Saigo Takamori: Hero of the Meiji Restoration

Unseen Japan
Jan 8 · 32 min read
How the “last samurai” Saigo Takamori escaped exile and changed Japan forever — before he rebelled against the new state he helped create. (Picture: Wikipedia)

This is part 2 in a 3-part series on the renowned “last samurai,” Saigo Takamori.

Part 1: Saigo Takamori: the Making of a Legend

By Noah Oskow

Stranded in a Distant Land

Around 250 miles south of the Japanese home islands, the isle of Amami Oshima lies amid turquoise waters. The main island of the Amami archipelago, the large landmass of limestone is fringed with palms, the waters of its offings abounding with coral. While these days Amami Oshima is part of Japan’s Kagoshima Prefecture (and is, in fact, Japan’s seventh-largest island), this was not always so.

For hundreds of years beforehand, Amami was the land of a Ryukyuan people, their language and culture distinct from that of the Japanese. The people of Amami held to their own religions, with their own social structure based around lords known as Aji and priestesses called Noro. Women tattoed their hands in elaborate fashion to signify the stages of their lives. For some time, the people of the Amami warred amongst themselves and with those on nearby islands, until in the 1440s they were conquered by their cultural cousins from Okinawa and officially became part of the Ryuku Kingdom.

Some 170 years onwards, the islands were beset yet again by foreign invaders. Samurai of the powerful Satsuma Domain of southern Kyushu had before attempted an invasion of the Amami Oshima, but the Ryukyuan army had repulsed them. This time, the lord of Satsuma, Shimazu Tadatsune, launched a much greater campaign. Despite fierce Ryukuan resistance, the kingdom fell to the foreign samurai. The Ryuku Kingdom became a mere semi-autonomous colony of Satsuma Domain. Amami Oshima fared worse than its southern neighbor — it was outright annexed by the Shimazu family.

160 years ago, on this island so distant and culturally dissimilar from the Japanese mainland, there stood an exiled Satsuma samurai. Surrounded by people and landscapes that were fully unfamiliar, the physically imposing Saigo Takamori wondered if he would ever again return to the world from which he had been expelled — a world which until recently he had exerted such a revolutionary effect upon.

The Road to Amami Oshima

The year was 1859. Only five years earlier, the now-famous Saigo Takamori had been a mere tax clerk. The path Saigo had taken from local obscurity to national figure and then to exile had already been a circuitous one.

Help support more great content and translations like this through our Patreon. Memberships begin at just $1/month.

Saigo came of age in a changing Japan. The arrival of powerful foreign ships in Japan had given lie to the strength and prestige of the aging Tokugawa Shogunate, and powerful local lords ( daimyo) had begun to assert their own power, attempting to influence the central government in Edo. Many had begun to realize that the Shogunal state was not powerful enough to deal with the demands of recently-arrived Western empires. It was during this time that Saigo had suddenly been chosen to become the aid and confidant of his lord, Shimazu Nariakira. Saigo was known in Satsuma for his loyalty and idealistic clarity; he would be the perfect samurai to serve a lord beset by treacherous local and national disturbances.

Nariakira and Saigo found they shared similar ideas regarding the correct direction for their country. Soon, their dynamic had transformed into what was for Saigo the ideal samurai-master relationship. Together, they strove to influence national politics within the Shogunal capital. Their goal was to assure that the young and potent Hitotsubashi Keiki be named as heir to the Shogun. To this end, Saigo was made Nariakira’s man in Edo, surreptitiously running messages and converting important figures to their side. Saigo’s charisma and idealism made him many devoted friends, and soon his name was known far and wide.

Attracted to burgeoning schools of thought that placed primacy in the emperor, Saigo was soon off to the imperial capital of Kyoto. He and his compatriots tried to convince likely nobles (traditionally uninvolved in politics) to bring their influence to bear on the Shogunal succession. All was progressing well until the reactionary pro-Tokugawa daimyo Ii Naosuke seized power back in Edo. Ii became the shogun’s tairo (Great Elder) and used his new position of power to initiate a purge of those who threatened the primacy of the Shogunate. The imperial court balked under newly invigorated Shogunal power.

