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Satsuma Rebellion: The Last Gasp of the Samurai

Satsuma Rebellion: The Last Gasp of the Samurai

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Samurai on horeback
How Saigo Takamori led 30,000 samurai in the Satsuma Rebellion - a final, doomed mission against the modern government he helped create.

On the morning of September 24th, 1877, Saigo Takamori – hero of the Meiji Restoration, the ideal samurai, a legend in his own time – died upon the blood-stained hills of Shiroyama near his birthplace of Kagoshima.

His demise, and that of his last few followers in a mad charge against vastly superior imperial forces, marked the end of the Satsuma Rebellion. It also signaled the death knell of resistance by the samurai class against modernity.

Saigo’s death came at the hands of the very government he had helped create. As a result, it took on a host of meanings for the people of Japan. Days before his death, artists were already depicting Saigo as a saintly martyr to modernity. The Rebellion he had led – which resulted in more deaths than the entire Boshin War that ended Shogunal rule a decade earlier – quickly morphed into the quintessential Japanese tale of an honorable lost cause.

Saigo had already become a living legend, one of the three most important men in Meiji-era Japan. With his death, and with the failure of his rebellion, his name became intrinsically linked with the very idea of “samurai.”

Saigo, Hero of the Meiji Restoration

Saigo Takamori’s pathway to enduring legend hadn’t always been an obvious one. A man of striking physical size, he was born in 1828 to a relatively impoverished samurai family in Japan’s most southerly samurai domain, Satsuma.

Although drawn to Confucian ideals and learning at a young age, his initial destiny seemed to lie in mere tax administration. Dynastic conflict among the Satsuma elite, however, led the local daimyo (大名, feudal lord), Shimazu Nariakira, to take the dependable Saigo on as a much-needed confidant. Devoted to samurai ideals of complete fealty to one’s lord, Saigo proved a perfect retainer to Nariakira.

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This was the late stages of the Edo era, in which the Tokugawa shogunate’s strict rule over the feudal structure of Japanese society was weakening under the pressure exerted by encroaching Western empires. In much of Japan, the economy was faltering. Unemployment and starvation were increasing. The feudal rule of the Tokugawa seemed increasingly inept and outdated. Saigo and Nariakira both sought to push the shogunate to modernize Japan and allow the local lords more access to the central levers of power.

Exiled – twice!

While in the capital, Edo, Saigo encountered ideas stating that true fealty was owed to the long-overshadowed emperor rather than the military power of the shogun. He began to lend his clout and influence to the movement to restore the Emperor in Kyoto to a degree of power.

Just as their operations were gaining steam, Nariakira suddenly died. The Satsuma Domain fell into the hands of his rival Hisamitsu. Meanwhile, Saigo’s anti-shogunal operations got him in hot water with the shogunate.

When Hisamitsu refused to offer Saigo’s friend and co-revolutionary Gessho a safe haven in Satsuma, the two attempted suicide. Saigo alone survived. His reputation, however, was only improved by this show of loyalty to his friend.

Saigo endured and even flourished during two long exiles in the far-flung Amami islands. The first was designed to hide him from angry shogunal authorities. The second was punishment for overzealous revolutionary actions and insubordination against Hisamitsu. Saigo’s friend and fellow Satsuma samurai, the equally-legendary Okubo Toshimichi, argued tirelessly for his return from exile.

Meanwhile, Satsuma became increasingly embroiled in the political struggle between those loyal to the emperor and those who supported the shogunate. In such troubled times, Hisamitsu realized he needed someone of Saigo’s ability and stature—no matter how personally distasteful he found the man in question.

From exile to national figure

This time, Saigo’s return was permanent, his rise astronomical. He was soon the 4th most powerful man in Satsuma and a truly national figure. He led the defense of the imperial palace against forces from the radicalized Choshu domain; later, he would venture into Choshu territory at his own risk to negotiate a peace that let that powerful fief back into the fold.

As events unfolded, Saigo’s perception of the world around him shifted. Finally, he concluded that the shogunate, rather than being goaded into change, needed to be wholly abolished. As the central government appeared weaker and weaker, more local lords were inclined to agree. At long last, full-on war erupted between the Tokugawa and those aligned with the emperor. Saigo was put in charge of the new imperial army, leading it to a string of victories against the Tokugawa forces. As he approached the Shogunal capital of Edo, Saigo once again risked bodily harm to enter hostile territory in order to negotiate a bloodless surrender of the city.

Although the war continued to the north for months, the shogunate had fallen. The days of the Tokugawa had ended; thanks to Saigo and others like him, the young Meiji Emperor was restored to power. A new day was dawning for Japan, but what exactly this new Meiji era would mean for the people of the country was still a mystery.

Prelude to the Satsuma Rebellion: Dawn of the Meiji Era

With the Tokugawa defeated, Saigo now stood as one of the most famed and powerful samurai in the land. Yet he felt ambivalent about his great victory.

