The Real Last Samurai – Saigo Takamori

In Japan, Saigo Takamori is known as the “last samurai”–his final quixotic rebellion against the modernizing Meiji imperial government that he had been instrumental in establishing is the basis of the Tom Cruise movie of that name.

At six feet and 200 pounds, he was much more physically imposing than the actor Ken Watanabe, who portrays him in the Hollywood film; he was a monster of a man in 19th century Japan. Along with his imposing size, he had intense eyes and a forthright, piercing gaze that reflected his character and philosophy as an uncompromising man of action.

Saigo was born on February 7, 1827, the eldest son of a samurai of respectable rank but limited wealth, in what was then Satsuma Han, a feudal domain of the Tokugawa Shogun. He died, as legend would have it, by his own hand on September 24, 1877, while making a final stand against soldiers of the Meiji imperial government he had played a major part in establishing.

What is intriguing about his story is that he is held up as an archetype of the samurai spirit–the last true samurai–even though he lost, not just the battle, russos near me but the whole war. He strived to preserve the samurai as a class and slow the newly established Meiji government on its path to modernization, only to be completely vanquished. Not just his army, but also his ideas and his very cause were soundly defeated. Japan is the paragon of modernity it is today partly because he was defeated.

The mystery begins to clear when one realizes that Saigo Takamori is one of the most famous examples of a Japanese tragic hero. In Japan, a tragic hero must show his sincerity by making the ultimate sacrifice, often for a lost cause. This is not the same idea as the character Jefferson Smith had in the movie Mr. Smith Goes To Hollywood when he said, “Lost causes are the only causes worth fighting for.” As Ivan Morris writes in his classic book, The Nobility of Failure: Tragic Heroes in the History of Japan:

“There is another type of hero in the complex Japanese tradition…Faced with defeat, the hero will typically take his own life in order to avoid the indignity of capture (or surrender) vindicate his honor (or his nation’s honor) and make a final assertion of his sincerity.”

In a letter he wrote to Ivan Morris just before committing seppuku, the novelist Yukio Mishima said this:

“…You may be one of the few people who can understand my conclusion. Influenced by Wang Yang-ming philosophy, I have believed that knowing without acting is not sufficiently knowing and the action itself does not require any effectiveness.”

Saigo Takamori was steeped in the neo-Confucianism of the Chinese philosopher Wang Yang-ming, whose conception of knowledge and action as an indivisible unity had, along with Zen Buddhism, an enormous impact on Bushido. He exhibited all of the traditional samurai qualities: valor; respect; rectitude; honor; frugality; loyalty; and benevolence toward underlings. At the same time, he had an unassuming manner, friendly smile, and hearty laugh that won him legions of friends and followers. (See links below for more on Wang Yang-ming and Bushido)

During the Boshin War, (which was the final struggle that vanquished the Shogun and ensconced the Meiji Emperor as the sole symbolic and political leader of a new Japan that would set its sights on catching up with the West, in order to defend itself from colonization) Saigo Takamori led the victorious imperial forces north and east throughout Japan. He eventually surrounded Edo in May 1868, leading to its unconditional surrender. This meant the end of 268 years of the Tokugawa Shogunate’s control of Japan, and the beginning of the Meiji era. On October 26, Edo was renamed Tokyo, and the Meiji period officially started.

But it is not for his heroic victories that he is remembered. He is remembered for his heroic and catastrophic final defeat, nine years later.

Saigo returned to his home domain of Satsuma in 1873, after resigning from his post as supreme commander of the new Meiji Imperial Military. Many of Japan’s former samurai were disaffected as their privileges were revoked one by one as the new government’s modernization efforts progressed. The wearing of swords in public was banned in March of 1876. For many samurai, this was the last straw. A samurai’s sword was said to be his very soul, and his right to proudly bear two swords was a sacred custom and a reflection of the greatness of their class and of Japan.

The grumbling of the samurai and calls for revolt made the central government nervous, particularly in Satsuma Domain as it had the highest ratio of samurai to overall population–samurai accounted for nearly one quarter of Satsuma’s population–and they had the reputation of being the fiercest samurai in Japan.

Saigo Takamori was called upon by the Satsuma rebels to lead their revolt, which call he–by all accounts, reluctantly–took up. He soon found himself as the leader in a civil war against the government he had not long before fought to establish. The war, known as the Satsuma Rebellion, entailed seven months of constant fighting of a scale and intensity far greater than had been seen during the struggle to defeat the Shogun and restore the Emperor to power.

Saigo was able to raise a force of 20,000 samurai warriors, but they were outnumbered by the imperial forces, and after some initial success, were outfought in battle after battle, until only Saigo and 500 men remained.

They made their last stand on top of Shiroyama, a 107 meter high hill in the center of the capital of Satsuma Domain, Kagoshima City, near Kagoshima harbor. They were surrounded by 30,000 imperial troops, which meant they were outnumbered by a ratio of 60 to 1. The Imperial Navy also had five warships positioned in the harbor, from where they pounded Shiroyama with a total of 7,000 shells.

General Aritomo Yamagata, the leader of the imperial forces, had a letter delivered to Saigo, in which he asked for the fifty-year-old samurai’s surrender. Saigo refused the offer and spent his last night, apparently in good spirits, drinking sake in a fox hole with some of his men.


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