Saigō Takamori

Saigō Takamori, by Eduardo Chiossone.
Born February 7, 1827
Kagoshima, Satsuma domain
Died 24 September 1877
Occupation Samurai
Kanji for "Saigō Takamori".
Kanji for "Saigō Takamori".

Saigō Takamori (西郷 隆盛 (23 January 1828 — 24 September 1877) lived during the late Edo Period and early Meiji Era. One of the most influential samurai in Japanese history, he has been dubbed the last true Samurai.

Early life

Born lunar calendar December 7, the 10th year of Bunsei era (23 January, 1828), in Kagoshima in Satsuma domain , Saigō served as a low-ranking samurai official in his early career. He was recruited to travel to Edo in 1854 to assist Satsuma Daimyo Shimazu Nariakira in promoting reconciliation and closer ties between the Tokugawa bakufu and the Imperial court (公武合体).

However, Saigō’s activity in Edo came to an abrupt end with the Ansei Purge by Tairo Ii Naosuke against anti-Shogunal activities, and the sudden death of Shimazu Nariakira. Saigō fled back to Kagoshima, only to be arrested and banished to Amami Ōshima island. He was recalled briefly in 1861, only to be banished again by the new Satsuma Daimyo Shimazu Hisamitsu. Hisamitsu finally pardoned Saigō in 1864, and sent him to Kyoto to handle the domain's interests towards the imperial court.

Meiji Restoration

Saigo Takamori (with tall helmet) inspecting Chōshū troops at the Battle of Toba-Fushimi. Saigo Takamori (with tall helmet) inspecting Chōshū troops at the Battle of Toba-Fushimi.

Upon assuming command of the Satsuma troops based in Kyoto, Saigō quickly formed an alliance with samurai from Aizu domain against the forces of rival Chōshū domain, and prevented that domain from seizing control of the Kyoto Imperial Palace in the Hamaguri Gomon Incident. In August 1864, Saigō was one of the military commanders of the punitive expedition mounted by the Tokugawa bakufu against Chōshū over the incident, but in secret he was conducting negotiations with Chōshū leaders, which later led to the Satcho Alliance. When the Tokugawa bakufu sent a second punitive expedition against Chōshū in August 1864, Satsuma remained neutral.

In November 1867, Shogun Tokugawa Yoshinobu resigned, returning power to the Emperor in what came to be known as the Meiji Restoration. However, Saigō was one of the most vocal and vehement opponents to the negotiated solution, demanding that the Tokugawa be stripped of their lands and special status. His intransigence was one of the major causes of the subsequent Boshin War.

During the Boshin War, Saigō led the imperial forces at the Battle of Toba-Fushimi, and then led the imperial army toward Edo, where he accepted the surrender of Edo Castle from Katsu Kaishu.

Meiji Bureaucrat

Saigo Takamori in uniform.
Saigo Takamori in uniform.
The Seikanron debate. Saigo Takamori is sitting in the center. 1877 painting. The Seikanron debate. Saigo Takamori is sitting in the center. 1877 painting.

Although Okubo Toshimichi and others were more active and influential in establishing the new Meiji government, Saigō retained a key role, and his cooperation was essential in the abolition of the han system and the establishment of a conscript army. In spite of his humble background, in 1871 he was left in charge of the caretaker government during the absence of the Iwakura Mission (1871-72).

Saigō initially disagreed with the modernization of Japan and the opening of commerce with the West. He famously opposed the construction of a railway network, insisting that money should rather be spent on military modernization.

Saigō did insist, however, that Japan should go to war with Korea in the Seikanron debate of 1873 due to Korea's refusal to recognize the legitimacy of the Emperor Meiji as head of state of the Empire of Japan, and insulting treatment meted out to Japanese envoys attempting to establish trade and diplomatic relations. At one point, he offered to visit Korea in person and to provoke a casus belli by behaving in such an insulting manner that the Koreans would be forced to kill him. However, the other Japanese leaders strongly opposed these plans, partly from budgetary considerations, and partly from realization of the weakness of Japan compared with the western countries from what they had witnessed during the Iwakura Mission. Saigō resigned from all of his government positions in protest and returned to his hometown of Kagoshima.

