Saigo Takamori: The Making of a Legend

Saigo Takamori: The Making of a Legend

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Saigo Takamori at Ueno
Picture: trikehawks / PIXTA(ピクスタ)
Saigo Takamori would ultimately tear down the samurai system he so dearly loved. But first, he had to survive an ordeal that nearly killed him.

On the top of a small forested hill, a mere three-minute jaunt from Tokyo’s bustling Ueno Station, stands the statue of a samurai. The statue, perhaps one of the most famous in Japan, portrays a stocky man with a strikingly large head. Clad in a light summer kimono and straw sandals, the samurai grasps the short katana hanging at his side with his left hand. With his right, he leads a small dog on a leash. His expression appears relaxed – almost serene.

It’s fitting that Saigo Takamori (西郷隆盛), one of the most impactful samurai in history, and a man who was a legend even in his own time, would be immortalized at Ueno. It was near these very hills that in July of 1868 he led men into battle, helping to root out the last of the Tokugawa loyalist soldiers in Tokyo. The bloody battle he so courageously fought in saw fires rip through the surrounding area, altering the appearance of the Ueno where his statue now stands.

Indeed, it was not just Ueno which he changed. A man renowned for his indefatigable sense of virtue, Saigo was one of the driving forces behind the toppling of the 265-year-old Tokugawa Shogunate and the samurai-led feudal state it ruled over. In part because of his actions, the city of Edo became Tokyo, and all of Japanese society was restructured. A thousand years of samurai rule crumbled, and a land made up of disparate feudal domains became a centralized state unified around the emperor.

Saigo Takamori was one of the great heroes of the Meiji Restoration, had been one of the three most powerful men in the nascent Meiji state, and he had even become a valued companion and advisor of the young Meiji Emperor. And yet, for the twenty-one years following Saigo’s death to when his statue was unveiled in Ueno Park in December of 1898, many in the government he helped create had cursed his name.

After all, Saigo Takamori was a traitor who had taken up arms against the very state he had helped create, and thus, against his emperor. In 1877 Saigo had led an army north from his home in Kagoshima, and for the nine months his Satsuma Rebellion had raged he was the single greatest threat the Meiji government would ever face. Yet here, only a decade later, was a statue commemorating him as a great man, whose construction was paid in part by the very emperor he had seemingly gone to war against.

It’s such seeming contradictions that continue to make Saigo Takamori one of the most fascinating figures in Japanese history. Even before the time of his death in battle on the hills of Shiroyama, Saigo had achieved an almost superhuman reputation among the people of Japan. The 140 years since have only enhanced his legend. Saigo has been thought of variously as the perfectly moral samurai; as an impulsive warmonger; a democratic reformer; an arch-conservative; a villainous traitor; and as a pacifist Confucian philosopher. His spirit has been referenced in any number of competing movements. His name is known by nearly every person in Japan, and even abroad, Saigo is renowned as the “Last Samurai.” (And, indeed, his life and legend is the main basis for the Tom Cruise film of the same name).

So, was Saigo a forward-thinking modernizer, or was he a reactionary seeking to preserve the privilege of the samurai class? The answer, it seems, is that he was both.


From Small Beginnings

Like so many inspirational figures from around the world, the circumstances of Saigo Takamori’s birth far from guaranteed greatness. He was born on January 23rd, 1828, the firstborn son of an impoverished samurai family of little note. His father was a petty bureaucrat of the Satsuma Domain (薩摩藩) in the city of Kagoshima, located at the very south of the Japanese archipelago on the island of Kyushu – as far away from the core of Edo-era society as one could get (without living in the quasi-colonies of Hokkaido or Okinawa). While his birthright as a samurai implied certain privileges in the feudal system of Edo-era Japan, his family’s daily life was far from charmed.

