Saigo Takamori | The Last Samurai

Statue of Saigo Takamori, the Last Samurai. Gary Conner / Photolibrary

Saigo Takamori of Japan is known as the Last Samurai.  He is remembered to this day - and mythologized - as the epitome of , the samurai code.  It is difficult to find the actual man behind the myth, but recent scholarship provides us some clues to the true nature of the Last Samurai.

Early Life:

Saigo Takamori was born on January 23, 1828, in Kagoshima, Satsuma's capital.  His father, Saigo Kichibei, was a low-ranking samurai tax official.

  The boy was named Saigo Kokichi at birth, but changed his name several times throughout his life.  He had six younger siblings - three brothers and three sisters.

The family scraped by on a tiny income, despite their samurai status.  Takamori and his siblings all shared a single blanket at night, though they were large people - most Saigo men were sturdy and stood more than six feet tall.  Takamori's parents borrowed money to buy farmland in order to have enough food for the growing family.  This upbringing instilled a sense of dignity, frugality, and honor in young Saigo.

At age six, Saigo Takamori started at the local goju, or samurai elementary school, and got his first or short sword.  He excelled more as a scholar than a warrior, reading extensively.  Saigo graduated from school at 14 and was formally introduced to the Satsuma in 1841. He began work in the local bureaucracy as an agricultural adviser three years later.

Saigo's family arranged a marriage for him in 1852, with 23-year-old Ijuin Suga.  The couple had no children and soon divorced.  Not long after the wedding, both of Saigo's parents died within two months of each other. This made him the head of a family of twelve, with little income.

Move to Edo (Tokyo):

The young man was promoted to the post of daimyo's attendant in 1854, and accompanied his lord to Edo on alternate attendance.

During the 900-mile-long walk to the capital, Saigo and the other retainers saw the ships of Commodore Perry's fleet anchored off the coast.

In the shogun's capital, Saigo worked as his lord's gardener, unofficial spy, and confidant.  Soon, Saigo was Daimyo Shimazu Nariakira's closest adviser, consulting other national figures on affairs including even the shogunal succession.  Nariakira and his allies sought to increase the emperor's power at the expense of the shogun.

On July 16, 1858, Shimazu Nariakira died suddenly, likely poisoned.  Saigo contemplated committing to accompany his lord into death, but the monk Gessho convinced him to live and continue his political work to honor Nariakira's memory instead.  The shogun began to purge pro-imperial politicians; Gessho sought Saigo's help in escaping, and they fled to Kagoshima.

The new Satsuma daimyo would not protect the monk from the shogun's officials, however, so rather than facing arrest, on November 15, 1858, Saigo and Gessho jumped from a skiff into Kagoshima Bay.  The boat's crew heard the splash and pulled them from the water.  Saigo revived; Gessho did not.


The shogun's men were still hunting him, so Saigo went into a three-year internal exile on the small island of Amami Oshima.

  He changed his name to Saigo Sansuke, and the domain government declared him dead.  Other imperial loyalists wrote to him for advice on politics, so despite his exile and officially dead status, he continued to have an impact in Kyoto.

By 1861, though, Saigo was well-integrated into the local community.  Some children had pestered him into becoming their teacher, and the kind-hearted giant complied.  He also married a local woman, Aigana, and fathered a son.  He was settling happily in to island life.

Suddenly, in February of 1862, Saigo was called back to Satsuma.  He reluctantly left the island, his new family, and friends.

Despite a rocky relationship with the new daimyo of Satsuma - Nariakira's half-brother Hisamitsu - Saigo soon was back in the fray.  He went to the Emperor's court in Kyoto in March, and was amazed to meet samurai from other domains who treated him with reverence for his defense of Gessho.

  His political organizing ran afoul of the new daimyo, however, who had him arrested and banished to a different small island just four months after his return from Amami.

Saigo was getting accustomed to the second island when he was transferred to a desolate penal island further south.  He would spend more than a year on that dreary rock, returning to Satsuma only in February, 1864.  On February 18, just four days after his return, he had an audience with the daimyo, Hisamitsu, who shocked him by appointing him commander of the Satsuma army in Kyoto.

Fall of the Tokugawa Shogun:

In the Emperor's capital, politics had changed significantly during Saigo's exile.  Pro-emperor daimyo and radicals called for an end to the shogunate and the expulsion of all foreigners.  They saw Japan as the abode of gods, since the Emperor is descended from the Sun Goddess, and believed that the heavens would protect them from western military and economic might.