Much of this likely stemmed from the uncertainty of the road Japan would now take. Saigo had been devoted to samurai and Confucian principles that held that loyalty to one’s master was the ultimate good. He and his liege lord Nariakira had fought to establish a system that would grant the daimyo and their localities more power; now Nariakira was dead, and Saigo was unsure that the samurai class would long outlive him.

The Meiji Restoration appears to us, at a distance of 150 years, as a revolution whose purpose was to dynamically rearrange Japanese society and to eliminate the ruinous and outdated samurai class. Yet the very people who fought and waged the Boshin War were samurai; the newfangled imperial army had been fielded by various local daimyo from their own stock of warriors. While many of the movers and shakers truthfully desired to empower the emperor, they also intended to empower themselves. The idea that their actions would lead to the destruction of their own power structure and the complete subordination of domain localities to the central government had been far from their minds.

Indeed, Saigo’s own thoughts had gone through a series of changes through the years: loyalty to Satsuma, to the shogunate, and then to the emperor. A desire to destroy the shogunate had only emerged towards the end. Now, the realities of modernization gnawed at him.

In 1869, unsure of the future and beset by illness, Saigo returned to Kagoshima. He rejected calls to enter the government. Only the personal appearance of his lord, Shimazu Tadayoshi, convinced him to go to work for the Satsuma government.

On the local level, Satsuma was dealing with calls for reform by lower-class samurai. Recently returned from the war, these warriors were emboldened by Emperor Meiji’s seemingly revolutionary Charter Oath (五箇条の御誓文) from the year previous. This proclamation set forth the general principles by which the young emperor intended to rule Japan. The oath went as such:

The Charter Oath

  • 広く会議を興おこし、万機公論ばんきこうろんに決すべし
  • 上下しょうか心を一いつにして、盛さかんに経綸けいりんを行ふべし
  • 官武かんぶ一途いっと庶民しょみんに至いたる迄まで、各おのおの其その志こころざしを遂とげ、人心じんしんをして倦うまざらしめん事を要ようす
  • 旧来きゅうらいの陋習ろうしゅうを破り、天地あめつちの公道こうどうに基もとづくべし
  • 知識を世界に求め、大おおいに皇基こうきを振起しんきすべし

By this oath, we set up as our aim the establishment of the national wealth on a broad basis and the framing of a constitution and laws.

Deliberative assemblies shall be widely established and all matters decided by open discussion.

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

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.

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

Knowledge shall be sought throughout the world so as to strengthen the foundation of imperial rule.

For low-rank samurai returning from the war, this meant that they were now owed a place among the halls of power. For others throughout Japan, this appeared to mean much more: a true revolution, in which the average person was to be placed on a level with the once-ascendant samurai themselves.

Samurai Reform in Satsuma

Satsuma Rebellion: Kagoshima Castle
Remnants of Kagoshima Castle (鹿児島城), the former home of the Satsuma administration. (Picture: MediaFOTO / PIXTA(ピクスタ))

This was not exactly the view of the rulers of Satsuma Domain. Rather, the revolution that occurred there — with Saigo as somewhat uninvolved state figurehead — was one within its large samurai class. The daimyo had been renamed by the central Meiji state as governor of the domain, but the nature of this change was as of yet unclear. The samurai still ruled; however, an incredible redistribution of wealth and power was underway. The most powerful elites were made to give up their fortunes. The domain army was still a samurai institution, but now one based on merit. For the various samurai, at least, Satsuma was becoming a very egalitarian place. It was beginning to resemble a small, modern samurai state.

This was exactly the opposite of the future envisioned by the central Meiji government. Satsuma had always been something of a land apart, even in the multipolar world of feudal Japan. (Indeed, Satsuma had its own colony – modern Okinawa.) A periphery region that ruled its own territory and maintained its own army was an implicit threat to a modern state.

Thus, the central government made an attempt to better wed Satsuma to the national whole. In 1870, a grand procession from Tokyo, including Saigo’s friend Okubo, made its way to Kagoshima. There, Okubo personally convinced Saigo to return to the capital to assist in the formation of a truly national military. Saigo had been suffering from serious ennui since the war’s end. But this project briefly filled his life with renewed meaning. Both he and his liege lord relocated to Tokyo, and Satsuma became more invested in the central state.

The Three Great Nobles of the Restoration

Despite all this, the very existence of powerful local samurai domains implied unavoidable challenges for the Meiji state. For Saigo’s friend, Okubo Toshimichi, this meant that their mutual birthplace — Satsuma — would have to be done away with. No powerful locality could be allowed to survive. Together with Kido Takayoshi (木戸 孝允) of Choshu domain, he set out to convince Saigo of the same. Saigo was reticent. So much of his life had been devoted to Satsuma and its former lord, Nariakira. Now he was being asked to undo the entire structure in which his liege lord had ruled. Eventually, Kido convinced Saigo of the necessity of radical reform to ensure Japan a future in the modern world.

