Saigō Takamori: the true story of the last samurai

Saigo Takamori / Photo public domain on Wikimedia Commons

In 1877 the Satsuma Rebellion or Sainan War against the Japanese imperial throne ended with the victory of the latter and the definitive confirmation that the Meiji Revolution was continuing with the modernization of the country, putting an end to the traditionalist faction that had resisted it. The leader of the Meiji Revolution died in the last battle, but his courage was such that he won the admiration of all. His name was Saigō Takamori and for all that he was considered the last samurai or, at least, the last authentic one.

The Last Samurai, you will remember, is also the title of a successful film whose plot narrates those events. American Captain Nathan Algren, the character played by Tom Cruise, travels to Japan to train the imperial army and face the insurrection that some nobles carry out when they consider that this modernization decided by the emperor betrays the ancient Japanese traditions. After a premature battle, Algren’s troops are defeated and he falls prisoner of the rebel leader, Katsumoto Moritsugu, a prestigious samurai who, despite everything, wants to learn the keys to modern warfare as well. They end up becoming friends.

Commodore Matthew C. Perry in 1856/Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

Later, after Algren learns Japanese fighting techniques and fully integrates with his captors, the final battle against the emperor’s army will come, and he will be the one to triumph by opening a new era. Nevertheless, the unredeemed samurai reach glory by dying in a suicidal charge and their own leader becomes seppuku, provoking such admiration in the adversary that the whole army honors those heroes, in spite of being enemies. Actually Katsumoto Moritsugu, played in the film by Ken Watanabe, is a made-up name for a historical character, the aforementioned Saigō Takamori.

He was born in 1828 in the city of Kagoshima, capital of the Satsuma fief, which had been of great importance during the Tokugawa shogunate and which in the Edo period remained one of the richest thanks to the tolerance towards smuggling on its shores. There were still more than two decades to go before Commodore Perry, of the US Navy, arrived in Japan and forced the opening of the ports to the West, so the country was practically living in the Middle Ages and Christianity was still forbidden after the persecution to which it was submitted from the end of the 16th century to the middle of the 17th.

Takamori was the son of Saigō Kichibe, a lower class samurai. He would not be the only famous of his lineage, since in 1849 his younger brother, Saigō Tsugumichi, was born, who would become a field marshal, admiral and minister of various positions (Navy and Interior) and who during the aforementioned Satsuma Rebellion would remain loyal to the government. But that would be much later. For the moment, both brothers had to live with a no less difficult situation than the crisis of the shogunate, which after the placid and prosperous period of Tokugawa Ienari was now in the hands of his offspring Tokugawa Ieyoshi and, in the midst of a series of political and economic changes, was hit by the arrival of the Westerners.

Shogun Tokugawa Iemochi/Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

Ieyoshi died in 1853, the same year that Perry arrived, and was replaced by Tokugawa Iesada, who was replaced five years later by Tokugawa Iemochi, who tried to face this new situation by strengthening the figure of shōgun (traditionally the army commander, in practice the ruler) through the movement called Kobu-Gattai, which consisted of becoming related to the imperial house. During all this time, Takamori was in the service of Shimazu Nariakira, the daimyō (feudal lord) of Satsuma, since his family was economically endebted and, in fact, despite belonging to the jōkashi class (full samurai, with exclusive dedication), the Saigō were forced to live as gōshi (minor samurai, rural above all, who had to work).

Tokugawa Yoshinobu in French uniform/Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

Shimazu Nariakira was one of those who believed in the modernization of Japan but opposed Iemochi, who had signed a military alliance with France with a view to forming a Western-style armed army. Others daimyōs supported him and most of them ended up retaliating in the so-called Ansei Purge that unleashed the shōgun. Nariakira died in 1858 and Saigō Takamori was arrested and exiled to the island of Amami Ōshima first and then, after a failed escape attempt, to the island of Okinoerabu. In 1864, Shimazu Hisamitsu, the new daimyō of Satsuma (Nariakira’s brother), pardoned him, sending him to the court in Kyoto as his representative.

Trying to recompose the relations of the Satsuma fiefdom with shōgun, it maintained neutrality when this one continued the repression against the other domain that had opposed him, that of Chōshū. But in 1867 things changed completely when he went to the Tokugawa Yoshinobu shogunate, determined to put an end to the growing power of the fiefs, for which he proceeded to reinforce his army by hiring French military assistance. What he managed to do was to put them back on the warpath with Satsuma’s daimyōs, Chōshu and Tosa at the head. Under the slogan “Sonnō jōi” (“Revere the Emperor, expel the barbarians”) they rose up against what was to be the last shōgun.

The young Meiji Tennō emperor in 1871/Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

It was the Boshin War, a rather paradoxical civil war because, as we said, the Nariakira were also in favor of modernizing the country and their troops themselves were equipped with Western firearms. Saigō Takamori was in command of a corps during the conflict and shone with special intensity in the Battle of Toba-Fushimi (January 1868), in which he crushed the enemy after four days of fighting. Despite the fact that the forces in battle were small and the dead barely numbered a few hundred, that victory convinced the undecided daimyōs to align themselves with the emperor.

Yoshinobu found too many enemies to fight, losing the war and making a pact with the emperor to give him the power that had been taken from him two and a half centuries before in exchange for a quiet retreat (although, under pressure from Takamori, all his titles and lands were taken from him… which would be returned to him decades later, in 1902, as a reward for his services).