Saigo supported a stronger role for the Emperor, but distrusted the others' millennial rhetoric. Small scale rebellions broke out around Japan, and the shogun's troops proved shockingly unable to put down the uprisings.  The Tokugawa regime was falling apart, but it had not yet occurred to Saigo that a future Japanese government might not include a shogun.  After all, the shoguns had ruled Japan for 800 years.

As commander of Satsuma's troops, Saigo led an 1864 punitive expedition against the Choshu domain, whose army in Kyoto had opened fire on the Emperor's residence.  Along with troops from Aizu, Saigo's massive army marched on Choshu, where he negotiated a peaceful settlement rather than launching an attack.  Later this would turn out to be a pivotal decision, since Choshu was Satsuma's major ally in the Boshin War.

Saigo's nearly bloodless victory won him national fame.  On January 29, 1865, he married a wealthy samurai's daughter, Iwayama Ito.  They would have three children.  His success also got the formerly impoverished Saigo appointed as an elder of Satsuma in September, 1866.

Meanwhile, the shogun's government in Edo was increasingly tyrannical, trying to keep a hold on power.  It threatened an all-out attack on Choshu, even though it did not have the military might to defeat that large domain.  Bonded by their distaste for the shogunate, Choshu and Satsuma gradually formed an alliance.

On December 25, 1866, the 35-year-old Emperor Komei suddenly died.  He was succeeded by his 15-year-old son, Mutsuhito, who would later become known as the Meiji Emperor.

During 1867, Saigo and officials from Choshu and Tosa made plans to bring down the Tokugawa bakufu. On January 3, 1868, the Boshin War began with Saigo's army of 5,000 marching forward to attack the shogun's army, numbering three times as many men.  The shogunate's troops were well-armed, but their leaders had no consistent strategy.  They failed to cover their own flanks, and on the third day of battle, the artillery division from Tsu domain defected to Saigo's side and began to shell the shogun's army instead.

By May, Saigo's army had surrounded Edo and threatened to attack, forcing the shogun's government to surrender.  The formal ceremony took place on April 4, 1868; the former shogun was allowed to keep his head.  Northeastern domains led by Aizu continued to fight on the shogun's behalf until September.  Saigo treated them fairly when they surrendered, furthering his fame as a symbol of samurai virtue.

Forming the Meiji Government:

After the Boshin War, Saigo retired to hunt, fish, and soak in hot springs.  His retirement was short-lived, however; in January of 1869, the Satsuma daimyo made him a counselor of the domain's government. Over the next two years, the government seized land from the elite samurai and redistributed profits to lower ranked warriors.  It began to promote samurai officials based on talent, rather than rank, and also encouraged the development of modern industry.

In Satsuma and the rest of Japan, though, it was not clear whether reforms like these were sufficient, or if the entire social and political system was due for revolutionary change.  The emperor's government in Tokyo wanted a new, centralized system - not just a collection of more efficient, self-governing domains.  In order to concentrate power, Tokyo needed a national military, rather than relying on the domain lords to supply troops.  In April of 1871, Saigo was persuaded to return to Tokyo to organize the new national army.

With an army in place, the Meiji government summoned the remaining daimyo to Tokyo in mid-July, 1871, and abruptly announced that the domains were dissolved and the lords' authority was abolished.  Saigo's own daimyo, Hisamitsu, was the only one who publicly railed against the decision; Saigo felt tormented by the idea that he had betrayed his domain lord.  In 1873, the central government began to conscript commoners as soldiers, replacing the samurai.

Debate over Korea:

Meanwhile, the Joseon Dynasty in Korea refused to recognize the Mutsuhito as an emperor, because it traditionally recognized only the Chinese emperor as such.  All other rulers were mere kings.  A Korean prefect also publicly stated that by adopting western-style customs and clothing, Japan had become a barbarian nation. By early 1873, Japanese militarists who interpreted this as a grave affront called for an invasion of Korea.

In a July 1873 meeting on the matter, Saigo opposed sending warships to Korea.  He argued that Japan should use diplomacy, rather than resorting to force, and offered to head a delegation himself.  Saigo suspected that the Koreans might assassinate him, but felt that his death would be worthwhile if it gave Japan a truly legitimate reason to attack its neighbor.

In October, the prime minister announced that Saigo would not be allowed to travel to Korea as an emissary.  In disgust, the next day Saigo resigned as army general, imperial councilor, and commander of the imperial guards.  Forty-six other military officers from the southwest resigned as well, and government officials feared that Saigo would lead a coup.  Instead, he went home to Kagoshima.

In the end, the dispute with Korea came to a head only in 1875.  A Japanese ship sailed to Korean shores, provoking artillery there into opening fire, and then Japan attacked.  It forced the Joseon king to sign an unequal treaty, which eventually led to the outright annexation of Korea in 1910.  Saigo was disgusted by this treacherous tactic.

