In 1853, the arrival of Admiral Perry and his black ships forced the opening of Japan, hitherto embroiled in a policy of withdrawal.

The emergence of Westerners in Japan exalts the political tensions that already existed in the country. The Tokugawa shogunate trembles on its foundations.

He turns to the imperial court to validate his choices, as it is still a symbol of wisdom and stability for all strata of society. But it has rather the opposite effect: this choice marks the weakness of the shogunate and the return in force of the Emperor.

Saigo Takamori is a samurai from Satsuma, southwestern province of Kyushu. Starting from a virtual anonymity, he will by his always radical choices in this era of changes mark the history of Japan.

The Satsuma clan

Saigo Takamori comes from a low bloodline samurai family. His intelligence and management ability, however, earned him the attention of the daimyo of the han (administrative units corresponding to the territories of the fiefdoms of the daimyo of Japan) of Satsuma: Nariakira Shimazu.

Together, they tried to plead in favor of reconciliation and the rapprochement of the shogunate with the imperial court.

The rise of Saigo Takamori

Nariakira Shimazu
Nariakira Shimazu

Nariakira Shimazu was, however, removed from shogunate circles by Ii Naosuke, the taro (sort of prime minister) of shogun, because Nariakira supported the candidacy of Yoshinobu Tokugawa to the post of shogun, while Naosuke supported Iemochi Tokugawa.

It is finally Iemoshi who will become shogun at the age of 12 years. But the ousting of Nariakira is also due to the differences of point of view on the policy of Japan: the followers of Ii Naosuke want to strengthen the shogunate while the daimyos like Nariakira Shimazu desire the restoration of the Emperor.

When Nariakira Shimazu died in 1858, it was her nephew Hisamitsu who took the head of the clan. Saigo Takamori’s positions do not seem to suit Hisamitsu. This one exiles him on the island of Amami Oshima… then takes him back… then re-exiles him on the island of Okinoerabu… to finally take him back definitively: indeed, the new daimyo of Satsuma needs someone. ” one of experienced to defend his positions at Edo, which fits Saigo’s profile.

For the record, while Hisamitsu Shimazu returns from Edo in a palanquin and accompanied by some of his samurai, he meets in the village of Namamugi three British merchants, plus the cousin of one of them, who have left for a jaunt on the Tokaido.

Explanations of “why” differ, but the one named Richardson does not dismount or step aside to let the Shimazu procession pass, despite warnings from the samurai. He is therefore killed and his two comrades seriously injured. The cousin does not suffer from any harm. This incident will cause British bombing in Kagoshima, as well as heavy compensation from Japan.

Saigo Takamori’s feats of arms

On August 20, 1864, the incident at the Kinmon Gate occurred: extremists from the province of Choshu, who wanted the restoration of the emperor and the refusal of relations with foreigners, tried to enter the imperial palace in Kyoto to take control of the Emperor and his court.

Saigo Takamori takes part in the command of a coalition of samurai of the Satsuma and Aizu domains and crushes the rebels. He then became one of the commanders of a punitive expedition in reaction to this attack: Choshu’s first expedition, on September 1, 1864.

While the samurai of Satsuma are delighted to be able to weaken long-time rival province Choshu, Saigo Takamori’s diplomacy results in those responsible for the attack on the Kinmon Gate surrender without having to fight. These negotiations will lead to the Satcho alliance: Satsuma and Choshu will actually end up joining forces in 1866 to bring down the shogunate.

Iemochi Tokugawa
Iemochi Tokugawa

Iemochi Tokugawa died on August 29, 1866, and left the place of shogun to Yoshinobu Tokugawa. He initially tried to strengthen his power and modernize his army but, faced with unbearable pro-imperial pressures, decided to abdicate: the Emperor regained control of Japan.

Yoshinobu, however, retains considerable power in the new government, which Satsuma and Choshu’s men cannot bear. After various provocations, both diplomatic and military, the pro-shogunate and pro-imperial factions no longer hold it: when the emperor, influenced by the radicals, proclaims that he holds all the powers, the boshin war erupted in January 1868.