Saigo’s change of heart happened almost unexpectedly:

…I felt he had rather suddenly accepted my view. Saigo’s unselfishness touched my heart, and I admired him for it… This man is filled with sincerity. For the sake of the country, I jump for joy.

Kido Takayoshi, from his own diary, dated June 27th, 1871. Taken from The Last Samurai: The Life and Battles of Saigo Takamori by Mark Ravina.

Saigo, Okubo, and Kido – who are now known to history as the Three Great Nobles of the Restoration (維新の三傑) – quickly leaped into action. Government reform was enacted. At first, each of the great domains was allowed a single imperial councilor; Saigo and Kido represented their respective domains. The great houses of Tosa and Saga both sent one samurai each as a councilor. A short time later, these representatives had convinced the Meiji state to abolish the very domains which had dispatched them.

On July 14th, 1871, the lords of Satsuma, Choshu, Tosa, and Saga were summoned to an audience with the emperor. They received no advance notice of the shocking news about to be imparted. These feudal lords were summarily informed that their domains no longer existed; while for the moment they were still governers of their various prefectures, this would not be a hereditary position. That same day, 56 other former daimyo of lesser domains were told the same. In almost an instant, the old power structure had been swept away.

A Farewell to Feudalism

For the most part, the daimyo dissipated into the new peerage system without a fight.

The governance of what had once been hereditary fiefs was given over to bureaucrats dispatched from Tokyo. Although the daimyo were no longer masters of any domain, the government granted them handsome stipends. Some lords felt impotent anger, some relief. The radical daimyo of Mito (modern Ibaraki Prefecture) happily gave up his lands, only saddened that the reforms didn’t go farther. Only the once-mighty Shimazu Hisamitsu of Satsuma voiced his displeasure aloud. Under his leadership, Satsuma — so close to an independent country — had ushered in this new era. Now, thanks to the duplicitous actions of Saigo and Okubo, his own subjects, he had become but one peer among hundreds.

Saigo himself felt extremely conflicted over his actions. It had been the right course for the nation. Still, he felt as though he had betrayed the lords who had for centuries treated his ancestors with respect.

Growing Pains of a Modern State

Saigo remained near the head of the Meiji government for some years more. Indeed, he was essentially in charge of the government during the momentous Iwakura Mission (岩倉使節団). Okubo and Kido both left on this prolongated investigatory journey to the West, leaving behind a caretaker government headed by Saigo. He presided over debates regarding the modernization of the military (most importantly the beginnings of national conscription, something very unpopular with the samurai class) and the dissolution of samurai stipends. While Saigo understood the importance of such laws, the nature of bureaucracy clashed with his deep Confucian values. Internally, his understanding of the real needs of a modern nation and his idealistic sensibilities were on a constant collision course.

Although governance left him bored, his newfound relationship with Emperor Meiji filled his life with some light. The evolution of Saigo’s philosophy had lead to the emperor being his highest ideal. Now, he was overjoyed to find himself invited to spend time with the young leader of the nation. In Saigo’s estimation, Meiji was intelligent and energetic, and their relationship filled the hole left in Saigo’s heart by Nariakira’s untimely death. Over the years, the two would spend more and more time in each other’s company. The young emperor even began to see Saigo as an important mentor figure.

Saigo joined the emperor on his grand tour of the southwest, eventually reaching his homeland in Kagoshima. There, things appeared to go smoothly. Unbeknownst to Saigo, however, Hisamitsu had secretly filed a report with the visiting shogunal authorities lambasting Saigo and the government’s purposeful erosion of the samurai class. When Saigo returned to Kagoshima to face his former master, Hisamitsu berated him for his part in the betrayal of Satsuma. Saigo’s sense of internal conflict deepened, and he decided to stay in Kagoshima to help calm down matters.

The Distressing Case of Saigo and Korea

In 1873, Kagoshima was finally in a state of quiet. This left Saigo confident enough to return to Tokyo. There, once again among the halls of national power, he found himself caught up in an intense debate on foreign policy.

Korea, a vassal state of Qing-era China, was refusing to recognize the Meiji Emperor. Beholden to the Manchu dynasty in Beijing, the kings in Seoul could not diplomatically recognize another imperial sovereign. Only the Qing deserved such a grandiose title. During the centuries of Tokugawa rule, Korean envoys had met Japanese counterparts in an unofficial capacity on the island of Tsushima; however, the modern Meiji state could no longer allow a diplomatic partner to slight the re-empowered sovereign of all Japan.

Matters came to a head when a local Korean magistrate insulted Japanese envoys and claimed Meiji reforms had made Japan “a lawless nation.” This greatly affronted the honor of many in the Japanese government. Saigo was incensed.