The Satsuma Rebellion:

Saigo Takamori had led the way in Meiji reforms including the creation of a conscript army and the end of daimyo rule.  However, disgruntled samurai in Satsuma viewed him as a symbol of traditional virtues, and wanted him to lead them in opposition to the Meiji state.  After his retirement, however, Saigo simply wanted to play with his kids, hunt, and go fishing.  He suffered from angina and also filariasis, a parasitic infection that gave him a grotesquely enlarged scrotum.  Saigo spent a lot of time soaking in hot springs and strenuously avoiding politics.

Saigo's retirement project was the Shigakko, new private schools for young Satsuma samurai.  The students studied infantry, artillery, and the Confucian classics.  He funded but was not directly involved with the schools, so did not know that the students were becoming radicalized against the Meiji government.  This opposition reached the boiling point in 1876 when the central government banned samurai from carrying swords, and stopped paying them stipends.

By ending the samurai class's privileges, the Meiji government had essentially abolished their identity.  Small-scale rebellions erupted all over Japan.  Saigo privately cheered on the rebels in other provinces, but stayed at his country house rather than returning to Kagoshima for fear that his presence might spark a rebellion.  As tensions increased, in January 1877, the central government sent a ship to seize munitions stores from Kagoshima.

The Shigakko students heard that the Meiji ship was coming, and emptied the arsenal before it arrived.  Over the next several nights, they raided additional arsenals around Kagoshima, stealing weapons and ammunition.  To make matters worse, they discovered that the national police had sent a number of Satsuma natives to the Shigakko as central government spies.  The spy leader confessed under torture that he was supposed to assassinate Saigo.

Roused from his seclusion, Saigo felt that this treachery and wickedness in the imperial government required a response.  He did not want to rebel, still feeling deep personal loyalty to the Meiji Emperor, but announced on February 7 that he would go to Tokyo to "question" the central government.  The Shigakko students set out with him, bringing rifles, pistols, swords, and artillery.  In all, about 12,000 Satsuma men marched north toward Tokyo.  It was the start of the Southwest War, also known as the Satsuma Rebellion.

Saigo's troops marched out confidently, sure that samurai in other provinces would rally to their side, but they faced an imperial army of 45,000 with access to unlimited supplies of ammunition.  The rebels' momentum soon stalled when they settled in to a months-long siege of Kumamoto Castle, just 175 km (109 miles) north of Kagoshima.  As the siege wore on, the rebels ran low on munitions, prompting them to switch back to their swords.  Saigo soon noted that he had "fallen into their trap and taken the bait" of settling into a siege.

By March, Saigo realized that his rebellion was doomed.  It did not bother him - he welcomed the opportunity to die for his principles.  By May, the rebel army was in retreat southward.  The imperial army chased the shrinking rebel band up and down Kyushu until September of 1877; the Meiji troops had an overwhelming advantage in weaponry, but the Satsuma men knew the terrain.

On September 1, Saigo and his 300 surviving men moved to Shiroyama mountain above Kagoshima, which was occupied by 7,000 imperial troops.  On September 24, 1877, at 3:45 am, the Emperor's army launched its final assault in what is known as the Battle of Shiroyama.  Saigo was shot through the femur in a last suicide charge; one of his companions cut off his head and hid it from the imperial troops to preserve his honor.  Although all of the rebels were killed, the imperial troops managed to locate Saigo's buried head.  Later woodcut prints depicted the rebel leader kneeling to commit traditional seppuku, but that would not have been possible given his filiarisis and shattered leg.

Saigo's Legacy:

Saigo Takamori helped to usher in the modern era in Japan, serving as one of the three most powerful officials in the early Meiji government.  However, he was never able to reconcile his love of samurai tradition with the demands of modernizing the nation.

In the end, he was killed by the imperial army he organized.  Today, he serves the thoroughly modern nation of Japan as a symbol of its samurai traditions - traditions that he reluctantly helped to destroy.


Najira, Tetsuo.  Japan: The Intellectual Foundations of Modern Japanese Politics, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980.

Ravina, Mark J.  "The Apocryphal Suicide of Saigo Takamori: Samurai, Seppuku, and the Politics of Legend," Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 69, 3 (Aug. 2010), pp. 691-721.

-----  The Last Samurai: The Life and Battles of Saigo Takamori, Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, 2004.

Yates, Charles L.  "Saigo Takamori in the Emergence of Meiji Japan," Modern Asian Studies, Vol. 28, 3, (July 1994), pp. 449-474.

-----  Saigo Takamori: The Man Behind the Myth, New York: Routledge, 1995.