By this point in the Edo era, samurai – once primarily warriors – had been relegated to being the cogs in the machine of domain bureaucracy. The Edo era was mostly bereft of major wars, a strange situation for a social caste that based its primacy on martial talent. Samurai still received stipends from the lords to whom they owed fealty, but these were based on a system of strict familial rankings. Saigo’s father, Kichibei, was in the third-lowest samurai ranking, and his salary as a tax official was simply not enough to cover the needs of his six (remarkably tall) children. There was never enough clothing or bedding, they lived in cramped quarters, and the family was forced to engage in massive borrowing and farming on the side to make ends meet.

A Samurai of Satsuma

The Satsuma Domain in which Saigo grew up was unique in Japan for many reasons. Firstly, compared to the demographics of most feudal domains it had a preponderance of samurai. About 70% of the city of Kagoshima and more than a quarter of the entire domain were of the warrior caste. This despite the samurai class representing around only 5% of Japan’s population. The lords of Satsuma, the Shimazu family (島津氏), had one of the oldest pedigrees in Japan and had ruled the region for around 600 years. The Shimazu, like all samurai domains, owed fealty to the Tokugawa Shoguns in Edo. Yet they also maintained a unique sort of independence. Saigo’s education stressed the distinctive attributes of Satsuma culture and Shimazu history.

More than that, Satsuma was unique in that it possessed its own colony. Satsuma Domain had conquered the islands of the Ryukyu Kingdom (modern Okinawa) in the early 17th century and ruled over the people there with an iron fist. There was but a single antecedent for a feudal domain in Japan, which was mostly closed off from foreign trade, conducting its own foreign policy in this way: the Matsumae Clan of Hokkaido, who the Tokugawa charged with controlling and interacting with the Ainu “barbarians” of that northern land.

Saigo received the education expected of a young samurai of Satsuma. He drilled in martial arts, but also focused on texts covering universal Confucian values and local Satsuma history. It was in this classroom setting that Saigo encountered the ideas of fealty to one’s lord and of leading via moral example. These ideals would drive much of his life. Indeed, a sword injury to his right arm during a duel with another student caused Saigo to focus more on this learning than physical training. Despite Saigo’s later reputation as a great warrior, it was his moral leadership that would truly define him.

Saigo Takamori, Petty Tax Official?

Birthplace of Saigo Takamori
The birthplace of Saigo Takamori in Kajiya-Chou, Kagoshima City. (Picture: road / PIXTA(ピクスタ))

In 1844, Saigo, now aged 15, began what promised to be a middling career as a tax clerk for the Satsuma domain. Tax was a consistently prickly topic for Satsuma. With so many samurai, all of whom were owed some sort of stipend, the average person bore a heavy tax burden. Via his position, teenaged Saigo could see firsthand how the current system hurt the people around him. Samurai like his family received too little pay to survive from peasants who were taxed far too heavily.

His frustrating work as a petty bureaucrat wended on for years. In 1852, both of Saigo’s parents passed away, and he was left in charge of his indebted and struggling family. Despite all this, Saigo did not think ill of the ruling Shimazu family. Nor did he feel any anger towards his liege lord, the daimyo (大名) of Satsuma. Saigo could see that change was needed in Satsuma, but his Confucian ideals meant that change for the better should be done in the name of his lord. Little did he know that he would soon be catapulted into the immediate orbit of that same lord he so admired from afar.

Daimyo Dynastic Struggle

In 1851, only the year before Saigo’s parents’ death, a new daimyo rose to power in Satsuma. Shimizu Nariakira (島津斉彬) was a talented martial artist with interests in Western learning and Chinese classics. (Interestingly, Nariakira also appears in the oldest extant Japanese photograph). Still, despite his good characteristics and his birthright as the reigning daimyo’s eldest son, Nariakira only came to power after a bloody dynastic struggle.