Saigo Takamori is the head of the Imperial Armed Forces of Satsuma and Choshu. The first battle, that of Toba-Fushimi, takes place at the gates of Kyoto, the imperial capital. The forces of the shogun, composed of 15,000 men, are vastly superior in number. Trained by French officers, they are however less well equipped than their adversaries: the shogun has indeed fallen behind in the modernization of his troops, and it is much worse for some of his allied provinces.

Satsuma and Choshu, although outnumbered 3 to 1, are completely modernized, even being able to rely on a rotary machine gun. The battle lasts for 4 days and is a decisive defeat for the shogunate, especially as Yoshinobu Tokugawa abandoned his troops in the middle of the battle when he noticed that Satsuma and Choshu were sporting the Imperial banners, confirming the approval of the Emperor towards the anti-shogunate factions.

Following this, Saigo Takamori leads his troops towards Edo. The forces of the shogunate, entrenched in the edo castle, surrender without bloodshed on April 11, 1868.

Emperor Meiji
Emperor Meiji

Like many men from Satsuma and Choshu, Saigo Takamori joins the new Meiji government, which must fundamentally reform the country. Takamori takes his role very seriously and participates in many reforms, the most famous being the abolition of the Han system in 1871, thus transforming the former domains of the daimyos into prefectures.

In 1873, however, relations between Saigo and the Meiji government strained. It all started with Korea’s refusal to recognize the Emperor as head of the Japanese Empire, as well as the dismissal of a Japanese envoy who had come to negotiate new trade relations.

See as well

Maiko in Kyoto

Some politicians, Saigo Takamori in the lead, do not support this affront and show the desire to declare war on Korea. Others think that the Japan is still too disorganized and does not yet have a modern enough army to embark on this endeavor.

It is ultimately the latter party that wins and, to show their discontent, Saigo Takamori and others leave their functions. Saigo, for his part, returns to his hometown of Kagoshima, in Satsuma province, to set up a military academy.

This military academy was quickly filled with samurai loyal to Saigo. The resentment of the samurai was all the more violent as the Meiji government had abolished the previous class system: now there are the nobles and the others. The Imperial Army is made up of people of all classes, so the samurai have lost all the benefits of their status.

In 1877, the inevitable happened: the samurai of Satsuma rose up, led by Saigo Takamori.

Although sudden, the Satsuma rebellion is very quickly routed. The insurgents number 40,000, against 300,000 for the government forces. Following their defeat during the siege of Kumamoto Castle, the few hundred surviving samurai are holed up in Shiroyama Hill, not far from Kagoshima. They are surrounded by 30,000 conscripts, and their defenses are bombarded by warships.

The samurai of Saigo attempt a desperate charge, relying on their skill with the sword against “popular” troops and therefore little trained in melee. The charge takes effect, and the samurai line holds up, but the numbers finally get the better of them.

Saigo himself is mortally wounded. His second Shinsuke Beppu drags his body to a remote location to help him die with dignity. We do not know if Saigo Takamori succeeded or not in his seppuku, but the fact remains that Shinsuke beppu ended up chopping off his head. After that, the last surviving samurai draw their swords and make a final charge against the Imperial Army. They all find death there. This is the end of the Satsuma rebellion, the last samurai uprising against the new government.

Battle of Shiroyama: Last Desperate Charge
Battle of Shiroyama: Last Desperate Charge

Saigo Takamori goes down in history

Saigo Takamori had an eventful destiny. Originally a samurai of modest rank, he helped restore power to the Emperor, played an active role in his government before becoming one of its most fervent adversaries.

His temperament walked on the edge, between traditionalism because he adored the Emperor in addition to being an exacerbated nationalist, and modernity, by his desire to reform the country and give the army advanced technologies. He will even end up leading the revolt of the aggrieved samurai, after having himself participated in the modification of their way of life.

This latest rebellion, and his death as a true samurai, will make him the paragon of the values ​​of this now extinct warrior caste, even earning him a posthumous pardon from the Meiji government on February 22, 1899.


Master Jean-Jacques

Maître Jean-Jacques is passionate about the history of Japan, as well as parts of its folklore.

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