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The Life And Battles Of Saigo Takamori

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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016

The Last Samurai: The Life and Battles of Saigo Takamori, written by Mark Ravina, chronicles Saigo’s life, from childhood that fashioned his courage to his own death at the Satsuma Rebellion. This book is a biography of Saigo that explains many of the events leading up to the Restoration and the role the battle of Satsuma played in the Restoration. Saigo Takamori is revered as one of Japan’s most loyal and honorable samurai. Part of the legend for Saigo was the fate of his severed head. The other part of the legend is was he killed or did he commit suicide as an act of heroism.

In pre-industrial Japan, samurai meant military nobility. The samurai had far more rights than the common people. They were the only ones who were allowed to carry weapons. Some believed that they were above the law. It is said that they could kill a commoner if the crime was only an insult. The samurai lived by the code of honor called the bushido. This code was off limits to the Westerners. The main philosophy of bushido was complete and total loyalty to the master. Also, bushido said that it is more honorable to die than to live a life in shame (Rickman, 42).

It is unclear what year Saigo was born. Some references have 1827, while others have 1828. Regardless of the year, Saigo was born into a samurai family that was very low ranked in Kagoshima (Hayford, 139). He was born into wealth or rank. He was educated at a local level. His became very educated in Chinese classics and Zen, as well as swordsmanship. The Chinese classics and Zen made one responsible for his own conscience. His first job was as an assistant clerk in a country office (Cortazzi, 439). He became a domain official after a brief study at the domain school. In 1854, at the age of 26, he was selected to journey the Daimyo Shimazu Nariakira, the lord domain, to promote closer ties with the imperial court. This journey is where his political career began. Saigo went on many journeys with statesmen. He operated as courier and confidant to Nariakira until his death in 1858 (Smits, 198).

In 1858, he was a part of the Ansei purge and fled with a priest. The priest and Saigo made a suicide pact. Saigo backed out of the pact, only after the priest had already committed to his end of the deal by drowning himself (Cortazzi, 439). Saigo survived the journey but was later exiled to Amami Oshima Islands. In 1862, he returned to political life, but was forced into exile once again. He was brought out of exile in 1864. He was called back to the main island to train a group of Satsuma warriors. Saigo wanted to help his lord fight for the renewal of the emperor of Japan. Saigo became one of the main leaders of the “new” Japan. In 1868, Saigo and his troops led a revolt to destroy and create a powerful new state. He became the leader in Meiji’s new government. Saigo was now an active member of the Meiji government (Cortazzi, 439). Although Saigo supported many of the Western-style reforms, he was torn because he thought he was betraying his supporters. It was a desire for Saigo to die in service to his emperor. Saigo showed great loyalty to the emperor and his followers.

Unsure about the government he had helped to create, Saigo wanted to end his career with one last movement. In 1873, Saigo wanted to go to Korea and demand the Korean king recognize the Meiji emperor. He had every intention to draw his sword if he had to. Saigo never was able to move forward with his plan to have the Japanese emperor recognized (Smits, 198). His plan was dismissed and treated as reckless. He was denied his chance to show his loyalty and courage to the emperor. He resigned from the government and returned to Satsuma, his native land Satsuma. Saigo opened up military like academy for the former samurai warriors. He trained the men in frugality, honesty, and courage. This group resented the modernization of Japan more so than Saigo. Saigo feared the impersonal and commercial new nation would destroy samurai traditions of honor, regional loyalty, and social service (Hayford, 139).

Japan in the 1870’s was going through many changes of industrialization and social and political changes. This process is also known as modernization. Many people had negative views on Japan and its culture. In 1876, westerners considered the Japanese to be uncivilized people. They thought that Japan was inferior to Caucasians in culture, intelligence, and culture. Japan even paid some Westerners very well to sit on government seats. Often these visits were short lived. The views that outsiders had on Imperial Japan are one reason that Japan sought to do away traditions of the samurai (Tang, 545). Every aspect of traditional Japan and been thrown to the side. Japan had begun to westernize itself; not to be confused with “Americanize”. Saigo felt as if the traditions of the past would die out. The very hurried and colossal changes to Japanese culture, dress, and society appeared to be a treachery to the samurai. In 1876, the Meiji government stripped samurais of their swords (Smits, 198). The members of the Meiji government decided to model their new government after that of the United Kingdom and Germany. Samurai were not to be a political force under the new order (Tang, 543).

