying all of Japan under military leader (shogun) Ieyasu Tokugawa, his progenitor Tokugawa Iemitsu closed Japan to outside influence in 1635. Tokugawa feared that the influence of Westerners and Western ideals would upset the peace that he had struggled all of his life to create and draw Japan into another century of warfare. A lot of what we consider samurai culture and even high-class Japanese culture flourished during this time. For the most part, the samurais had nothing to do, so they spent their time reading and writing poetry. But all this decadence led to stagnation. Other than in terms of culture, little was developed during this time.
Japan was like a time castle buried in the sands of a violent and quickly shifting world. Japan would be forcibly thrown into that world when American Commodore Perry would sail into Edo Harbor (modern-day Tokyo Bay) and practice a little gunboat diplomacy. Knowing that they could not stand against the vastly superior gunboats of the Americans, the current shogun capitulated to Western demands. This would set the downfall of the shogunate and give rise to the Meiji Restoration. An unknown samurai from an unknown house in the backwaters of Japan would play a major role in toppling said government, and then be similarly executed by the government he helped birth.
Saigo was born in Kagoshima in the Satsuma Domain (modern-day Kagoshima Prefecture) in 1828. He was the eldest of 7 children and his family was a relatively unknown and poor samurai family. In the final years of the Warring States era (where Tokugawa came to power), the Satsuma province, of which Saigo’s family was a part, had been part of the alliance against Tokugawa. When he finally came to power, Tokugawa awarded his friends lavishly but he punished his enemies by keeping them from participating in any meaningful way in the government. So by the time of Saigo’s birth, the entirety of Satsuma was somewhat persona non grata in the halls of influence.
Saigo Takamori’s actual name is Saigo Kokichi. Generally, samurais change their names when they become adults. “Takamori” was added to his family name “Saigo” and he is often referred to as “Takanaga.”
Satsuma samurais were much more hearty than their brothers in the more affluent areas. Because Kagoshima was more rural and considered similar to the outback, Satsuma samurais were tough. They focused much more on military prowess and martial skill. Saigo was taught in strict military schools and brought up in a traditional samurai way. As a young man, he would be sent to Edo (modern-day Tokyo) to work under Shimazu Nariakira who was the daimyo (lord) of Satsuma. When Commodore Perry’s ships sailed into Edo Bay and made their demands, the Shogun brought in all the daimyo to council together on what to do. Nariakira was one of the voices that promoted a vigorous defense of Japan against the Western invaders. He proposed that all the clans’ royalties to the government should be strengthened so that they could stand together. Nariakira, seeing the military promise of his young protégée, promoted Saigo as his retainer to put his military plans into place. But with the capitulation of the government, these plans went unfulfilled.
Saigo was no fan of the shogunate. His family had fought against it and for that had been kept at arm’s length for hundreds of years. Furthermore, the local Shogunal regent in Satsuma, Ii Naosuke, tried to purge anyone he saw as being less than wholly supportive of the government. Saigo’s head was one that he sought to hang in his trophy room. Saigo was forced to flee and he even tried to commit suicide by jumping off a boat rather than being captured by Ii’s goons. However, he was rescued by a passing boat who carried him to Amami Oshima Island. After being nursed back to health, he married a commoner and had children with her. While settling down with a commoner life, he must have still had anger in his heart against the government that ran him from the lands his family had since time immemorial.
Three years into his exile, the political winds shifted and Saigo was allowed to return. But being that his wife and children were common peasants, they were not allowed to return with him to Kagoshima. He would have to part with them forever. Another arrow in his heart that he would return to the government.
By this time, things were going crazy in Japan. The arrival of the American ships had done exactly what Tokugawa Iemitsu had feared they would. The power base of the entire country was shifting. The formerly all-powerful shogunate appeared weak and the sharks began to circle. Many samurai clans who, like Satsuma, had been on the outside saw this as their chance for real change. There began to be a new nationalistic fever that was sweeping through these discontented samurais. They called for the destruction of the shogunate and the reimposition of the Emperor as the true leader of the nation.
The younger brother of Saigo’s former master Shimazu Nariakira was one of the firebrands that was stirring up the flames of rebellion. He proposed marching on the government with their demands. Saigo pleaded with them to desist such action for now. Saigo knew that it was still too early for such action and that it would only lead to a slaughter. In order to bring peace, Saigo ran ahead of the marching masses to warn the government of the commons horde and negotiate a settlement between the two parties. But misunderstanding his intentions, the government branded him a traitor and exiled him once again to Tokunoshima Island.
But as the political situation became more dangerous and the future of the government seemed to be standing on the edge of a knife, many government advisers realized that their only hope for controlling the dissidents was the man they had exiled to Tokunoshima. The shogunate, in desperation, called on one of their greatest enemies to save them.
Forces from the Choshu Domain raised against the government and attacked the Imperial Palace in Kyoto. Saigo allied with forces from Aizu to put down the rebellion and keep the Emperor safe. You might be thinking, “Why is he fighting for the government that he hates?” Saigo was thinking a few steps ahead. He knew that the Shogunate was going to fall. It was a decrepit pagoda teetering on the winds of time and it was only a matter of time before its fall. He was securing his base of power after that fall. While he might have been fighting the Choshu samurais, he also gave them very generous terms of surrender, endearing himself with the leaders of the rebellion. With this single act, he both proved his martial prowess and indebted himself in the eyes of the leaders.
