The Real Last Samurai, Saigo Takamori
When Commodore Matthew Perry entered the harbour of Edo (Tokyo) in 1853 he carried with him a letter from the American President asking Japan to end their isolationist policies and enter onto the world stage. Japan, for hundreds of years, had successfully kept out much of the western influence preferring to maintain their society and politics free from outside interference. Perry’s fleet and its formidable weaponry nevertheless convinced Japan that the opening of their ports to foreign trade would prove beneficial to the nation as a whole.
For a traveller participating on a small group Japan tour package the history of Japan is fascinating and is an integral part of that experience when on vacation in this part of Asia. The story of Saigo Takomori and the opportunity to discover the influence on the modernisation of Japan is a great contributor to that journey. These package tours are for mature and senior travellers with a reasonable level of fitness, appealing to couples and the single traveller.
The Treaty of Kanagawa and the boy emperor.
The Treaty of Kanagawa was signed and Japan, effectively ruled for the most part, by the military arm of the government, the shogunate since very early in the 17th century, began to look to the future beyond such control. Opposition leaders, with assistance from a court aristocrat were able to have an imperial decree delivered that finally abolished the Tokugawa shogunate. This imperial authority allowed them to occupy the palace in what was called a restoration of imperial power. The fifteen-year old Emperor Mutsuhito, who had come to the throne after the suspicious death of his father Komei, was now in charge or so to speak. When Mutsuhito died in 1912 his government became known as the Meiji government (rule by the enlightened), and the reinstatement of his position as the Meiji Restoration, heralding the end of the rule and age of the shoguns.
Saigo Takamori the rebel for reform.
It would be difficult for any fifteen-year old no matter how enlightened to undertake the ruling of a nation such as Japan without advisors. Therefore a team, mostly samurai, was put together to ‘assist’ with decision-making and reform. One of the team, a Satsuma daimyo Saigo Takamori is now seen to have embodied the crisis facing Japan as it moved towards modernization. Saigo fought on the side of the Emperor, occupying Edo in 1868 to help defeat ardent supporters of the shogunate. Once successful, the ancient system of military government, the Tokugawa bakufu was dismantled. The reforms and proposed changes immediately divided the samurai, the warrior class, as some believed in a more modern vision for their country while others felt that this marked the end of their very way of life and traditional samurai values.
Takamori left Edo and returned home to Satsuma. He came back later at the Emperor’s request taking up a position as a commander in the newly formed Imperial Guard. His prowess as a warrior and the trust the Emperor Meiji placed in him as one of his first and closest advisors meant that Saigo’s loyalty left him unable to refuse. Many within the capital had already rapidly adjusted to the new ways, with Western dress common and even required for certain positions. The traditional warrior in Saigo would not allow him to conform, preferring to continue to wear his geta (sandals) and samurai attire.
The reforms continued with all feudal lands now passing into the hands of the government. By creating the Japanese Imperial Army and introducing conscription the need for the military service of the samurai became redundant. Without a means of income, a great number of the previously wealthy samurai fell into poverty, their status and prestige rapidly disappearing. Most felt they were on the same level as the lowly peasants they once controlled.
In 1871, a law was enacted that directed the samurai class to begin to wear their hair in a western style, that is, minus their distinctive topknot (chonmage). Saigo had resigned himself to the fact that modernisation for Japan was unavoidable but he hoped to add a renewed sense of worth to the samurai. He proposed military action against Korea fighting alongside the imperial force but this was very quickly rejected. Soon after, the samurai were stopped from carrying their weapons in public, a source of great discontent for this former warrior group. Despondent, Saigo once again returned to Satsuma and established a training facility. Within less than a year the academy began to appear to the government as suspiciously too popular, with upwards of 20,000 young samurai in attendance.
It is not clear if Saigo was actually preparing a samurai rebellion, but when imperial troops attempted to force the Satsuma warriors to disarm and disperse, rebel they did. The Satsuma Rebellion of 1877, led by Saigo Takamori, was an armed conflict against pro-government forces. After years of foment, Saigo easily assembled over 40,000 men and in a major battle at Kumamoto went against the Emperor’s army and the imperial government. His force, destroyed by the Japanese Army and their modern weapons, left Saigo with only a few men. Rather than suffer the humiliation of capture they returned to their base in Kagoshima to commit suicide (seppuku), although there have been a number of more poignant legends surrounding his death.
Tom Cruise’s epic movie, The Last Samurai, is loosely based around the upheaval in the Imperial court and the conflict between the traditional and the modern. Saigo and his traditional values likely inspired the movie character, the warlord Katsumoto Moritsugu. With the Satsuma Rebellion, and in the movie, we saw final appearance of samurai warriors, samurai tradition and true bushido (way of life) in the battlefield.
People often refer to Saigo as ‘the last samurai’ as he struggled to come to terms with a changing Japan. If you have the chance to visit Ueno Park in Tokyo you will find a bronze statue of Saigo Takamori standing proudly carrying his katana(sword). The Saigo Takamori statue celebrates Saigo’s life. The Meiji government pardoned Saigo just twelve years after his failed insurrection and stand to maintain the traditions of ancient Japan. The grave of this popular historical and cultural icon can be found in Kagoshima City, Kagoshima Prefecture in the Nanshu Cemetery.
External articles on Japan’s Samurai.