Story of Japan - R. Van Bergen

Saigo Takamori

You must not suppose that, among the four hundred thousand members of the samurai class, there were not some who disapproved of the acts of the new government. The worthless ones,—and they are to be found among all classes of society,—had indeed been weeded out, but of those who had kept to their caste, although all were impelled by love of their country, there were quite a number who honestly thought that the Tennô's advisers were bringing the country to rack and ruin. Some of the councilors who had resigned were very bitter against their former friends; and several of them, as for instance Eto Shimpei (ay-toh sheem-pay), raised the standard of rebellion. But enough of the clans remained loyal, in those early days, to maintain the authority of the government, and when more serious trouble occurred afterwards, the government was provided with a loyal army and navy, and a single clan could not hope to cope with a united Japan.

Although the most progressive of the Tennô's advisers, Okubo, was a Satsuma man, that powerful and warlike clan was among the most dissatisfied, and the government was afraid to invoke strong measures. When the departments were abolished, and the different provinces were administered by officers sent from Tokyo, and the helpless daimio were ordered to retire into private life as kazoku or nobles, the clan of Satsuma alone was permitted to administer its own affairs. Shimadzu Saburo (shee-mad-zoo sah-boo-roh), the acting and real daimio, had withdrawn in high dudgeon to his seat at Kagoshima, and it required a personal letter from the Tennô, added to the persuasion of a high court noble, Iwakura, to induce him to visit Tokyo.

He protested against everything that he could not understand. "Why cut off the topknot? Why discard the Japanese dress? Why ape these foreigners in everything? Is this the country of the gods or not?" Such were some of the questions asked by him; and although the government offered him high and influential positions, he refused the bait, and sturdily declined to follow the prevailing fashion, but continued to show himself in topknot, Japanese dress, and the inevitable two swords. Staunch old Shimadzu thought that he was representing the samurai class; indeed, he did represent a part of them, and his clansmen deeply sympathized with him, and were intensely loyal.

Tiago Sakamouri


Among these clansmen, none had more influence than Saigo Takamori. He was the ideal samurai. Of extraordinary height for a Japanese,—he stood over six feet, and the Japanese are of very small stature,—he was of corresponding strength and excelled in all the warlike exercises for which the Satsuma men were famous. He was, besides, very courteous and kind, and withal remarkably brave. You have read how he was banished by the Tokugawa government in the expiring days of the Yedo rule, and how he was made commander in chief of the imperial forces under Prince Arisugawa. He brought the civil war to a close, and was rewarded with a pension for life. This he refused to accept, stating modestly that he had done only his duty; but he was compelled to receive it by special orders from the Tennô himself.

We have seen how, as member of the council, Saigo advised war with Korea. In this he acted on behalf of those samurai who, like himself, too old to learn new methods or to acquire new tactics, were thrown out of all prospect of honorable employment. When he found his advice rejected, he resigned and withdrew to Kagoshima, where, with the pension received from the government, he established and maintained military schools, to which a number of dissatisfied samurai from all parts of Japan flocked. Here they were instructed in the tactics of arms, and especially in the use of that deadly weapon, the old Japanese sword.

The government was, of course, perfectly aware of what was going on, and it was an anxious time when Eto Shimpei revolted. But Saigo remained neutral, and the government began to hope that patriotism would prevail, and that Satsuma would submit at last. Several years passed by, and the railroad to Kyoto was finished in 1878. It had been decided to celebrate this event, and the Tennô himself was to visit the capital of his ancestors, together with the ministers. This programme was carried out. Kyoto was in festive array, and everything was ready, when the news came that Satsuma had raised the standard of rebellion and that Saigo had seized the arsenal at Kagoshima, and was with a large force of samurai on his march through Kiushiu.

Street scene


The reports were true. To disguise the danger of the situation, the railroad was opened with the appointed ceremonies, but the perturbed ministers decided to make Kyoto the temporary headquarters of the emperor. The government feared what Saigo's advisers had counted upon—that the dissatisfied samurai of other clans would create serious disturbances elsewhere, and it is more than probable that at this time promises and concessions were made, whereby they were assured that henceforward the samurai alone should occupy official positions. But although seriously disturbed, and naturally anxious, the ministers made excellent use of the modern inventions and improvements introduced by them. The telegraph carried orders with lightning speed. Steamships were chartered or purchased, and Saigo's old commander in chief, Prince Arisugawa, was placed in command.

It is very doubtful to me, who knew Saigo well, whether that brave man ever intended to rebel. It is far more probable that his advisers had deceived him into taking up arms. It has, indeed, been proved that a man of humble position was arrested in Kagoshima, who, under torture, was made to confess that he had been sent by the Tennô's ministers to assassinate the Satsuma leader.

Whether Saigo believed this absurd story or not, the other leaders of the clan thought that the moment for action had arrived, and the old samurai spirit of loyalty to the clan impelled Saigo to place himself at its head. Addresses were prepared in which it was stated that the clan did not make war upon the emperor, but upon his advisers, who were ruining the country by the reforms which they had instituted. The imperial arsenal at Kagoshima, in charge of a Satsuma officer, was surrendered to the rebels without a blow, and if they had marched promptly, it is not improbable that Japan would have entered upon a reactionary career.

The island of Kiushiu is very mountainous, and has many difficult passes. The leaders of the imperial army at once decided to surround the revolted province so as to prevent the rebellion from spreading and the insurgents from receiving aid or reënforcement. They succeeded, but only after many hard and desperate battles in which the old samurai spirit showed at its best, and the Japanese sword maintained its old reputation. The government was even compelled to organize a band of swordsmen to cope with the expert Satsuma men.

The clan seemed determined to fight to the death, and despair lent strength to the arms of the samurai, but they could not contend against the organized forces of the government. Kagoshima was taken, and the rebels were hemmed in. But Saigo with a small band of faithful men broke through the circle, recaptured Kagoshima, and fortified himself upon a steep hill beyond the town. Here he defended himself to the last, and when the hill was taken and the leader wounded, a friend performed the last service by cutting off his head. When this gory trophy was brought to the general in command of the imperial forces, he reverently washed it, and had it decently buried. Thousands of samurai visit every year the tomb of one who, although he died a rebel, is considered the last of the old samurai of Old Japan.