A large-scale debate began to play out in the young Meiji government, essentially splitting the polity in twain. Many wished to send gunboats to Korea to redress the insult and force a treaty recognizing Emperor Meiji. Saigo was amongst these. On the other side stood Okubo, recently returned from abroad and now patterning himself after Germany’s great rationalist statesman, Bismark. Okubo believed a direct war with Korea would be ruinous; rather, a diplomat should be sent to smooth issues out.

Saigo saw an opening. He insisted that he be named as the diplomat in question. The exact nature of his desire to fulfill this role has been debated ever since; many of his letters reveal that he expected to be assassinated once he stepped foot in Korea. This, in turn, would serve as casus belli for a just war against the peninsula. This is still seen by some as proof that Saigo was a sort of proto-imperialist, who wished to use the conquering of Korea to revitalize his depressed samurai class. Other declarations by Saigo, however, show him insisting upon the value of real diplomatic discussions with the Koreans.

To Mark Ravina, English-language master of all things Saigo Takamori, Saigo’s intent in Korea was somewhat different. Saigo believed firmly in moralistic leadership; rather than engage in political backroom talks, he would show moral superiority by walking into hostile territory and sizing up the true intentions of the opposing force. Such self-sacrificial techniques had proved their worth in both Choshu and Edo. Saigo believed they would work again in Korea.

Abandoning Tokyo

However, despite support from the imperial court, Saigo’s intense efforts came to naught. Okubo outmaneuvered him; Saigo would not be named envoy. Disgusted by this betrayal by an old friend, Saigo quit the government; a mass exodus of those loyal to Saigo in high office and in the military followed. The moment seemed fit for a coup, but this was not Saigo’s intent; after three days, he left for Kagoshima. Saigo was accompanied by two of his closest generals, Kirino Toshiaki and Shinowara Kunimoto, as well as 600 regular troops. Saigo would never see the capital city again.

Home in Kagoshima, Saigo eschewed politics. Rather, he secluded himself in his countryside house in Hinatayama. Figures from around the country came to visit or ask for his support, but he generally avoided such guests. Instead, Saigo’s life consisted of fishing and hunting with his dogs. Although he felt deep conflict over the state of Japan and Okubo’s political leadership, Saigo did not foment further revolution. (Indeed, in 1874 he rejected a request from samurai in nearby Saga that he join them in a short-lived rebellion.) Like various times before, he considered his political life finished and preferred a simple lifestyle.

Alas, Saigo was now an almost mythical figure throughout Japan. People around the country projected their own meanings onto this paragon of seemingly perfect ideals; none less so than the disgruntled samurai of his own homeland. Ironically, Saigo had been responsible for much of their change in status, yet they still regarded him as their ultimate leader. As local anger towards the distant Meiji government grew, the samurai of Satsuma looked towards Saigo for guidance — even if he had no desire to grant them such.

Brief Years of a Parochial Life

Saigo did involve himself in one aspect of Satsuma’s public life, however. He was a sponsor and spiritual leader for the Shigakko (私学校) system. This was a chain of private military academies, initially meant to provide new purpose to those samurai who had left behind the central government in solidarity with Saigo. These quickly became a major node of Satsuma political life, providing Confucian as well as Western studies. They also prepared samurai to take on studies abroad. As these schools expanded, they came to number in the thousands, with tens of thousands of students. Although Saigo himself only directly interacted with two such schools, all the Shigakko students looked to him for moral leadership. As these schools became increasingly the site of anti-governmental radicalism, Saigo was seen as the source of this, too — an idea he neither cultivated nor dissuaded.

Saigo was mostly invested in a school known as the Yoshino Kaikonsha. This “reclamation society” concentrated on educating samurai in the ways of agriculture. As the central government ended samurai stipends in 1876, such self-sufficiency would prove increasingly important to the former warrior class. Already impoverished samurai were trading swords for spades across the country; in distant, recently-renamed Hokkaido, warrior-settlers were already moving into the former Ainu lands to form farmer colonies. Saigo believed such livelihoods would be the future for the samurai; they could maintain honor in simple, moral lifestyles.

Seeds of the Satsuma Rebellion

For many samurai in Satsuma, however, this future was extremely unpalatable. They had been a ruling class of warriors and bureaucrats; now mere peasants were filling the Meiji barracks. As their traditional privileges were stripped away one-by-one, were they really expected to happily settle in for a life of agricultural drudgery?

Indeed, Satsuma (or, as it was now officially called, Kagoshima Prefecture) was especially resistant to attempts at reform originating from the central government. Even Tokyo knew Kagoshima had to be regarded somewhat differently. Only in Kagoshima was the prefectural governor allowed to be a native son rather than a bureaucrat sent from Tokyo. (In this case, the governor in question was on Oyama Tsunayoshi, 大山綱良.) This judgment, meant to appease Satsuma localism, backfired. Oyama often ignored Tokyo dictates. Despite class privileges being de jure eliminated, almost all positions of power prefecture-wide were still reserved for samurai.