The young Meiji Tennō was on the throne, determined to transform Japan into a world power, for which he had to carry out a policy in multiple areas which is what was baptized as the Meiji Revolution. Other samurai from Satsuma became part of the government while Saigō Takamori took over as a sangi (advisor), undertaking an administrative restructuring that abolished fiefdoms and replaced them with prefectures, as well as a military reform that introduced recruitment and the creation of the Imperial Guard. He progressed so much that he took care of the provisional government when the incumbent went on an international tour in search of investors (the so-called Iwakura Embassy). Then things started to go wrong.

Takamori considered the goals of the Meiji Revolution excessive, fearing that they would strip Japan of its idiosyncrasies. For example, he opposed the construction of the railroad and proposed restrictions on trade opening. But the real crisis came in 1873 with what became known as the Seikanron Debate, in which two factions with completely different views on how to deal with the Korean problem clashed dialectically, a country that refused to recognize the legitimacy of the Meiji Emperor and that badly dismissed Japanese diplomatic and trade delegates.

El Debate Seikanro; Saigō Takamori es el del centro/Imagen: dominio público en Wikimedia Commons

Saigō Takamori was in favor of declaring war, which would not only be a response to the offense, but would also provide work for the thousands of samurai who were without him; a curious fact, considering that he himself had supported a law that abolished the emoluments of that caste. He even offered to go personally as an ambassador, with the idea of provoking the Koreans in some way to incite them to attack him and precipitate a casus belli.

Itagaki Taisuke in 1880, at the age of forty-four/Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

However, other leaders opposed it, aware that a punitive expedition would be an unbearable expense and that the country was in a delicate situation, with the Western powers reluctant to go to war and an army weakened by the struggle against the Republic of Ezo, a state created by the Tokugawa’s fugitives who had to be defeated by arms in 1869. In the end, it was decided not to intervene in Korea, which led to the immediate resignation of Saigō Takamori and those who defended his position, such as Count Itagaki Taisuke, something that must also be interpreted in the context of the internal struggles in the executive.

Takamori returned to his hometown, where he opened a private military academy along with several of his co-religionists. Since they soon opened more than a hundred branches throughout the prefecture, they proved to be a real powerhouse: they had a paramilitary force with artillery at their disposal because they also created a school for it, joining them with more and more samurai. Takamori and his people took over the local government and eventually led Satsuma to de facto secession, setting off alarm bells in the rest of the country, especially when several government agents who had come to report on the situation were killed.

Development of the Satsuma Rebellion/Image: Hoodinski on Wikimedia Commons

In January 1877, a navy ship arrived in Kagoshima with the mission of seizing the city’s arsenal, but a thousand students from the academies raided others, making up for the losses. Then another ship arrived with a delegate to negotiate but the students tried to board the ship, ruining any possible peaceful exit. And while the executive suspended shipments of rice to the town, the accumulated tension erupted with violence in the Satsuma Rebellion, which was to last nine months. Takamori led a column that started the march to Tokyo (the old Edo). On the way, he unsuccessfully besieged Kumamoto Castle and was then intercepted in Tabaruzaka, having to retreat.

Meanwhile, an imperial squad and army took over Kagoshima (with Takamori’s brother leading the prefecture), so there was nowhere left to retreat. The rebels were stumbling around, depleted of provisions and morale, until they were bagged. By then, they had lost their artillery and barely had any ammunition, relying only on traditional white weapons. Their swan song was similar to the one shown in the movie: the soldiers surrendered and the samurai who had survived became seppuku. But Takamori did not die on the battlefield; he returned to Kagoshima, burned all the compromising documents along with his uniform and barricaded himself on Mount Shiroyama accompanied by half a thousand faithful, waiting for the final assault to be led by General Yamagata Aritomo, a former colleague of his.

Aritomo’s troops were reinforced with Admiral Kawamura Sumiyoshi’s Marines (whose wife was Takamori’s aunt), making the imperial numerical superiority overwhelming: sixty to one. The naval artillery crushed the rebel positions, which rejected the offer of surrender, and Yamagata launched a frontal attack that passed like a wave over the enemy lines. Takamori died in uncertain circumstances. The classic version says that, seriously wounded, he made himself a seppuku so as not to fall prisoner and that his assistant, Beppu Shinsuke, was in charge of cutting off his head. But it is possible that it was a confusion and that he died from one shot, being decapitated by the other to preserve his dignity, seeing him dying; Shinsuke could never be asked why he drew his katana and charged down the slope with a companion to be shot by a rifle.

Imperial officials present the heads of the rebel leaders to their superiors (by Kobayashi Toshimtisu)/Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

In any case, although another legend says that the head in question never appeared (and, of course, there is no lack of the one that states that Takamori survived incognito), it was actually given to Yamagata, who ordered it to be washed and returned it to the body, although he had previously held it in his hands and pronounced an elegiac meditation on the fallen hero. He was the last genuine samurai.


Sources

The last samurai. The life and battles of Saigō Takamori (Mark Ravina)/Historia de Japón (Brett L. Walker)/The making of modern Japan (Marius B. Jansen)/Emperor of Japan. Meiji and his world, 1852-1912 (Donald Keene)/Saigo Takamori. The man behind the myth (Charles L. Yates)/Wikipedia