The 2003 movie The Last Samurai, in which Tom Cruise plays an American veteran who gets caught up in a samurai rebellion against the Japanese Meiji government, cast an interesting and entertaining light on a part of history not often portrayed in American film. The mid-19th century was a time of huge upheaval in Japanese society, as the emperor reclaimed ultimate power by dissolving the shogunate, and this previously feudalistic and isolationist country was dragged into modernity. However, the movie plays quite fast and loose with the hard facts of what happened in those days and who was involved (as is the standard for Hollywood history). So who really was the last samurai?
That title is usually bestowed upon a man by the name of Saigō Takamori (1828 – 1877). He was one of the most important figures of Japan’s tumultuous transition into the modern era: instrumental in the restoration of power to the emperor and his new government, but also famous for taking up arms against these powers just a few years after!
As always, let’s cut through all the mystification and fictionalization to discover the real narrative, and why this man is still such a famous name in Japan today. The story of his dramatic life would make an even better movie than the fictional one he inspired: a story of power and tragedy — of Japan’s surge towards the future, and of a deep cultural anxiety for what would inevitably be lost along the way.
The Early Days
Born with the childhood name Saigō Kokichi in 1828, the famous warrior spent his formative years in his hometown of Kagoshima, Satsuma. Skilled in arms, but also with a sensitive soul, he wrote poetry in his youth and was a dedicated student of both Buddhist scripture and Neo-Confucianism. This less aggressive side to his personality is part of what led to his enduring appeal as a kind of folk hero: the ideal noble-hearted samurai, loyal to a fault with his sense of honor and justice worn on his sleeve.
However, that’s not to say he never got his hands dirty. As we’ll see, Saigō racked up plenty of time on the battlefield in the lead-up to his dramatic showdown with the imperial army of Japan. He must have cut quite an impressive sight during those battles, tall as he was for his day (although nowadays a six-foot stature is hardly going to get you called up to the NBA).
Before we get to that dramatic final act of his life, we first have to rewind to his mid twenties. While many of us modern 20-somethings are trapped in the grips of a 1/3rd of life crisis, Saigō was instead beginning to make his name known in the highest circles of power. In 1854, the ruling daimyō of Satsuma — a man by the name of Shimazu Nariakira — took him into his employ as part of his administrative entourage for a stint in Tokyo, then known as Edo. Nariakira was a man of the future, and a major advocate for Western culture and technologies in Japan.
It’s thought that Saigō — then just a lowly local official — impressed his daimyō with a treatise on agricultural management and administration. That’s right: by the time the mid-19th century rolled around, several centuries of peace had meant that many minor samurai were much more likely to be working boring office jobs than slaying hordes of enemies. I suppose in that regard, Saigō was pretty similar to a modern 20-something.
In the Japanese capital of Edo, he made the jump from minor public official to the new rank of…gardener? Okay, stick with me folks, I promise this story gets wilder — there’s fighting and intrigue and seppuku to come. You see, at this time the military shogunate of Japan held the real power in the country, while the emperor was largely symbolic. There were many in power, including the daimyō of Satsuma, who sought to change this in the belief the progressive emperor was better suited to lead Japan into the brave new world of railroads and worldwide geopolitics.
As an unassuming official in charge of all things flora, Saigō was perfectly placed to co-ordinate meetings and messages between these individuals. He became instrumental in establishing an incognito network of imperial loyalists, of which his boss was a part.
Disaster and Exile
The more that Saigō worked to build and maintain this secret network — risking severe punishment should his politically-explosive motives be discovered — the more his lord came to confide in him. This gardener-turned-spymaster was a close confidante of Nariakira, and it seemed like he was about to be instrumental to the biggest Japanese social upheaval in centuries.
That would all have to wait a while, however — about another 10 years to be precise. That’s because a key ally of the movement, a councilor of the shogunate named Abe Masahiro, died in 1857. In a double blow for the reformists, the ultra-progressive Nariakira died just one year after from suspected heatstroke during military drills which were intended to prepare a 3,000-strong force of Satsuma soldiers to travel to the capital.
Conservative elements in Edo seized the chance to shut up shop and consolidate their power against the reformists. Led by the daimyō of Hikone, they preferred the idea of resisting against foreign influence, and protecting the age-old institution of the shogun (along with their own wealth and hides).
Without the protection and patronage of his lord, Saigō was forced to leave Edo and abandon his mission. As was common among samurai in centuries past, he planned to end his own life to honor and grieve his master. Thankfully this practice has died out in Japan, so HR doesn’t have to fill 1,000 vacant positions whenever the CEO meets an untimely end. And thankfully for the Japanese nation, Saigō survived his suicide attempt from the cliffs of Kagoshima.
Cue a montage showing a half-decade of exile, during which our hero hops around various islands, gets married, and reflects on the nature of duty, power, and justice. If you’ve ever seen literally any movie ever, you know such montages mean the hero is about to use his newfound knowledge to come back with a bang.
The Meiji Restoration
After making his peace with the new regent ruler of Satsuma — the younger brother to his old lord, who he had previously found himself at odds with — Saigō landed a position as commander of Satsuma’s forces in Kyoto in 1864. Here comes our first big battle, and the hero’s first ever taste of real combat: fending off an assault by an army from modern-day Yamanashi (then called Chōshū) who came to topple the shogunate. Sure, he was fighting against the side he once supported, but give him a break — the last push for imperial restoration had been thwarted, and he had just landed this sweet new job!