All Saigo’s efforts had been for naught. But worse still, Saigo suffered a great personal tragedy. His lord, Nariakira, passed away suddenly, leaving his arch-rival Shimazu Hisamitsu in control of Satsuma Domain. Saigo had lost the most important person in a samurai’s life: his master. He had also been made bereft of political standing. As shogunal forces drew near, Saigo fled with the monk Gessho, the two hoping to find safety in Saigo’s native Satsuma. Alas, the new lord refused to protect the monk. Having failed in all their attempts, and with Shogunal spies all around, Saigo and Gessho decided to escape from their mortal plane. The two leaped from a boat into the freezing waters of Kagoshima Bay. Gessho succeeded in his suicide; Saigo, miraculously, survived. Even this, however, seemed to him to be a failure.

Saigo did not have long to recuperate from his near-miss with death. The Shogunate had put out a warrant for his arrest. Rather than risk Edo’s wrath by protecting Saigo or create strife in Satsuma by giving up a popular samurai, the Satsuma government claimed Saigo had succeeded in committing suicide. They then exiled the very much alive Saigo to the farthest ends of the Satsuma Domain.

In Exile

Amami Oshima: beautiful, but depressing for Saigo. (Picture: かずめろ / PIXTA(ピクスタ) )

Thus had Saigo Takamori found himself so very far from home or political power. Although not a criminal and still granted his stipend, Saigo was a virtual prisoner in what amounted to a foreign land. Until recently a major player in national politics, now he could only interact with ongoing tumultuous events via letters to his friends back on the mainland. History, it seemed, was leaving him behind. While his compatriots promised to push for a swift end to his exile, time began to creep by.

At first, life on Amami Oshima was terribly depressing. While the island’s environs, then as now, are idyllic, the social structure of this Satsuma colony shocked Saigo. The Satsuma government had discovered that sugar cane grew easily in this subtropical climate, and had forced the Amami people into a sugar monoculture. Almost all arable land was put over to sugar production. This lead to famines in years of bad harvest and mass poverty for the peasants of the island. (Interestingly, this use of a colony for forced monoculture is very similar to what Western empires were doing with sugar at the time).

Saigo, for all his good qualities, was still a chauvinist mainlander. He was repulsed by aspects of Amami culture. He saw the people there as unrefined and dirty (and the women’s tattoo’s particularly offended him). Saigo even referred to these indigenous people as “Hairy Chinese.” Still, he could not help but take pity on the situation his own Satsuma government had put them in. In one letter to friends on the mainland, Saigo wrote:

“The daily life of the islanders seems honestly unendurable. It is worse than the treatment of the Ainu in Ezo. I am astonished by the bitterness of their lives: I did not think there could be such hardship.”

Saigo Takamori to his friend Okubo Toshimichi in 1859 , taken from The Last Samurai: The Life and Battles of Saigo Takamori by Mark Ravina.

At first, Saigo attempted to while away his time in meditation and farming. He drafted near-constant letters to his compatriots, who still relied on his advice. First and foremost on Saigo’s mind was escaping exile and returning to the fray. Yet time wended on, and soon his sense of purpose could not help but shift to his surroundings.

First came his students. Saigo, in some ways an academic at heart, was a natural teacher. When local children begged this distinguished mainland samurai to teach them, he found he could not say no. Then came involvement in local politics. Incensed by local conditions, Saigo strove to enact change. He befriended local Satsuma officials and Amami natives alike, making lifelong friends. Together, they attempted to create policies that would enhance life for the people of the island. Such was Saigo’s effect on the local population that he remains a popular hero on Amami Oshima to this day.

Perhaps incidentally, Saigo developed a personal life on Amami Oshima as well. Potentially the island’s most eligible bachelor, the physically imposing and morally scrupulous samurai suddenly found himself with a wife. Little is known of Aigana, she of dark hair and detailed tattoos. While to a mainland samurai Aigana was but an “island wife,” and thus of little societal note, Saigo seems to have been happy with her. Soon the two had children. As the years passed by, Saigo became more and more inclined to island life. The world of Shogunal succession seemed increasingly distant. Saigo may even have been happy to remain a samurai of Amami Oshima.

Fate, of course, intervened.