A rivalry developed between Nariakira and his half-brother, Hisamitsu. Hisamitsu was aided by his mother, who was the daimyo’s favored concubine, and a powerful domain elder who harbored ill will towards Nariakira. Together, the three aimed to convince the daimyo to deny his first son his birthright. By the time the dust settled, the daimyo had been forced into retirement and the domain elder had been executed. Nariakira now ruled Satsuma. Alas, almost all of his close confidants had been killed or exiled during the struggles. The battle between Nariakira and Hisamitsu had left a huge rift amongst those who had been part of either faction. The newly ascendant daimyo would need to gain new adherents in whom he could place his trust. A dependable, idealistic tax official, untainted by political affiliation, might just do the trick.

Confidant to the Daimyo

So, it seems, did Saigo leave the world of taxation behind. In 1854, he entered the rarefied air of the upper echelons of Satsuma as if by chance. Shimazu Nariakira likely had no idea of how history would shift because of his decision to employ a single, lowly samurai.

For Saigo, this was the opportunity of a lifetime. Before, he had regarded his lord as far-off ideal to whom he owed his loyalty. Now, he would have the honor of serving the man face-to-face. Nariakira promoted Saigo to Lord’s Attendant, and shortly thereafter Saigo found himself accompanying his master to the distant Shogunal capital of Edo.

For Nariakira, such a journey was an annual affair. The Shogunate had implemented the sankin-kotai (參勤交代) system back in 1636, forcing daimyo to maintain residences in Edo. Lords were compelled to alternate years living in their domains and living in the Shogunal capital. This system served to make virtual captives of regional lords, who had to expend great sums for each journey. All this helped ensure that powerful daimyo would be unable to rebel against Tokugawa suzerainty.

A side-effect was the creation of a country with a dualistic power core. Daimyo became used to the great city of Edo, home to culture and commerce. There they could rub shoulders with others of their rank and power. Simultaneously, the domains they ruled operated almost as separate states. Many future daimyo were raised in Edo households, and only ventured to their holdings when they came of age. Such daimyo would jockey for power and precedence for their domains while internally viewing their own holdings as country backwaters. Nariakira himself had only first seen Kagoshima at the age of twenty-six.

Not so Saigo, who, born and bred in Satsuma, had never left the island of Kyushu. Up until he left for Edo with Nariakira, Saigo had been firmly embroiled in the local culture and problems of his homeland. As he crossed the straights of Shimonoseki, leaving Kyushu behind, he was headed for a cosmopolitan world the likes of which he had never known before.

The Coming Storm

Commodore Perry arrives in Japan.
An American rendition of Commodore Perry landing in Japan. (Picture: Library of Congress)

A journey of over 900 miles, likely taken on foot, saw Saigo and Nariakira’s retinue finally arrive in Edo. They found themselves in the shogunal capital during a time of unique crisis.

Only one year earlier, American Commodore Matthew Perry had sailed four powerful modern warships into the port of Uraga at the mouth of Edo Bay. His mission, received directly from American President Millard Fillmore, was to open the secluded country of Japan to American trade – using force, if need be. (In fact, Perry’s force had landed in Satsuma’s colony of Okinawa before heading to mainland Japan, so Nariakira must have been even more concerned about these goings-on than the average daimyo). While other Western nations had attempted similar operations before, none had been as tenacious, nor as bold. While the Shogunate dithered, Perry promised to return in a year’s time for their answer – and so here he was again, back in Japan.

Saigo would even have been able to see Perry’s recently returned “black ships” for himself as they lay at anchor while Nariakira’s retinue rested in Kanagawa. These ships would be the catalyst for much of the tumultuous changes in which Saigo would be so involved and which would rock Japanese society for the next two decades. Indeed, only two days before Saigo arrived in Kanagawa, the Shogunate had given in and signed a trade agreement with America. Perry’s fleet soon steamed north to Hakodate to inspect one of America’s new treaty ports. It left behind a Shogunate whose reputation had been hopelessly damaged by the weakness it had shown by giving in to foreign demands.

In the Shogunal Capital

Once in Edo, Saigo set about fulfilling his duties to his liege lord. Nariakira seems to have found Saigo to be principled, reliable, and intelligent, and the two men developed a deep master-servant relationship. To Saigo, Nariakira presented as the ideal daimyo lord. Their relationship was the reification of everything Saigo could have wished for as a samurai.

