The Last of the Samurai – Fact or Fiction

Saigo Takamori, A Japanese Samurai was born in Kajiya-chō, Kagoshima in 1828. He is famous for taking a significant and final stand against the new Meiji government. And he did this through the Satsuma rebellion. He organized a final display of Samurai warfare when the government abolished them. Thus, securing himself a place in history as a hero admired by the Japanese people.

Photo Attributed to: Edoardo Chiossone [Public domain]

Early Life

Saigo Takamori was born in Kagoshima Prefecture during the Edo period. An area in the southernmost tip of Japan’s Kyushu island in the 1820s. His infant name was Saigo Kokichi and he later adopted the name Takamori in his adulthood. His father, Saigo Kichibe, was a low-ranking Samurai officer. Saigo was the eldest son of the family. He grew up interested in martial arts and Zen. Later, he became focused on academics. His first job, given to him at the age of 16 was at the Agriculture administration. It was there that he began to gain priceless experience and nurtured his beliefs. It is where his sense of righteousness developed through observing and working with the poor farmers. Growing up poor, Saigo learned frugality and humility. The traits he earned and is being admired for as a national hero today.

Meiji Restoration

In 1868, Japan began its Westernization, this was the beginning of the Meiji Period. Changing to the Meiji Period was a tough time for Samurai. First, this was when Japan moved on from Feudalism to a more Westernized world. They took away the feudal domain and replaced it with the central government. Second, the government traded armies with western weapons. Such as guns instead of the old fashion way where they used swords. Soon, the new reform was not well accepted by everybody. This was because of its lack of Japanese culture and spirit.

The Satsuma clan, run by the Shimazu family, were the first to revolt against the new government. Later, Saigo realized the importance of the Samurai in a decentralized government. So he joined in by resigning. At the time, he was working for the government as the commander of the Imperial guard. After resigning from his post, he moved back to his native Province Kagoshima. He influenced many of his subordinates to resign as well. Next, Saigo established a school for Samurai in the Kagoshima Prefecture. At the time, tensions with the Samurai and the government were rising due to new laws on samurai conduct. Saigo later became the leader in an uprising against the Meiji government.

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A statue of Saigō Takamori in military uniform in Shiroyama. Where the final battle of the Satsuma Rebellion took place.

Satsuma Rebellion

Saigo Takamori decided to lead a rebellion against the government in 1877. Nine years after the beginning of the Meiji Period. He took a stand against the ideas of the government relating westernization. Saigo’s Samurai troops traveled to the Kumamoto castle, where the last samurai rebellion began. When they got there, he realized they were going to lose. Outnumber, he knew there was no chance for them to succeed. Saigo allowed the samurai who was not ready to die to leave. This rebellion was the last official stand of the samurai.

Photo Attributed to: French newsmagazine Le Monde Illustré [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Death of a Hero

In the end, the government overthrew the rebels and Saigo Takamori at the battle of Shiroyama. Although the true instance of Saigo’s death is unknown, it is most accepted that he died committing Seppuku. Or Harakiri, an honorable way of committing suicide that was used in the Samurai ways. And he did this with the help of one of his followers, Bebo Shinskie. Shinksie decapitated Saigo as a way to end his pain and hid from the Imperial forces. At that time, Saigo’s acts were rebellious deeds against the government. But now, people honor him because he sacrificed his life to protect the value and the culture of Japan. Saigo Takamori has left a lasting impact on Japanese culture. Although he was against the government, the government pardoned him around 10 years after his death due to his popularity with the masses.

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The Legends, the Legacy, the Arts and Films depicting the Hero

One of the myths circulating which appeared among the common folk was that Saigo didn’t die at all. That he instead move to another country. The rebellion also sparked a rising popularity in the style of Ukeyuie art prints. It was a way for the illiterate masses to illustrate the events of the rebellion to them. The industry was very active during and slightly after the rebellion.

In spite of Saigo’s death in 1877, the man has lived on in the hearts and minds of millions. Fans and admirers of Saigo praised him for standing up for his ideals and dying for a cause. After his death, Saigo’s popularity soared and he became a national hero for Japan and a legend.

Saigo also occasionally appeared in Japanese popular culture such as Japanese anime. An example of this is his appearances in the anime Bakumatsu Kikansetsu Irohanihoheto. He also appears as a boss in the video game, Bakumatsu Hakuouki Musouroku, and as a charter in the TV drama, Atsuhime. A character in the slapstick anime, Gin Tama, named Saigo Toko Mori is also based on Saigo. A famous statue of Saigo stands in Ueno Park in Tokyo depicting Saigo with his dog. The bronze statue made by Takamura Koun and was unveiled to the public on December 18, 1898.

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Saigo has also acted as inspiration for the character, Katsumoto. In the film, The Last Samurai, starring Tom Cruise, Katsumoto (played by Ken Watanabe) is roughly based on Saigo Takamori.

Today’s Last Samurai

In the end, Saigo Takamori ended his life in the final battle that he knew he wasn’t going to survive. He fought what he believed in even when it meant that he has to give up his life for it. Saigo died in 1877, the same year that the Satsumo rebellion started. Although his life and accomplishments happened more than 140 years ago, Saigo is still remembered today. It was all for his bravery and his loyalty and standing up for his beliefs. Just walk around Japan and you will surely find portrayals of Saigo all over. Oftentimes not alone, but in the company by his faithful dog. Even in franchises such as Hello Kitty, they paid homage to the man by dressing the main character in Saigo Takamori’s iconic guard.

Photo Attributed to: Jpatokal at wts wikivoyage [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

In reality, Saigo Takamori is a man that has captured the hearts of many. And will continue to live on as a legendary hero for many generations to come.

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