The prefecture as a whole seemed intent on marching down a reactionary path. Surely this must have been heartening for former lord Shimazu Hisamitsu to see; for Saigo, it was disquieting. The Shigakko schools who viewed him as a paragon were becoming increasingly militant. In 1875, they banned students from leaving Satsuma or going abroad. Many faculty and students balked at this isolationism. Saigo, called upon to mediate, vacillated on the issue. The next year, the central government banned the public wearing of swords and samurai stipends. This was enough of an attack on samurai prestige that small rebellions erupted in nearby Kumamoto and in Choshu; Saigo took no part, but found himself in a state of deep concern – agreeing in part with those rebelling, but unwilling to lift his own sword against the Meiji state.

Prelude to the Satsuma Rebellion

Despite Saigo’s refusal to endorse any rebellion, the students of the Shigakko began speaking publically of making war on Tokyo.

Such bellicose words, of course, made their way to the central state. In January 1877, a warship sailed to Kagoshima to remove the local government’s munitions. Before the weaponry could be taken away, however, a group of 30 Shigakko students raided one of the larger powerhouses. The garrison was captured, and the students made off with 60,000 rounds of ammunition. The Kagoshima police did nothing to retrieve the stolen material. The next night the students returned, destroyed much of the building, and then moved on to sack the central arsenal.

Some days later, it was discovered that spies sent from Tokyo had been operating in the Shigakko. Nakahara Hisao, a native to Satsuma, was found to be the spy ringleader. Captured and tortured, he admitted to his mission: to help spread obedience to the Meiji government amongst the studentry. Under duress, he also claimed that his ultimate mission was the assassination of Saigo Takamori. (He would later repudiate this). Saigo, returning from a hunting expedition on February 3rd, reacted to this news with shock. That the central government would use such underhanded methods disgusted him; however, he was still loath to make war upon the emperor’s government. Rather, he declared that he would go to Tokyo and confront the government. His procession would take the form of the trusty warriors of Satsuma.

As an army of thousands, bearing all the weaponry of Kagoshima, amassed around him, this procession took the form of an aggressive military force. It was quickly becoming what would go down as the last samurai army in history.

The War of the Southwest (a.k.a. the Satsuma Rebellion)

War of the Southwest (Satsuma Rebellion)
Depiction of troop deployments in the War of the Southwest (西南戦争) by ukiyo-e artist Tsukioka Yoshitoshi. (Picture: Wikipedia)

Saigo’s army consisted of a well-trained nucleus made of thousands of soldiers from the Shigakko system. Many of these men were veterans of the Boshin War. For those angry at the Meiji state, this was the day they had been training for years. They marched forth, dragging along field guns through deepening snow, leaving Kagoshima in their wake. Each carried their own guns, ammunition, and sheathed katana. As they passed the residence of their former master, Shimazu Hisamitsu, the procession bowed in a show of respect; Hisamitsu, for his part, remained cloistered in his household and did not show himself. Saigo, whom he despised, was leading this Satsuma force against the equally hated Meiji government; surely his feelings were as conflicted as those of Saigo himself.

While Saigo seems to have intended to go to Tokyo for talks, the military threat inherent in this unsanctioned army would necessitate a response. Facing these last samurai would be Japan’s first conscript army. The Satsuma Rebellion samurai believed no army of unwashed, unprincipled farmers could defeat them. They left Kagoshima in high spirits.

This sense of impending destiny could not change the odds in front of them. While the still-new Imperial Army had perhaps only 20,000 more men ready to fight than the rebels, they had infinitely more conscripts they could pull from throughout the country. They also possessed manufacturing capabilities that meant they could replace spent material; Saigo’s army did not. And rushing onwards towards Tokyo, Saigo left no major force behind in Kagoshima to protect his rear.

The Seige of Kumamoto Castle

Saigo’s force approached the castle city of Kumamoto, home to the imperial army garrison for the island of Kyushu. Governer Oyama had sent a letter asking permission for Saigo to proceed unhindered. The request was ignored. Saigo found an imperial battalion blocking his way to Kumamoto. Just as his men were making camp in preparation to deal with this impediment, four warships were sailing from Tokyo. They landed in Hakata, on the north of the island. Various infantry regiments then reinforced the north, preparing to prevent any Satsuma incursions beyond Kyushu.

As Saigo waited, troops and policemen from surrounding garrisons were reinforcing Kumamoto Castle. Soon, its defenders numbered 4000 and more. Then, on the afternoon of February 21st, 1877, the war began. The imperial blocking force opened fire on Saigo’s men; he responded by crushing the defenders and setting them to flight.

The rebel army approached Kumamoto Castle, preparing to lay siege. Kirino, Saigo’s loyal general and a former imperial commander in Kumamoto, suggested the entire rebel force be thrown against the castle. Saigo demurred. Instead, he sent 2,500 men to attack the castle from the front. An additional 3000 would attack from the northwest. The rest would maintain formation and patrol the surrounding area.