Back in the Mainland

As Saigo languished and subsequently flourished in Amami, major events were unfolding on the mainland. Saigo’s friends in Satsuma (chief among them the soon to be equally famous Okubo Toshimichi, 大久保利通) had worked unfalteringly to convince the new daimyo to continue with Nariakira’s efforts to influence the shogunal succession. The young daimyo, Shimazu Tadayoshi, was under the thumb of his father Hisamitsu. Although Hisamitsu and the late Nariakira had become mortal enemies, they had possessed similar ideas about the problems with the shogunate. Hisamitsu tacitly allowed Okubo and the others to continue their work against the Shogunate. As the young activists endeavored to strengthen ties with likely allies in Kumamoto, Mito (modern Ibaraki), and Fukui Domains, they also strove (in vain) to convince Hasamitsu to return Saigo from his exile.

March 24th, 1960, more than a year into Saigo’s exile, saw a major turning point. On that morning, Ii Naosuke, the most powerful man in Japan, was making his way to Edo castle. It was Ii’s vicious purge of the opposition that had pushed Saigo into exile and frustrated the anti-Shogunal force’s plans. Ii alone had brought about a resurgence of Shogunal power when it had seemed at its weakest. Now, as his entourage of 60 guards rounded the turn into the Sakuradomon gate at the Edo Castle, his enemies caught up with him.

Seventeen Mito domain samurai — and a lone warrior from Satsuma — lept into action. The main force engaged the Tairo’s guards in bloody battle from the front. As they fought, one warrior closed in on Ii’s palanquin and fired a single bullet. Ii was shot through, and the Satsuma samurai, Arimura Jisaemon (有村次左衛門), pulled him bodily from his litter. Before the guards could intervene, he had cut off Ii’s head and knelt to commit seppuku.

This assassination dealt a major blow to the Shogunate, who even tried to cover up Ii’s death. (Despite his head having been publically removed, the Shogunate claimed he was still alive for a month afterward.) Some of the Shogunate’s fight went out with Ii Naosuke. Many officials now feared for their lives. It was clear some sort of compromise would have to be made.

In the following years, Shimazu Hisamitsu continued to conspire to gain greater prominence for his domain in national politics. To do so, he balanced alliances with reformist moderates and radicals from the Sonno Joi (尊皇攘夷, Revere the Emperor, Expel the Barbarians) movement. It was at this point that Okubo Toshimichi reminded Hisamitsu of the one man most respected by both moderates and radicals: Saigo Takamori.

Return to the Fray

Shimazu Hisamitsu, daimyo and new lord to Saigo Takamori. (Picture: Wikipedia)

Despite the major blow to Shogunal power, it still took two years for Satsuma to recall Saigo from exile. In the early days of 1862, at long last, a letter of reprieve arrived at Saigo’s island home. For more than a year Saigo had dreamt of nothing but an end to his exile. Now, however, he had almost moved beyond such desires. He would later write to a friend from Amami that:

“[I shall] never forget the kindness with which the islanders treated me and the warmth with which I was accepted.”

Letter from Saigo Takamori to Toku Fujinaga, Amami constable and relative by marriage to Saigo’s wife, Aigana. June 30th, 1862. Taken from The Last Samurai: The Life and Battles of Saigo Takamori by Mark Ravina.

So it was with some reluctance that Saigo left behind his new family and home to return to his place of prominence in national politics on the mainland.

Once back in Kagoshima, Saigo immediately met with Hisamitsu. Alas, the two would never share the close samurai-master bond Saigo has possessed with the late Nariakira. Still, Hisamitsu represented Satsuma, and Saigo was nothing if not loyal to his domain. After a short stop at a rural onsen to soak away his cares, Saigo was dispatched to Shimonoseki, the nearest point of Honshu to Saigo’s native island of Kyushu. There he was to wait for Hisamitsu arrival. Once the lord was present, the two would lead a heavily armed retinue to Kyoto; a show of force disguised as an embassy to the emperor.