After this revolt, he began to negotiate with the leaders of the Choshu rebellion to aid them in the future. In the second rebellion in 1866, Saigo and Satsuma remained neutral in the conflict between Choshu and the Shogunate. The Shogunate, seeing enemies all around it, finally called it quits and relinquished power to the Emperor.
Despite these great gains, Saigo saw that a lot of this was merely political theater. The Shogunate was gone, but the Tokugawa government was still in control behind the scenes. It was a political game of musical chairs, everyone’s positions were switched but the day-to-day reality remained the same. Saigo called this out and called on the Tokugawas to be removed from any position of influence. This would initiate the Boshin War. Saigo and his allies would lead their forces against the forces of the Shogunate and utterly defeat them. These defeats would usher the days of the Meiji Restoration and would also mark the downfall of Saigo Takamori.
Saigo was a main player in the Meiji Reformation. He became a key advisor to the Meiji Emperor, was a key player in helping create Japan’s new western style conscript army, and was one of the leading forces behind Japan getting rid of its old domain system. This really upset the apple cart, it was nearly a total reorganization of Japanese society and power structures. But because of Saigo’s credentials as a rural samurai, he was able to aid in getting the country through this shifting age with as little problems as possible. Soon after establishing a government, in 1871, the leaders of the Meiji government took a trip to the United States and Europe. During this trip, Saigo was left in charge of running the government at home.
The Meiji Restoration is mostly known for how the country really shifted gears from a traditional agricultural society to a modern industrial state in a very short time. But whenever you have massive change, there is going to be a lot of pushback. Samurais, for hundreds of years, had been at the top of society. But now, a cloth maker who industrialized, hired a bunch of former farmers for cheap labor, and built his own company could make more money than samurais could ever dream. Furthermore, in modern warfare strategies, you don’t need a small group of highly trained warriors. Guns made lives cheap. So the samurais helplessly watched as their livelihoods were stripped away from them little by little. Leagues of samurais were finding themselves impoverished.
But these problems with the samurai were not what drove a wedge between Saigo and the government. It was Korea.
Japan’s relationship with Korea goes back a long time and deserves its own article. To simplify, for most of the history of Japanese-Korean relations, most things were handled through an intermediary – the So family of Tsushima Island. After the new Meiji government took charge, they approached Korea to renegotiate their relationship. The Korean royal court took umbrage with the choice of Kanji used to represent the Japanese Emperor since that particular Kanji was only used by the Koreans to represent the Chinese Emperor. Hence, by using it, the Korean court would be putting themselves figuratively under Japan. Basically, they refused to accept that the Japanese Emperor was of the same station as the Chinese Emperor. This really made Saigo mad.
Saigo was so incensed over this seeming slight that he pushed vehemently for Japan to go to war with Korea and punish it. But the Meiji government, looking at past attempts to attack Korea, said that they had neither the manpower and equipment nor the international backing for such a project. But Saigo continued to protest and threatened to resign if he was not listened to, and the government figures showed him the door.
After retiring from public life, Saigo started his own military school in his home province. Many samurais sent their sons to be trained and taught by this hero of the nation. There were many of these types of private military schools all throughout the country and they were a breeding ground for extreme nationalistic fervor, and Saigo’s was no exception. Here you had a whole class of young people whose fathers were well respected but their aspects of the future looked rather grim. Saigo’s private schools proliferated throughout Kagoshima and dominated the local government and we’re getting more and more extreme each day. Fearing that there might be a revolt, the government sent warships to remove weapons from the Kagoshima arsenal, but this actually had the opposite effect. Seeing the warcraft approaching, some of Saigo’s top students secured the arsenal and began hostilities.
The records seem to show that Saigo was initially upset about this breakout of violence, but seeing that he really had no choice, he also took up arms in a battle he knew he would not be able to win. Some authors debate this version of events and say that Saigo planned this and hoped to force the government into negotiations that would allow him back into a seat of power. Who can say?
Saigo gathered together a mixed force of samurais and peasants for the Battle of Shiroyama, the last and final battle of the Satsuma rebellion on September 24th, 1877. Unlike the movie The Last Samurai, they caught with modern techniques and weapons until later when they were running out of ammo and were in close quarters. After several battles, Saigo’s forces were nearly completely decimated. Saigo was left with 400 men and he was badly injured in the hip. On the same day, Saigo committed seppuku in the traditional samurai fashion.
Although Saigo Takamori died in rebellion to his country, he lives on as a hero. Japan has a very interesting relationship with rebellion. In Japan, if you fight a losing battle against the rightful government but for a good cause, you are well thought of. Saigo Takamori is kind of like the Robert E. Lee in American history. He is admired by many, hated by some, but always garners respect on all sides. I think it is the legend of Saigo Takamori that really engrosses people. He is a call-back to a different age. One that has passed and will never return. He was truly The Last Samurai. Today, there is a statue of Saigo Takamori that stands at the famous Ueno Park in Tokyo.