Inside the castle, the garrison leader, General Tani, decided to hold his ground. Many of his own soldiers were Kyushu natives; some were even from Kagoshima. He feared that, if let loose from the castle, these men might sneak off and join the enemy. Tani was not even sure if the people of Kumamoto itself could be relied upon. Kyushu natives, they might easily decide to assist Saigo.

Rather than meet the famed military commander in the field — and open up the possibility of military victory for Saigo that could inspire Kyushu-wide revolts — Tani decided to hold out in the castle. Kumamoto was one of the country’s strongest fortifications, and he believed it stood a chance of resisting the rebels. On the last day before Saigo’s arrival, buildings surrounding the castle were razed and the moat filled with water. The garrison settled in for what would be Japan’s final castle siege.

The Defense of Kumamoto

In the dawn light of February 22nd, a pivotal moment in the Satsuma Rebellion began. Satsuma troops slowly encircled Kumamoto castle. Soon shots were ringing out from all sides.

Samurai, swords in hand, made furious suicide attacks on the castle ramparts. For two days these assaults continued; each time the imperial garrison would shoot a samurai off of castle walls, another would clamber up to replace him. After two days, Saigo became wary of the effectiveness of the all-out assault. The castle, a symbol of the very traditional ethos the rebels hoped to protect, was proving too difficult an obstacle to scale. Troops were removed from the siege area and sent to defend the northern roads from imperial reinforcement. A smaller force was left to continue a more patient form of siege warfare.

As the imperial brigades marched south from Hakata and Fukuoka, Saigo’s advance troops were there to meet them. In these initial clashes near Minaminoseki, Saigo’s more experienced samurai troops momentarily repulsed their conscript foes. However, the next day revealed the numerical weakness of Saigo’s force: the more populous national army was able to push through their lines. Bloody, elongated battles erupted throughout the region.

Saigo’s army received some reinforcements in the Satsuma Rebellion, however. disaffected samurai from throughout Kyushu were rallying to their cause. Even some populist radicals, whose goal was that of a more representative government, joined Saigo. (These latter troops did not directly agree with many of Saigo’s ideals, but were happy to help bring down the Meiji government). Saigo’s movement was thus one of diverse elements with no single unifying thread. Drawings of the Satsuma Rebellion in the press, however, created a slogan for him: Shinsei Kotoku (新政厚徳; New Government, High Morality). While this was never an official slogan, it represented the unique perception of Saigo fostered throughout Japan. He alone could simultaneously represent both traditional ethics and modernity. The malleability of the idealized Saigo continues to this very day.

Satsuma Rebellion: The Bloodletting

On March 4th, the Imperial Army began an assault all along the Satsuma front lines that stretched across miles of Kyushu. 17 days of terribly bloody battle followed. Fighting on the smoke-filled, rain-drenched battlefields was often hand-to-hand. On average, the conscript army fired over 322,000 rounds of small-arms ammunition per day. During the Battle of Tabaruzaka, 15,000 rebel troops resisted 90,000 imperial soldiers for over a week. Their gunpowder dampened with rainwater, they resorted to fighting with swords. On March 20th, the superior numbers of the government army finally put the beleaguered rebels to retreat. They fell back to the town of Ueki, were a subsequent battle lead to further retreat towards the main force still at Kumamoto. The battle left 4,000 dead on both sides.

11 days earlier, on March 9th, three imperial warships had sailed into Kagoshima, taking Saigo’s home city in his absence. The invading Meiji forces seized more than 4000 pounds of gunpowder. Governer Oyama was put into custody and sent under guard to Osaka; soon he would be dead, executed for treason. Three imperial leaders, two of whom were Satsuma natives, were sent to Shimazu Hisamitsu’s residence. There, generals Kuroda Kiyotaka (a future prime minister) and Takashima Tomonosuke (upon whose former Tokyo residence Sophia University now rests) visited their former lord. They implored Hisamitsu to disavow Saigo and side with the emperor; at first, the former daimyo was noncommittal. However, he seemed to have been pleased that the central government felt him worthy of such entreaties. He offered to broker peace between Tokyo and Saigo. However, the Satsuma Rebellion had now gone beyond such easy conclusions.

With Kagoshima in Imperial hands, Satsuma itself was now held by its enemies. Saigo’s band no longer had its homeland nor its provisions, to depend on.

The Relief of Kumamoto

On the imperial side, Kuroda Kiyotaka and Yamagata Aritomo (both future prime ministers) were now the official leaders. Kuroda sent forth an amphibious invasion of the shores of Kumamoto’s Yatsushiro Bay, hoping to be able to catch Saigo from the rear. These troops met fierce resistance on the beach landings, but a naval feint and bombardments from the sea allowed the imperial force to progress inwards. Now government troops pressed in on all sides of Saigo, slowly advancing in battle after battle. On March 30th, the samurai gained a brief reprieve via an early morning sneak attack near Uto; their swords put the conscript army into a state of confusion. Soon, though, the imperials had regrouped. Their casualties consistently replaced by new reinforcements, they pressed on.