Surely Saigo arrived in Shimonoseki willing to do as he had been told. Yet, as he waited for his lord, something unexpected happened. Various radical samurai approached Saigo, entreating him to join their cause against the weakened Shogunate. Saigo may have been unaware of the degree to which his fame had increased while he was in exile. His willingness to die with Gessho had proved especially inspiring to samurai across the country. Saigo could not help but be impressed by the passion of these men, nor their willingness to die for their cause. Perhaps enamored with their words of praise, or believing he could best guide these radical’s actions directly, Saigo agreed to venture with them to Osaka. He neither asked permission from his lord nor sent an explanation for his actions. Saigo would come to regret such rashness.

Twice an Exile

When Shimazu Hisamitsu arrived first in Shimonoseki and then Kyoto and found no sign of Saigo, he grew concerned. When word reached him that his retainer was cavorting with extremist radicals, he became enraged. Why had he released this man from exile, if Saigo simply intended to flout his commands and undermine him? The call went out for Saigo’s arrest.

Saigo and Okubo Toshimichi, who had arranged his release from exile, were shaken to the core by the order. Okubo suggested they both commit seppuku together to escape their shame. Saigo, despite falling anew into depression, insisted Okubo could still best serve the world alive.

In June of 1862, Saigo was bound in chains and taken by boat first to Kagoshima, and then conveyed again out towards the Amami islands. The punishment for his insubordination would be exile. However, unlike before, he would find no freedom in his place of banishment. The boat sailed past Amami Oshima, past Saigo’s island home. He would have neither the comfort of his children nor of his wife, Aigana.

His destination was, at first, the small island of Tokunoshima. But he had been there no longer than a month before he was transferred to yet another island. His new home was to be Okinoerabujima (沖永良部島), Satsuma Domain’s place of starkest exile. For Satsuma, this was the ends of the Earth. Saigo was placed inside a narrow, constricting cage (made even more constricting by Saigo’s massive physique) and left in a state of near starvation. He would languish on the island until the early months of 1864.

The Anglo-Satsuma War

Okinoerabujima, the isolated island that was Saigo Takamori’s second stint in exile. (Picture: Toshiatsu.Tanaka / PIXTA(ピクスタ))

While Saigo was acclimating to a life of meditation and privation, his domain was engaged in an international crisis.

It had all begun in the town of Namagumi, in modern Yokohama. Four British merchants, recently arrived in the country, were riding down the Tokaido Road to visit a temple in Kawasaki. Westerners were still a new sight in those early days of the relaxation of isolationism, and their presence was despised by a large subsection of samurai society. Still, the four headstrong young servants of the mighty British Empire could barely concern themselves with petty Japanese affairs. They intended to enjoy their cheery jaunt into the countryside of this strange land. With a bit more wisdom, they may have avoided creating an international incident.

As the four rode down the Tokaido, who should they approach but the armed retinue, 700 strong, of Shimazu Hisamitsu himself. Any Japanese of the lower classes would have known to dismount and bow when confronted with a daimyo procession. (Indeed, samurai had the right to cut down anyone of lower rank who showed them disrespect thanks to the law of kiri-sute gomen — 切捨御免.) Yet these four, whether through ignorance or pridefulness, did not deign to follow such rules. After all, the Anglo-Japanese Friendship Treaty (one of many “unequal treaties” the Tokugawa had been forced to sign) granted all British citizens extraterritoriality. What did they have to fear from feudal Japanese laws?

The Satsuma guards of the retinue signaled to them to dismount, but the four road on towards the center of the procession. As 28-year-old Charles Lennox Richardson approached the Satsuma regent’s palanquin, many of the guards unsheathed their blades and fell upon the mounted British merchants. Three of the four received sword wounds, and as they attempted to flee, Richardson — mortally wounded — fell from his horse. Hisamitsu gave the order of 「止めを!」- and one of his soldiers offered Richardson the coup de grâce.

The British legation and public were aghast. They demanded that justice be meted out for the slain Englishman. First came a heavy indemnity — worth a third of the Shogunate’s annual revenue. This was paid under threat of a naval bombardment of Edo. Yet British honor could only be satisfied if Satsuma paid an additional sum to the slain Richardson’s family and handed over his killers for execution.

Hisamitsu, himself involved with anti-foreigner plotting, could not very well be seen kowtowing to Western power. Satsuma Domain refused these demands. In retaliation, a British squadron made up of seven warships headed south, bound for Kagoshima.

