Saigo Takamori: The Last Samurai

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Saigo Takamori is often thought of as the last samurai. He was deeply involved in the Meiji Restoration of 1868 that returned power to the emperor and led to the rapid modernisation of Japan. However, in an ironic twist, this required the destruction of the samurai tradition which Saigo held so dear. Therefore, he led the ill-fated Satsuma Rebellion of 1877 against the government he had helped form, the defeat of which confirmed the death of old Japan.

The Meiji Restoration of 1868 reinstated the emperor to power and overthrew the Tokugawa Shogunate, the military dictatorship which nominally ruled in the Emperor’s name. The Restoration garnered wide support, both from nationalists angered at the weakness of the Shogun in the face of foreign influence and conservatives who feared the increased centralisation of power under the Shogun.

Saigo Takamori, of Satsuma han (one such feudal domain), was a typical conservative. He hoped to destroy the Shogunate and thus played a key role in the Boshin War (January 1868 – June 1869) which finally brought about its end.

The samurai of Satsuma and Choshu – the two han which had led the charge against the Shogunate, dominated the new Meiji government. Many of these men were hirazamurai (low-ranking samurai) galvanised into political action by the nationalism of the previous decade. It quickly became clear that they were intent on radical, modernising and westernising reform, in opposition to Saigo’s personal beliefs. The Charter Oath of April 1868 made clear these intentions with its second, third and fourth clauses:

(2) All classes, high and low, shall be united in vigorously carrying out the administration of affairs of state.

(3) The common people, no less than the civil and military officials, shall all be allowed to pursue their own calling so that there may be no discontent.

(4) Evil customs of the past shall be broken off and everything based upon the just laws of Nature.

The Meiji reformers also wanted to end the han system of feudal domains – a potentially inflammatory demand. Under severe pressure from both the emperor and disgruntled samurai, the daimyo (feudal lords) of Satsuma, Choshu, Tosa and Saga were forced to surrender their lands. In return, they were made (non-hereditary) governors of their old territory, though subject to imperial rules and regulations. Nearly almost every other daimyo followed suit, hoping to prove their loyalty. Thus, by 1872, every han was under central government control, and ultimately the governors came to be appointed by the imperial government itself – the former daimyo had lost all authority.

Curiously, Saigo had played a significant role in the implementation of this policy. Over the previous year, he had reorganised and made more effective the Imperial Guard such that it resembled more a national standing army, which made sure the central government was equal to any daimyo rebellion.

By 1872, Saigo was among the most important of the Meiji bureaucrats. Nonetheless, he remained deeply conflicted as to the direction of reform. He struggled greatly to balance his loyalties to the emperor and his daimyo whom he felt he had betrayed by causing the end of the han system.

Many other policies followed that further inflamed his inner turmoil. These were, in short, those which reduced the position of the samurai. Conscription was enacted in 1872: contrary to the samurai belief that samurai alone were valiant and disciplined enough to fight in battle, ‘commoners’ were to make up the bulk of the army.

Equally important to other samurai was the reform and eventual abolition of samurai stipends. In 1868, the level of the stipends given out by the government was reduced, and while the obligation for government service was similarly abolished, this allowed for the introduction of ‘commoners’ into positions of military influence – another slight. In 1876, these stipends were commuted into government bonds – reducing government expenditure on samurai stipends by 30%. However, for the poorest samurai who lacked other employment (samurai had been barred from commercial activities before 1868) the annual bond payments were grossly insufficient.

It is important to remember these reforms of the Meiji government at the time were for the greater good of the people of Japan. The samurai class made up no more than 10% of the population, and so inevitably reforms aimed at greater meritocracy were going to disadvantage them. Paying stipends to the samurai was diverting resources from more necessary expenditure, and opening positions in the government to all, regardless of status, was not only just but likely to increase efficiency.

However, these sensible reforms were destroying of a set of institutions that dated to the start of the Tokugawa period in 1603, and, more perniciously, were perceived to be destroying the samurai way of life that was centuries older still. Thus, while the central government’s policies were often necessary to move forward, the samurai reaction was equally understandable.

Contributing to this feeling were policies such as the outlawing of traditional samurai hairstyles in 1871. This policy was, unlike financial reforms, entirely unnecessary, and seemed cruel and vindictive when so much of the samurai world seemed to be collapsing.

The Korean Crisis of 1873 was the tipping point which led Saigo to finally abandon the Meiji government over which he was so conflicted. Korea refused to recognise Emperor Meiji, as they maintained the Chinese doctrine of only recognising the Chinese emperor. This led to significant debate over whether to send a punitive expedition to Korea.

Saigo argued for a diplomatic solution, since it would be disrespectful to attack without first exhausting all diplomatic channels, and was adamant he should lead the Japanese delegation. However, this plan was blocked in October 1873 by Okubo Toshimichi, his old Satsuma ally and the most powerful man in Meiji Japan. Incensed, Saigo resigned all his governmental positions.