Saigo also found himself being swept up in the intellectual life of the capital. Especially attractive to Saigo’s deeply ingrained principles were the tenets of Mito learning (水戸学). Mito (modern Ibaraki Prefecture) had spawned a school of intellectual thought that gave primacy to the emperor. The imperial line was seen as sacred, and the role of the Shogun that of serving the emperor. Thus, in the Confucian mode of thought, Saigo owed fealty to Nariakira; Nariakira to the Shogun; all served the emperor.

If the Shogunate was in such a weakened state that it would allow foreigners to violate the holy lands of the emperor, then something needed to be done. Although Saigo nor few at the time could envision the destruction of the Shogunate system, they knew it needed stronger leadership in order to better serve the emperor. A sudden question of succession seemed to offer the chance to do just that.

The Shogun, Tokugawa Ieyoshi, had died suddenly in the midst of the Perry crisis — which represented some extremely bad timing on his part. His son, Iesada, had been selected to replace him. Alas, the young man was feeble, barely able to speak or participate in councils. Such perceived weak leadership could not have come at a worse time. It was unlikely he would ever sire an heir. A struggle immediately began over the selection of Iesada’s future successor.

Saigo and Nariakira both supported the selection of one Hitotsubashi Keiki, son of the daimyo of Mito. The Mito lords were of Tokugawa stock, and Keiki was known to be intelligent and physically strong. Unlike the other potential heir, the child Tokugawa Iemochi, he would be able to negotiate directly with foreign leaders. Keiki’s diverse supporters believed the idea of a vigorous, popular leader could serve to reestablish Shogunal authority. Nariakira became an ardent supporter of Keiki’s ascension. In 1857, when the rules of Sankin-Kotai held that Nariakira must again return to Satsuma, he left Saigo in Edo to be in charge of his efforts to influence the Shogunal succession.

Journey to the Imperial Court

Saigo, once a mere tax official, was now acting in his lord’s name in the seat of samurai power. Via various surreptitious contacts, Saigo even managed to reach out to elements of the imperial court itself. The reigning emperor, Komei, was uncharacteristically involved in politics for the usually apolitical emperors. With enough influence in the imperial court, Saigo and others felt they could bring the Son of Heaven’s influence to bear on the Shogunal succession process. With this in mind, Saigo set out to Kyoto to attempt to secretly interact with the court itself.

While in Kyoto, Saigo and his compatriots used a respected monk by the name of Gessho to get in contact with anti-Western court officials. Gessho, the son of a town doctor, had risen to the rank of chief priest of one of the abbeys of Kyoto’s famed Kiyomizudera Temple. The monk was far from unconcerned with mere temporal politics, however. An active supporter of the radical Sonnoi Joi (尊皇攘夷, Respect the Emperor, Expel the Barbarians) movement, Gessho had the ear of many of the more politically inclined courtiers. Over the course of Saigo’s time in Kyoto, the two became quite close.

Saigo and Gessho made major inroads with the court, and success seemed close at hand. But while Saigo concentrated on his furtive work in Kyoto, a virtual coup was happening back in Edo. Ii Naosuke, the daimyo of Hikone, had come to prominence in the Shogunal capital. Leading a coalition of conservative lords, Ii managed to undo all the work Saigo and others had done to convince the court to support Hitotsubashi Keiki’s succession. With that accomplished, Ii next conspired to have himself named Tairo (大老), chief policymaker for the Shogun. With the Shogun himself a near-invalid, Ii Naosuke had just made himself the most powerful man in Japan. Brooking no interference from lesser daimyo, Ii set about leading the Tokugawa government to what would be its last resurgence of real power.

Death of a Lord

Saigo was shocked at how quickly all of his efforts had been made for naught. Hurrying back to Satsuma to confer with his master, Saigo found Nariakira in a state of fury. Both men promised anew to continue to fight to create a more modern Japan that could weather the storms of change. Saigo then set out for the long return trip to Kyoto to continue with his mission. He would never see Shimazu Nariakira again.