Thus began the single day of the Anglo-Satsuma War (薩英戦争). The citizens of Kagoshima fled at the approach of the foreign boats, and the British ships took Satsuma junks anchored at port hostage. The Satsuma forces fired cannonballs in return. (In fact, one of the Satsuma cannons was manned that day by Togo Heihachiro, the future hero of the Russo-Japanese War and the “Nelson of the East.”) The British squadron responded by shelling Kagoshima, destroying up to 5% of the city’s structures (including the Ryukyuan Embassy) before retreating for lack of supplies.

The Satsuma samurai had managed to kill the captain of the British flagship, and though militarily outmatched, had fought long enough that the British retreated. The result was a moral victory for Hisamitsu, who became the sole man in Japan capable of saying he had faced down a foreign assault and had won the day. This gave him enough clout to create his own unilateral relationship with the British, paying off their requested indemnity with money borrowed (but never repaid) from the Shogunate. Satsuma had fought a war with a foreign power and then struck up their own relationship with the same, completely bypassing the supposedly “central” power structure in Edo. Day by day, it became more clear that the Shogunate had lost control.

Return to Prominence

Saigo, upon hearing of the pending struggle with the British, had grown anxious to help his domain. He had even conspired with the man guarding his cell, Tsuchimochi Masateru — who had gained an almost worshipful attachment to his captive — to build a boat with which to escape the island so he might lend his strength to Satsuma’s defense. The war, of course, was over with much too quickly, and time continued to pass Saigo by. He eventually gained a sort of equanimity with his captivity. He wrote poetry, read the Confucian classics, and even taught classes from his cell (and later, better-outfitted room).

Like on Amami, Saigo seemed to find peace in exile. And like on Amami, it was not to last.

As Shogunate power faltered on the mainland, the possibility of civil war continued to rear its ugly head. Satsuma Domain continued to be at the center and Shimazu Hisamitsu realized that he needed the best possible men around him. Saigo was still one of the most respected men in Japan. No matter his past faults, Hisamitsu needed him.

So it was that on February 20th, 1864, a Satsuma steamboat made its way to distant Okinoerabujima. Onboard were three samurai entrusted with conveying Saigo back to the mainland and freedom. Saigo was shocked; he had expected no such reprieve. He bid farewell to the captors with whom he had made friends, and then set off from the island, never to return.

Before they could return to Kagoshima, Saigo instructed the ship’s captain to make two important detours. First, they made Amami Oshima, were Saigo rushed off to be with his family. Aigana was delighted to see him, and Saigo — often taciturn when it came to familial matters — was overjoyed as well.

“ I felt as though I were brought back from the dead. “

Saigo Takamori in a letter to his former prison guard, Tsuchimochi Masateru, 1864/3/4. Taken from The Last Samurai: The Life and Battles of Saigo Takamori by Mark Ravina.

After four days with his family and friends, Saigo again left Amami Oshima. This would be his last time on the island. Though he kept the people of Amami in his heart (and his children would later come to live with him on the mainland), he would never see his wife, Aigana, again. Next, the boat made a quick stop at Kikaishima, where Saigo unilaterally released his friend Murata Shinpachi from exile. Then they were off to Kyushu.

In Kagoshima, Saigo was briefly returned to his household. The very next day he made his way to his late master, Shimazu Nariakira’s, grave. Within a week he set off with Murata for Kyoto to meet with his current master, Hisamitsu. How tense this meeting was, after years of exile, is not recorded. What is recorded is that Hisamitsu restored Saigo to his full stipend and made him commander of the Satsuma troops in Kyoto. Saigo Takamori had returned to prominence; a prominence he would never again lose, even in death.

Satsuma and Choshu, Bitter Rivals

A captured artillery battery at Shimonoseki. (Picture: Wikipedia)

Domestic politics had changed greatly during Saigo’s exile, though the situation remained as shakey as ever. Hisamitsu’s embassy to Kyoto had proved a great success, and the Shogunate had given in to many reformist demands. The primacy of the emperor had been re-affirmed, and a system of Shogunal- Daimyo power-sharing — called Kobu Gattai (公武合体, Union of the Court and Shogunate) had been instated. The shogunate had even lessened the requirements of the onerous sankin kotai system. The daimyo were now more powerful than they had been in centuries, yet nothing seemed to be improving.