There is no clear reason why Saigo was so passionate on this issue. The traditional explanation is that he intended to get killed in Korea, providing a rallying point for the samurai that still revered him. While this is not an unsubstantiated possibility, he also said “it would be a source of regret” if he did not pursue negotiations to exhaustion – even if death may have been his plan in the last resort. Thus, it seems he was willing to die for the sake of Japan’s honour, but did not think it honourable to go to war without attempting reconciliation. As so often is true with Saigo, he seems a web of contradictions, constantly torn between split loyalties in a rapidly changing society.

The incident exposed the fundamental difference between Saigo and Okubo. Saigo focused primarily on the question of justice and honour: if Korea persisted in dishonouring the imperial house, Japan must go to war, but if they did not, then there were no grounds for conflict. Okubo’s interest was in what could be gained or lost from war – a cold cost-benefit analysis of possible concessions, military expenditure and gunboat diplomacy. Their different rationales were indicative of the split between old and new Japan.

On his return to Satsuma, Saigo established and led schools, 120 of which educated 7000 students by 1877. Their education focused on spiritual training, Chinese classics and Confucian principles. Rather conspicuously, Confucian philosophy teaches of the duty of the ruler to be a moral example, not a cold bureaucrat such as Okubo was perceived.

Of greater concern to the central government was the military training offered at these schools. Satsuma, despite its role in the Meiji Restoration and its many radical samurai, remained fiercely independent and determined to maintain their traditions, and so the central government was widely criticised. There were also significant military resources located in Kagoshima, Satsuma’s largest city, including a shipyard, two arms factories and three ammunition depots. The national government feared what would happen if this rebellious province rose up against the emperor.

Saigo was a beloved figurehead in Satsuma with military experience and quite possibly an enemy of the imperial government. Therefore, despite his retirement, there were plans to assassinate Saigo should a rebellion break out in Satsuma, regardless of his involvement. These plans were revealed in the confession of a man convicted of the attempted assassination of the Meiji representative in Satsuma in December 1876.

It is this which incited Saigo to lead the Satsuma Rebellion in February 1877. Despite his known distaste for the regime, Saigo had previously admonished his followers who opposed them, until this information was revealed. Then, he declared his support for revolt.

Ultimately, the details of the campaign are inconsequential. Though Saigo’s forces were better trained (as most were former samurai) and had higher morale (as they were fighting for their own survival) they numbered only 20,000, while the imperial army had 60,000. Furthermore, an imperial arms seizure had left Saigo’s forces with one-fortieth the rounds of the government forces. Their opponents enjoyed technological advantages too, including naval support.

The only doubt was if Saigo could have rallied men to his cause at the war’s outbreak. As it turned out, he made little effort; Saigo seemed to be resigned to his fate. If the result was ever in question, by April 1877 imperial victory was the clear outcome, though the rebellion lasted for five months longer.

The end of the Satsuma Rebellion came with the Battle of Shiroyama on 24 September 1877. By this point, deaths and desertions had reduced the rebellion to 500 men against 30,000 imperial troops. Their limited ammunition had been all but exhausted, and so the rebels charged the enemy lines and fought gun with sword. They were surprisingly successful for a short time, but, outnumbered and outgunned as they were, the tide soon turned.

Saigo Takamori himself died in the fighting. The traditional tale of his death is entrenched in folklore – he was shot in the hip, and so committed seppuku (the honourable samurai method of suicide by stabbing oneself in the stomach) before his loyal servant decapitated him. However, it is likely the wound Saigo suffered was so disabling that he was unable to commit suicide. The legend endures because it fits with the general perception of him in life and death: a man of honour, and the quintessential samurai.

With the end of the Satsuma Rebellion, the samurai age was over too. Pro-government publications, while none were so brazen as to celebrate Saigo’s death per se, proclaimed the final defeat of ‘feudalism’ and the old ways. A conscript army had defeated the last of the samurai warriors. Samurai privilege and status could never be restored.

Saigo became a folk hero almost immediately after his death (indeed, he still is – he has a statue in Tokyo’s Ueno Park, unveiled in 1898). Once his rebellion was defeated, he no longer had to be seen as a threat, but was viewed as the last true samurai. He embodied all the traits of a samurai: martial ability, loyalty, honour, principles, and above all, no fear of death. Leading a rebellion purely on principle, despite knowing it was doomed, was the very best way for any samurai to die. For this to be the death of the samurai age as a whole, going out in a final blaze of martial glory, was poetic.

“I have found the essence of Bushido: to die! In other words, when you have a choice between life and death, always choose death.”

Tsunetomo Yamamoto explaining the samurai code, c.1716.

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