Satsuma Rebellion (1877)

Saigo preparing for war. Saigo preparing for war.

Shortly thereafter, a private military academy was established in Kagoshima for the faithful samurai who had also resigned their posts in order to follow him from Tokyo. These disaffected samurai came to dominate the Kagoshima government, and fearing a rebellion, the government sent warships to Kagoshima to remove weapons from the Kagoshima arsenal. Ironically, this provoked open conflict, although with the elimination of samurai rice stipends in 1877, tensions were already extremely high. Although greatly dismayed by the revolt, Saigō was reluctantly persuaded to lead the rebels against the central government (the Satsuma Rebellion).

Saigō Takamori (seated, in Western uniform), surrounded by his officers, in samurai attire. News article in Le Monde Illustré, 1877. Saigō Takamori (seated, in Western uniform), surrounded by his officers, in samurai attire. News article in Le Monde Illustré, 1877.

The rebellion was suppressed in a few months by the central government's army, a huge mixed force of 300,000 samurai officers and conscript soldiers under Kawamura Sumiyoshi. The Imperial troops were modern in all aspects of warfare, using howitzers and observation balloons. The Satsuma rebels numbered around 40,000, dwindling to about 400 at the final stand at the Battle of Shiroyama. Although they fought for the preservation of the role of the samurai, they used Western military methods, guns and cannons; all contemporary depictions of Saigō Takamori depict him garbed in Western-style uniform. At the end of the conflict, running out of material and ammunition, they had to fall back to close-quarter tactics and the use of swords, bows and arrows.

Badly injured in the hip during the battle, instead of being killed or captured by the enemy, Saigō asked a comrade to cut off his head, to preserve his honor. Legend and art show that Saigō committed seppuku, a traditional form of suicide. His death brought the Satsuma Rebellion to an end.

Saigo Takamori (upper right) directing his troops at the Battle of Shiroyama.

The exact style of his death is actually unknown. The accounts of his subordinates claim either that he uprighted himself and committed seppuku after his injury, or that he requested that a comrade assist his suicide. In debate, some scholars have suggested that neither is the case, and that Saigō may have gone into shock following his wound, losing his ability to speak. Several comrades upon seeing him in this state, would have severed his head, assisting him in the warrior's suicide they knew he would have wished. Later, they would have said that he committed seppuku in order to preserve his status as a true samurai. It is not clear what was done with Saigo's head immediately after his death. Some legends say Saigo's manservant hid the head, and it was later found by a government soldier. In any case, the head was somehow retrieved by the government forces and was reunited with Saigo's body, which was laid next to that of his deputies Kirino and Murata. This was witnessed by the American sea captain John Capen Hubbard. Hubbard's testimony is not widely known in Japan, as most Japanese prefer to believe the myth that the head was never found.

Legends about Saigō

Many legends sprung up concerning Saigō, many of which denied his death. Many people in Japan expected him to return from British Raj India or Qing Dynasty China or to sail back with Tsesarevich Alexander of Russia to overthrow injustice. It was even recorded that his image appeared in a comet near the close of the 19th century, an ill omen to his enemies. Unable to overcome the affection that the people had for this paragon of traditional samurai virtues, the Meiji Era government pardoned him posthumously on 22 February 1889.

Statue in Ueno Park

Saigō Takamori's statue in Ueno park Saigō Takamori's statue in Ueno park

A famous bronze statue of Saigō walking his dog stands in Ueno Park, Tokyo. Made by Takamura Koun, it was unveiled on 18 December 1898. Saigō met the noted British diplomat Ernest Satow in the 1860s, as recorded in the latter's A Diplomat in Japan, and Satow was present at the unveiling as recorded in his diary.

In popular culture

Saigō's last stand against the Meiji government in the Battle of Shiroyama was the historical basis for the 2003 film The Last Samurai; Ken Watanabe played Saigō, although his role in the film was named Katsumoto.


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