Mere days after Saigo left Kagoshima, Nariakira was dead, struck down by a sudden disease. His demise came so suddenly that fairly credible rumors that he had been poisoned by his longtime enemies abounded. Whatever suspicions Nariakira himself may have had, the continuation of the Shimazu line came first. On his deathbed, Nariakira entrusted his father (who years earlier Nariakira had pushed into retirement) with deciding who would be declared the Shimazu heir. Thus Shimazu Tadayoshi, young son of Nariakira’s greatest rival, Hisamitsu, was proclaimed daimyo. Although Tadayoshi reigned, it was Hisamitsu who would truly rule Satsuma Domain for its remaining years.

When news of his lord’s death reached Saigo, the stalwart samurai felt as though his world had been torn asunder. To Saigo, Nariakira had been the embodiment of everything he believed in. The daimyo had lifted him up from his position as a mere tax official and had brought him to national precedence. More than that, Nariakira had allowed Saigo to live out the ideal life for a samurai. The two had shared deep sentiments regarding the correct future direction for Japan. By serving Nariakira, Saigo had been able to fulfill the Confucian dictates that he be loyal to his master and his realm. Now, suddenly, Saigo’s homeland was to be ruled by a man who had been his sworn enemy.

Flight from Kyoto

Gessho the monk
The monk Gessho (月照) is said to have convinced Saigo to keep on living to serve Japan. (Picture: Wikipedia)

All this was enough for Saigo to have apparently considered committing junshi (殉死) – following his master into death through ritual suicide. It is said that it was the monk, Gessho, who stayed Saigo’s hand. Gessho reasoned with Siago: even with his lord dead, surely Saigo could still serve the realm itself. Saigo, bereaved but determined, decided to continue to carry out Naraiakira’s will on Earth. Yet here, again, forces in Edo conspired to frustrate Saigo’s maneuvers.

Back in Edo, Tairo Ii Naosuke began rapidly weeding out anti-Shogunal upstarts. Those who acted against the authority of the Shogun and his government were imprisoned, exiled, and even executed. Ii was unconcerned with the social status of the victims of his purge; even powerful daimyo and court princes were subject to persecution and house arrest. As the so-called Ansei Purge (安政の大獄) neared Kyoto, Saigo’s contacts in the court began to fear for Gessho’s life. The samurai and the monk were forced to flee the imperial capital; first to Osaka, and then, when the danger seemed too near, all the way south to Satsuma itself.

A Final Pact, and Saigo, Spared

As the two finally neared the Satsuma lands, Saigo was under the assumption that he could convince the new daimyo to grant Gessho safety. The monk had risked his life in the capital alongside Satsuma samurai – surely his efforts on behalf of the late daimyo‘s ambitions would earn him that much? Alas, Hisamitsu was rattled by the sheer scale of the Ansei Purge. Saigo was shocked when his new lord refused to grant Gessho protection in the Shimazu lands for fear of Shogunal forces using the monk’s presence as a causus belli.

Saigo was beside himself. Only months earlier, he had been a man of remarkable political power who had the ear of his beloved lord. Now he was so politically weakened that he could not even save the life of a single monk. To make matters worse, the Shogunate had put out an order for Saigo’s arrest. The Shimazu clan, dreading the political ramifications within Satsuma of giving up as well-regarded a samurai as Saigo, simply ordered him to change his name and keep a low profile. But for Saigo, this small show of loyalty did little to lighten his depression. He confided his feelings in his friend Gessho, who shared Saigo’s sense of despair. The two decided that they would escape the clutches of the Shogunate the only way they knew how – by leaving the mortal plane behind.