Saigo’s followers and students rose in rebellion. They had a mission to let their voice be heard with their swords. The students made Saigo their leader of this uprising. Old Japan and new Japan met in battle in 1877 (Hayford, 139). Early in the uprising, the rebels seized several local armories. Many of the rebel’s officers were trained in modern methods. The fight initially lasted from February to September (Cortazzi, 439). The imperial army began its final attack around four in the morning in September. By 5:30 A.M., the imperial army had destroyed all the fortifications of the rebel’s. At roughly seven in the morning, Saigo and his troops descended from the hill to face the Japanese army. They knew they were outnumbered. They knew they would die. Saigo died from a bullet wound, but legend has it that he died by his own sword (Dressner). This was a great samurai tradition to die with honor at the end of one’s life. This tradition is known as seppuku, a samurai suicide ritual. An autopsy of Saigo later revealed that he was only shot in the hip and would have been in too much pain to commit suicide (Yates, 449).

The imperial government’s victory was short lived. They had Saigo’s body, but his head was missing. His head was but off with one clean slice. If the government was unable to provide a head, then the victory is incomplete. In looking for Saigo’s head, the imperial army was honoring one of the oldest traditions. It is said that severed heads were to be presented and were a celebrated part of Japanese warfare. These heads were often a tribute to the lords. No one is sure exactly what happened to Saigo’s head immediately following his death. Some say Saigo’s manservant hid the head. The head was later placed with Saigo’s body after a government official found it. One ironic part of searching for Saigo’s head is that the imperial army was honoring a tradition that was officially banished by the emperor. The new Japanese army was to be based on modern nationalism, not feudal loyalty. So in a sense, the death of Saigo brought forth some old traditions that had been banished in early years (Yates, 449).

It is said that this rebellion, the War of the Southwest, was the bloodiest battle that Japan had ever seen (Dressner). Saigo’s forces were defeated. Old Japan was defeated. Over 12,000 men on both sides were killed. This battle also nearly bankrupted the new imperial government. Financially, devastating the Satsuma Rebellion cost the government significantly, forcing Japan off the gold standard and triggering the government to print paper currency. The imperial army had to use every resource available, including shipping lines, rail transport, police forces, and volunteers. The Imperial Japanese Armies were drafted. Many samurai volunteered to be soldiers and many progressed to be trained as officers. Much of the Imperial Army officer class was of former samurais. They were highly motivated, methodical, and specially trained. The rebellion was also successfully the close of the samurai class. After this war in 1877, there were no more samurai uprisings in Japan (Hayford, 139). About eight percent of the total population was of the samurai class. When they were no longer needed, they were now without their only occupation they had known their whole lives. Many former samurais became civil servants. They were now an idle class (Rickman, 42).

Twelve years after Saigo’s death, the imperial government, denounced Saigo as a rebel and a traitor. In 1889, the government exonerated Saigo of all his crimes, and restored him to his imperial court rank. Saigo is still a legacy today in popular culture. A modern movie that is loosely based on the history of Saigo was produced. Many people still find his actions heroic none the less. Saigo was a samurai warrior who lived and died to protect the traditions he was so fond of preserving. In life and death, Saigo exemplified all that was labeled as being admirable in the samurai. This book written by Mark Ravina gives one last look at the final days of feudal government and the exciting career of Saigo. He gave his life to keep the samurai traditions at the forefront of the Japanese government. His efforts and loyalty have had a lasting impact on Japan and the interpretations of the samurai way and tradition.


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