Saigo’s force’s encircled Kumamoto Castle; they, in turn, were encircled by the government army. By this point, Saigo knew that laying siege to the castle had been a mistake. Days of small skirmishes followed; the besieged Kumamoto garrison, dangerously low on food, was spared plans of suicidal breakout maneuvers by news of the imperial force’s arrival, carried by a former castle superintendent disguised as a carpenter. (Indeed, food was running so low that the moat was drained to get at the carp therein.)

On April 15th, the imperial army won a decisive victory at Kawashiri. The siege was broken; Saigo and his men retreated southwards. A former soldier of the Kumamoto garrison, now fighting with the greater imperial army, approached the castle to announce its relief. The starving soldiers within wept with joy, just as though “their children had come back from death.” 20% of their number had perished during the 54-day siege.

Long March to the Hills of Shiroyama

Saigo’s men reformed at Hitoyoshi, in the south of Kumamoto Prefecture. There they stayed for a month and a half, fending off occasional imperial attacks. Saigo was now preparing for something he had always envisioned, even in his younger days in opposition to the shogunate: a meaningful death. Although still hopeful that allies from Tosa would join him and turn the tide, Saigo was resigned to a battlefield death. Saigo had always thought that moral examples held more weight than political or military victories; nothing could be more an example than how one chose to die.

On May 27th, the Imperial Army commenced a general assault on Hitoyoshi. Saigo was forced into retreat yet again. From here on out, the Satsuma Rebellion changed. The rebels could no longer fight the Imperial Army head-to-head; rather, Saigo dispersed his troops throughout Kyushu, forcing the conscript army to split itself in pursuit. The sword was now Saigo’s main weapon; they had spent the majority of their ammunition and heavy weaponry. Guerrilla attacks from the forested mountains became his modus operandi. With each encounter, his numbers dwindled.

In Nobeoka, in eastern Miyazaki Prefecture, Saigo was caught in a pincer attack following imperial aquatic landings. The rebels now numbered a mere 3000 men; the imperial army had six times as many. Still, Saigo and his troops held out for a week. Finally, they managed to slip into the western mountains. Again the imperial army gave chase. This time, they surrounded Saigo at the nearby Mt. Enodake. This appeared to be the end of the Satsuma Rebellion. But Saigo was not yet ready for his final defeat. Cutting through dense, untracked foliage, he and his core group of remaining soldiers disappeared into the Kyushu forests. They would not appear again for two weeks’ time.

The Legendary Last Stand of the Satsuma Rebellion

Battle of Shiroyama - Satsuma Rebellion
Depiction of the Battle of Shiroyama. (Picture: Wikipedia)

On September 1st, 1877, Saigo and 300 remaining samurai infiltrated into former Satsuma territory. There, they took to the hills of Mt. Shiroyama, overlooking Saigo’s birthplace of Kagoshima City. This ragged band, bereft of food and ammunition, dug out defenses and prepared for the inevitable. By this time, Saigo’s many physical ailments had caught up with him; by many accounts, he could hardly walk. Yet he still prepared for his awaited noble death.

The seven thousand imperial troops which held Kagoshima quickly caught wind of the rebels’ presence. General Aritomo, frustrated by Saigo’s many escapes, ordered his soldiers to surround the mountain. His troops constructed a complex series of trenches and earthwork to prevent any possible breakout by the rebels. From offshore, warships artillery began pounding the samurai, hoping to soften up any resistance.

On the night of the 23rd, the imperial forces involved in the Satsuma Rebellion massed for an attack. Legend says that Saigo and his officers opened up a bottle of sake for a final mortal celebration.

At 3:55 AM on the 24th, the final assault of the Satsuma Rebellion began. The samurai, facing their end, engaged in a last mad dash downhill towards enemy lines. Swords held high, they hacked their way into a terrified frontline of conscripts. For a moment, their skill and courage in the face of death let them push forward. Soon, though, the imperial numbers overwhelmed them. When the battle had ended, only 40 of the Satsuma Rebellion rebels remained alive.

The Death of Saigo Takamori in the Satsuma Rebellion

Popular legend states that Saigo Takamori, his leg shattered by an enemy bullet, was carried by his companion Beppu Shinsuke to a quiet part of the battlefield. There, Saigo composed himself and peacefully plunged his short sword into his abdomen. Beppu completed this act of seppuku, ritual suicide, by slashing off his leader’s head.

This image of this honorable, calm, and collected suicide has become ingrained in the Japanese popular psyche. While at this point it remains an indelible part of the Saigo myth, it most probably never happened; forensic reports show that Saigo was likely too badly injured to perform the act. His head, however, was in fact removed — Beppu did his best to hide it lest it fell into enemy hands. Then, returning to battle, Beppu too was felled by enemy fire.

