A story of self-sacrifice
A leader of Japan’s 19th Century drive to modernize, and at the same time a defender of its ancient samurai values, Saigo Takamori’s dramatic last stand embodied his nation’s identity crisis.
The Meiji Restoration, as it came to be known, was about much more than a change in its system of government. Its leaders believed that Japan could only resist outsiders if it could match them. Modernization would be the key to protect their nation. Two centuries of isolation had rendered the state vulnerable to the outside world. “Enrich the country, strengthen the army,” was the slogan of the Meiji restorationists. The new regime began dismantling the old feudal system and building a modern fighting force.
Ever since 1192 AD the samurai warriors were part of the ruling class, enforcing and preserving the Shogun and noble edicts throughout Japan. The Meiji reforms deeply split this samurai class. Some supported a modern vision for Japan, seeing how it would help preserve national autonomy; but to other samurai, the tide of modernity threatened their very way of life. Saigo Takamori, a samurai hero who helped lead the Meiji revolt, came to embody the deep conflict between old ways and new advances.
After studying the organization of European armies, some members of the government began to call for universal military service. Traditionally, the samurai class had monopolized warfare, and a conflict arose with those who did not want to deprive the samurai class of this right. Saigo privately supported conscription and universal military service, but declined to speak openly about it, possibly because he was beginning to regret the dramatic changes of modernisation that had been set in motion.
Turbulence came when Saigo advocated that Japan should go to war with Korea in 1873 due to Korea’s refusal to recognize the legitimacy of the Emperor Meiji as head of the Empire of Japan. However, other leaders of the Restoration strongly opposed these plans, arguing that internal development took priority over costly military adventures. Furious, Saigo resigned as Commander of the Imperial Guard and returned to Satsuma (now Kagoshima).
Finally, in 1877, frustrated with what he considered the weakness of the new government and its lack of spirit, Saigo led a rebellion against the Meiji government, well knowing he would lose and that it would ultimately result in his death.
Saigo Takamori died in rebellion as a traitor in 1877. However 12 years after Saigo’s death, in 1889, he was granted a full pardon and ever since has been celebrated as a hero of Japan for his bravery, his devotion to his ideals, and his willingness to die for those ideals. Saigo is recognised for his major contribution to ushering in the Meiji Restoration and for his selfless acts of relegating his own Samurai class to the backwater of history. The heroic action of Saigo and his men are loosely dramatized in the 2003 movie The Last Samurai, staring Tom Cruise and Ken Watanabe.
Until his death Saigo Takamori practiced his core belief in Bushido. Bushido adds to Confucianism’s healthy measures of resourcefulness, self-reliance and emotional stamina within a central concept of filial piety. Emphasis on these virtues adds up to a character that values patience and self-control as its principal strengths in a personality whose purpose-driven-life is one of respect. He was truly The Last Samurai.
Road to the Meiji Restoration
The year 2018 marks the 150th anniversary of the Meiji Restoration. This year Kagoshima City will continue to carry out “Meiji Restoration 150th Anniversary Projects,” one of which is a celebration of Saigo Takamori’s Satsuma Clan history. At the Museum of the Meiji Restoration nearby Kagoshima JR Station, you can watch the 25-minute show showcasing scenes from the Shogunate through to the Meiji era via use of animatronics.
The first Europeans to Japan came from Portugal and landed on Satsuma (now Kagoshima) in 1542, making it one of Japan’s earliest gateways to Christianity and the West. Satsuma’s location also helped it grow wealthy through trade, particularly with China in the earlier periods. As such, the Satsuma clan was always on the forefront of contract with the outside world and thus better understood the culture and motivations of foreigners earlier than anyone else in Japan.
A good book to read and learn about the Samurai code of Bushido
If you have read this blog this far, you might be interested in learning more about the Samurai code of Bushido.
In the late 19th Century westerners were shocked to learn that religion was not taught in Japanese schools. They asked Nitobe, author of “BUSHIDO: The Soul of Japan”, how the Japanese learned moral behaviour. He concluded that stories of Bushido, the unwritten code of conduct for the samurai, served as the model for morality and behaviour in Japan.
His book was published in 1905, providing great insight into Japanese logic and shining a light on many of the values and behaviours found in Japan today. These include: humility, restraint, hierarchy, a focus on rule bound behaviour, and avoidance of shameful acts that reflect on the whole family vs. just the individual.
Due to his knowledge of western culture, Nitobe is able to make extensive comparisons between Japan and the West to help westerners see that the Japanese are not so strange; they just analyse a situation differently.