In November of 1858, the two departed Satsuma on a small skiff, ostensibly for the purpose of escorting Gessho out of the region. As the boat rocked back and forth on the cold waves of Kagoshima Bay, the two friends sat together, considering the brilliant full moon. Then, after some time, the two clasped each other closely and leap from the boat into the freezing spray. Entering the hypothermic waters, both samurai and monk breathed the choking liquid of the bay deep into their lungs. Enmeshed in overwhelming cold and darkness, Saigo lost consciousness.

Sometime later, a near-dead Saigo was pulled out of the water and laid onshore. His compatriots on the skiff with him had heard the splash as he and Gessho leaped into the bay, and had managed turn the boat around. Both men had been found in a frozen embrace, floating on the waves. By the time the ship made shore, it was too late for Gessho. The monk had succeeded in leaving his mortal form behind. Saigo, he of great physical frame and might, had not succumbed so quickly. Although now deathly sick from hypothermia, he survived.


Amami Oshima, a former Ryukyu island to which the exiled Saigo fled. (Picture: かずめろ / PIXTA(ピクスタ))

Saigo did not feel relief at having lived through his ordeal in Kagoshima Bay. Rather, he saw himself as now having failed his friend Gessho twice — he could neither protect the monk nor join him in death. As he slowly recuperated in his family home, Saigo often asked for his sword so that he might commit seppuku and end his life honorably. His family, however, managed to steer Saigo away from his suicidal ideation. Surely, they said, he had been spared death in order to fulfill some grander mission on Earth.

This left Saigo, bedridden and convalescing, with much to consider. Alas, he would not be free to begin his quest for new meaning.

Shogunal investigators were demanding Satsuma Domain turn over Saigo Takamori for transport back to Edo and arrest. Although Hisamitsu was still unwilling to give Saigo up, he decided the danger of keeping the man himself around to be too great. The official line became that Saigo had died with Gessho that cold night on Kagoshima Bay; the corpse of an executed prisoner was even presented under the guise of being Saigo’s. As for the real Saigo, he would be exiled far beyond the reaches of the Shogunate.

In December of 1858, Saigo boarded a ship that would take him far from the Japanese mainland. His destination was the distant island of Amami Oshima (奄美大島, or ウーシマ in Okinawan) – a former island of the Ryukyu Kingdom which had been annexed by Satsuma. Lying 250 miles southwest of Kagoshima, Amami Oshima was a land apart. There, the people spoke in a strange tongue and the women tattooed their hands. It was as a place of internal exile as isolated from the goings-on of the court in Kyoto or the Shogunal government in Edo as could be conceived of.

Saigo Takamori may well have spent the rest of his days there, languishing in exile in a near-foreign land. His destiny, his greater calling, may have gone unanswered. Yet fate still had much in store for the man who would one day be called “the last samurai.”

Next In This Series

Saigo Takamori: Hero of the Meiji Restoration


Ravina, M. (2011). The Last Samurai: the Life and Battles of Saigo Takamori. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Yates, C. (1994). Saigō Takamori in the Emergence of Meiji Japan. Modern Asian Studies,28(3), 449-474.

RAVINA, MARK J. “The Apocryphal Suicide of Saigō Takamori: Samurai, ‘Seppuku’, and the Politics of Legend.” The Journal of Asian Studies, vol. 69, no. 3, 2010, pp. 691–721. 

月照 – フリー百科事典『ウィキペディア』. (n.d.). Retrieved from月照.

西郷隆盛 – フリー百科事典『ウィキペディア』. (n.d.). Retrieved from西郷隆盛.

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Noah Oskow

Serving as current UJ Editor-in-Chief, Noah Oskow is a professional Japanese translator and interpreter who holds a BA in East Asian Languages and Cultures. He has lived, studied, and worked in Japan for nearly seven years, including two years studying at Sophia University in Tokyo and four years teaching English on the JET Program in rural Fukushima Prefecture. His experiences with language learning and historical and cultural studies as well as his extensive experience in world travel have led to appearances at speaking events, popular podcasts, and in the mass media. Noah most recently completed his Master's Degree in Global Studies at the University of Vienna in Austria.

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