The Satsuma Rebellion, known in Japan as the War of the Southwest (西南戦争), had ended. A force of perhaps 30,000 rebellious samurai had faced down a modern conscript army in the Satsuma Rebellion and had perished. The age of the samurai was now well and truly done. Never would the class attempt to rise up again. Modernity had defeated the traditional system; the center had enveloped the periphery. Saigo Takamori’s death became the perfect symbol for the end of this age. Although he had threatened the Meiji system, his honorable defeat allowed Japan to incorporate what was admirable about his legend while acknowledging that his time was indeed at an end.

The Satsuma Rebellion’s Leader: A Legend in Life, A Legend in Death

Saigo Takamori statue
Statue of Saigo Takamori in Tokyo’s Ueno. (Picture: naonao / PIXTA(ピクスタ))

With Saigo’s defeat, the Meiji Government could now confidently state to its people and the world that it had the strength to hold together its own polity. The Satsuma Rebellion, however, cost the government dearly. It had to switch from the gold standard to paper currency.

The Satsuma Rebellion proved the value of a conscript army. While descendants of the samurai class, especially the elites, would continue to overrepresent in high places, they were finished as a separate class. Now, the scions of the samurai walk amongst the everyday working people of Japan, for many their class history all but forgotten.

The so-called “spirit” of the samurai, and perhaps Saigo in particular, remain. Upon his own death, Saigo became worshipped almost as a god. Popular nishiki-e (錦絵) woodblock prints depicted Saigo as the lord of Mars; people tried to drag him back down to earth with ropes. Satirical art showed a military balloon attempting to shoot down the star Saigo now occupied. Such was the love of the people for Saigo that in 1889 Emperor Meiji posthumously pardoned his former mentor for his actions in the Satsuma Rebellion.

Legends spread in the decade after Saigo’s death claiming that he was in fact still alive. He had been spirited away to the Philippines or Russia, and, like a modern King Arthur, would someday return to restoral the world to its rightful path. Here, Saigo joined the likes of 12th-century warlord and folk hero Minamoto no Yoshitsune, who in popular Japanese imagination escaped his historical death by seppuku to reemerge in Mongolia as Ghengis Khan.

14 years onwards, this survival myth would influence a crazed Japanese policeman, himself a veteran of the imperial army that fought in the Satsuma Rebellion, to attempt to assassinate the visiting Russian Czarevich Nicholas II. The man believed that Saigo was returning with the Russian prince, and his arrival would spell the end to government benefits to imperial veterans.

Saigo’s legend changed over the decades. As Japan became more militant and imperialistic, Saigo was revered for his military acumen and as an incarnation of the spirit of bushido (the somewhat apocryphal samurai ethos popularized in Japan at the beginning of the 20th century). Later on, Saigo would be seen as a symbol of how honor could be found in defeat. He became a symbol both after the monumental disaster of World War II and following the disheartening collapse of the Japanese economy in the 1990s.

Saigo Takamori’s legend went global in 2003, when the Edward Zwick epic The Last Samurai dramatized (and fantasized) the Satsuma Rebellion. Here, Saigo was now a daimyo named Katsumoto leading an even more traditionally-minded samurai revolt. While the Satsuma Rebellion and Saigo clearly remain the main inspiration, aspects of the last Tokugawa holdout state in Hokkaido are inserted as well; particularly the participation of a foreigner who had cast his lot in with the samurai. (Although historical Frenchman Jules Brunet was swapped for fictional American Nathan Algren, played by Tom Cruise.)

The fact is that Saigo’s life and legend are too grand to encapsulate simply. He has meant many things to many people. In the words of Mark Ravina, Saigo’s legends “embodied a vast and sometimes contradictory range of political ideas, including populism, republicanism, imperial loyalism, pacifism, and militarism.” In his own life, he strove to square the circle of leading a traditionally moral life in a modernizing world he helped create. Only his death could bring such a story to a satisfactory conclusion; such was his appeal that 10,000 died alongside him. As long as such contradictory and tragic figures speak to us as humans, his tale will continue to be re-told, re-purposed, embellished, and passed down. Saigo Takamori will remain the last, true samurai.

Previously In This Series

Saigo Takamori: Hero of the Meiji Restoration

What to read next

Sources

Buck, J. (1973). The Satsuma Rebellion of 1877. From Kagoshima Through the Siege of Kumamoto Castle. Monumenta Nipponica,28(4), 427-446.

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, M. (2010). The Apocryphal Suicide of Saigō Takamori: Samurai, ‘Seppuku’, and the Politics of Legend. The Journal of Asian Studies, vol. 69, no. 3, pp. 691–721. 

薩英戦争 – フリー百科事典『ウィキペディア』. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://ja.wikipedia.org/wiki薩英戦争

西郷隆盛 – フリー百科事典『ウィキペディア』. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://ja.wikipedia.org/wiki/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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