Saigo Takamori: The Last Samurai

Saigō Takamori with his officers, at the Satsuma Rebellion
Saigō Takamori with his officers, at the Satsuma Rebellion. Le Monde Illustré / Wikimedia Commons  

Saigo Takamori of Japan is known as the Last Samurai, who lived from 1828 to 1877 and is remembered to this day as the epitome of bushido, the samurai code. Although much of his history has been lost, recent scholars have discovered clues to the true nature of this illustrious warrior and diplomat.

From humble beginnings in the capital of Satsuma, Saigo followed the path of the samurai through his brief exile and would go on to lead reform in the Meiji government, eventually dying for his cause—leaving a lasting impact on the people and culture of 1800s Japan.

Early Life of the Last Samurai

Saigo Takamori was born on January 23, 1828, in Kagoshima, Satsuma's capital, the oldest of seven children. His father, Saigo Kichibei, was a low-ranking samurai tax official who only managed to scrape by despite his samurai status.

As a result, Takamori and his siblings all shared a single blanket at night even though they were large people, sturdy with a few standing over six feet tall. Takamori's parents also had to borrow 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 wakizashi, the short sword used by samurai warriors. He excelled more as a scholar than a warrior, reading extensively before he graduated from school at 14 and was formally introduced to the Satsuma in 1841.

Three years later, he began work in the local bureaucracy as an agricultural adviser, where he continued to work through his brief, childless arranged marriage to 23-year-old Ijuin Suga in 1852. Not long after the wedding, both of Saigo's parents died, leaving Saigo as the head of a family of twelve with little income to support them.

Politics in Edo (Tokyo)

Shortly thereafter, Saigo was promoted to the post of daimyo's attendant in 1854 and accompanied his lord to Edo on alternate attendance, taking a 900-mile-long walk to the shogun's capital, where the young man would work as his lord's gardener, unofficial spy, and confident.

Soon, Saigo was Daimyo Shimazu Nariakira's closest adviser, consulting other national figures on affairs including the shogunal succession. Nariakira and his allies sought to increase the emperor's power at the expense of the shogun, but on July 15, 1858, Shimazu died suddenly, likely of poison.

As was the tradition for samurai in the event of their lord's death, Saigo contemplated committing to accompany Shimazu into death, but the monk Gessho convinced him to live and continue his political work to honor Nariakira's memory instead.

However, the shogun began to purge pro-imperial politicians, forcing Gessho to seek Saigo's help in escaping to Kagoshima, where the new Satsuma daimyo, unfortunately, refused to protect the pair from shogun officials. Rather than facing arrest, Gessho and Saigo jumped from a skiff into Kagoshima Bay and were pulled from the water by the boat's crew—regrettably, Gessho could not be revived.

The Last Samurai in Exile

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 Sasuke, 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, 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 named Aigana and fathered a son. He was settling happily into island life but reluctantly had to leave the island in February of 1862 when he was called back to Satsuma.

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, where he spent more than a year on that dreary rock, returning to Satsuma only in February of 1864. 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.

Return to the Capital

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 descended from the Sun Goddess—and believed that the heavens would protect them from the 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, eventually leading to his appointment as an elder of Satsuma in September of 1866.

Fall of the Shogun

At the same time, 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, and they failed to cover their own flanks. 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, and the former shogun was even allowed to keep his head!

However, Northeastern domains led by Aizu continued to fight on the shogun's behalf until September., when they surrendered to Saigo, who treated them fairly, 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. Like all other times in his life, though, his retirement was short-lived—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 systems were due for a revolutionary change. It turned out the be the latter—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' authorities abolished. Saigo's own daimyo, Hisamitsu, was the only one who publicly railed against the decision, leaving Saigo 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. The Korean government even went as far as having a prefect publicly state 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 but in a July meeting that year, 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, Saigo resigned as the army general, imperial councilor, and commander of the imperial guards the next day. 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 when a Japanese ship sailed to Korean shores, provoking artillery there into opening fire. Then, Japan attacked forcing 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 as well.

Another Brief Respite from Politics

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 where 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.

The Satsuma Rebellion

By ending the samurai class's privileges, the Meiji government had essentially abolished their identity, allowing small-scale rebellions to erupt 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 yet another 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, and 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, starting the Southwest War, or Satsuma Rebellion.

The Death of the Last Samurai

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 into a months-long siege of Kumamoto Castle, just 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, though—he welcomed the opportunity to die for his principles. By May, the rebel army was in retreat southward, with the imperial army picking them off up and down Kyushu until September of 1877.

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 the last suicide charge and 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 filariasis 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.

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Szczepanski, Kallie. "Saigo Takamori: The Last Samurai." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Szczepanski, Kallie. (2023, April 5). Saigo Takamori: The Last Samurai. Retrieved from Szczepanski, Kallie. "Saigo Takamori: The Last Samurai." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 3, 2023).