It didn’t take too long for his convictions to resurface, however. After being promoted and appointed head of a punitive campaign against Chōshū, he pulled a switcheroo when Satsuma instead decided to align itself with the rebels in 1866. Now Saigō wasn’t just leading his men to scold a renegade province — he was the commander of an even larger force, the precursor to Japan’s future imperial army.
It took another two years before the proclamation of the Meiji Restoration was issued by the allied clans of loyalists in January of 1868, which the newly-resigned shogun’s supporters were understandably none too happy about. They fought a conflict known as the Boshin War over the following 18 months, during which Saigō’s legendary status was cemented.
Perhaps his greatest act was entering the lion’s den of Edo Castle without protection, risking his life to come to terms with the commander of the shogun’s forces in the city. Miraculously, the commander didn’t just laugh and behead him, but agreed to lay down arms peacefully, which likely saved countless civilian lives in the capital. People are much more willing to turn you into folk hero if you don’t burn and trample their city down, so this noble negotiation won our hero an immense amount of goodwill.
In the Meiji Government
Had the story ended there, it would be wrapped up pretty nicely. But if Saigō’s life were a movie, you’d currently be checking the time bar along the bottom of your Netflix to see there’s still about a half hour left. And what a dramatic last act it is!
With the shogunate defeated and disbanded, the leaders of the restoration now entered into governmental service to help build the new Japan they had long envisioned. Saigō became general of the armed forces, a role which often put him into conflict with the rest of the cabinet. Other key figures in this new progressive government pressed for economic modernization with the establishment of a railroad system, while our hero demanded military modernization should be the priority.
The hill which he was willing to die on, however, was the Korea issue. Japan’s neighbor had taken quite a combative stance to the recent changes in the country, refusing to recognize the legitimacy of the emperor as head of state, and disrespecting trade envoys. As I suggested, Saigō was literally willing to die over this issue, even attempting to visit Korea in person to provoke them into an honor killing for which his country would be forced to retaliate!
I guess his earlier life makes for a better folk hero image than the ornery middle-aged guy who just really, really, really hated Korea — so much so that he would quit his job because he never got to attack them. And that’s exactly what he did, because the Meiji government refused to green light an invasion.
The Satsuma Rebellion
Returning to his native Kagoshima, a disgruntled Saigō seemed satisfied to disappear into early retirement. That is until some similarly disgruntled samurai persuaded him to take up arms again, presumably with a rousing speech about ‘one last big job’. Many of these samurai were those who had followed Saigō out of the capital, for whom he had founded a military academy which expanded to over 130 branches. Eventually the graduates of these schools made major inroads into the local Kagoshima government, and the area became a stronghold for a kind of samurai paramilitary.
Their quarrel with the national government had a lot of facets, not least of all the sword ban and abolishment of rice stipends for samurai in 1877. Tensions boiled over when the Meiji Emperor sent a mission to strip down the arsenal of Kagoshima Port, seeing how powerful and well-armed this malcontented region had become. It was then that the samurai of Kagoshima called upon their oldest and boldest hero to lead them in open warfare, to which he begrudgingly agreed.
Now finding himself facing the very army he helped create and train, Saigō marched through the heaviest snowfall in decades to attack Kumamoto Castle. This ill-fated siege fell apart due to the skill of the well-drilled imperial army defenders, and the arrival of the main imperial force a few months after it began. Forced to retreat, the Satsuma samurai forces faced defeat after defeat, culminating with a total slaughter at the Battle of Shiroyama.
It was here, shot in the thigh and watching his remaining troops die en-masse around him, that Saigō took his own life through the ancient samurai ritual suicide of seppuku. It’s not known exactly how or when he died during the battle, but what is known is that his body was found decapitated — a common practice in days gone by, when squires or other allied soldiers would behead their lord to shorten the pain of the suicide.
All in all the rebellion lasted just short of eight months, and by the end the imperial army outnumbered the last samurai’s forces by a factor of 50. To have gone down swinging against such impossible odds spoke to a nostalgia in the hearts of the Japanese for the idea of the virtuous and brave samurai warrior, and so not even the emperor was able to tarnish the reputation of this man (who, mind you, had just died committing high treason). The imperial government even went as far as to pardon Saigō in 1889, at which time he was officially recognized as the last true samurai to have ever lived.
The Last Paragraph
Part of the reason the story of Saigō Takamori endures is that it’s just so damn dramatic and fits perfectly into time-tested narrative molds. You have the humble beginnings trope, a classic second-act crisis, a period of soul searching… Hell, there’s even a big twist when it’s revealed the emperor was the bad guy all along! Well, that’s if you think refraining from a bloody conflict with Korea and trying to disarm a rogue military force makes him a bad guy — Saigō certainly did. Though the gritty reality of historical figures (especially aggressive imperial generals and paramilitary figureheads) is often muddier than their rose-tinted folk image, there’s an undeniable romantic charm to the story of Saigō, the true last samurai. Now can someone please forward this article to Hollywood so we can get the biopic we deserve?