Ironically, parts of the cause of this structural impasse was of Satsuma Domain’s own making. Hitotsubashi Keiki, whom Saigo and others had tried so diligently to have named Shogunal successor, had been placed in the powerful station of guardian to the young Shogun, Iemochi. Keiki was every bit as suited to power as Saigo’s lord Nariakira had hoped; alas, he was also proving to be positively Machiavellian in his quest to secure that power. Hisamitsu and his allies distrusted Keiki, and often each other. This power-sharing government, made up of the Shogunate and individualistic daimyo ruling in the emperor’s name, seemed no better at centralized decision-making than the outmoded Shogunate had alone.

The continued weakness of the state and latent fury at the continued presence of foreign powers in Japan lead to a series of rebellions (the most serious being the Tengu Rebellion in Mito Domain) and assassination attempts by radical Sonno Joi adherents. Amongst all this, Satsuma was developing an intense rivalry with another major provincial power, Choshu Domain (長州藩, in modern Yamaguchi Prefecture). Both domains were proponents of major reform, but Choshu had come to be controlled by much more radical elements. Choshu had even gained the support of anti-foreigner aspects of the imperial court. Choshu influence helped goad Emperor Komei to issue his dramatic (but practically unenforceable) “Order to Expel the Foreign Barbarians” (攘夷勅命).

Hisamitsu could not deign to allow Choshu to effectively cut Satsuma out of imperial politics. He decided to take action. Forming an alliance with conservative Aizu Domain (会津藩, in modern Fukushima Prefecture), Hisamitsu sent troops to the imperial palace, enacting a blatant coup. Choshu was shut out, and Satsuma reigned triumphant. Yet even as Hisamitsu bested Choshu, his rivalry with Hitotsubashi Keiki and the Shogunate intensified. Such infighting effectively scuttled Kobu Gattai as an effective system.

More than that, Choshu was now forming up troops to attack the imperial city and retake power. Saigo found himself leading the defensive vanguard against the oncoming Choshu forces. Warriors of Satsuma and Aizu took the brunt of the Choshu assault; Saigo and his younger brother, Kohei, both suffered wounds as the Choshu let loose their cannons. Yet Saigo still proved a formidable commander. His troops defeated the Choshu rebels while successfully defending the imperial palace’s Inui Gate, and then moved to relieve embattled Aizu forces at the Hamaguri Gate.

The Choshu ranks broke formation, fleeing into the city to hide amongst the Choshu villas and in the homes of friendly nobles. As the Aizu forces gave chase, the rebels set their hiding places ablaze in an attempt to stall their pursuers. Though the battle had ended quickly, fires wracked Kyoto for the next day, destroying thousands of homes.

Saigo was now personally embittered against Choshu, who had dared point their cannons at the imperial palace. He even wished to lead a force on a punitive expedition against the wayward domain. In fact, Saigo was beaten to the punch by an alliance of four Western navies. On August 5th, 1864, a joint force made up of ships from the United States, Britain, the Netherlands, and France bombarded Shimonoseki. The shelling was recompense for previous Choshu attacks on foreign ships plying the straights between Honshu ad Kyushu. Choshu, once among the most powerful domains, was laid low by foreign might.

Shifting Paths to the Future

Despite Choshu’s defeat at the hand of the foreigners, the Shogunate still intended to send its own troops to further punish the domain for its affront towards the imperial palace. Saigo, now a proven military leader of some standing, was granted the position of chief of staff of this punitive expedition. It was during the course of such preparations that Saigo had an encounter that would further shift his perspective regarding the correct course for Japan.

The meeting was with one Katsu Kaishu (勝海舟), an Edo samurai who had risen to the rank of commander of the nascent Shogunal navy. In 1860, Katsu had commanded the corvette Kanrin-maru on the first Japanese embassy to the United States. Upon arrival, he studied western naval science in San Francisco for two months. Katsu came away with an appreciation for modern, centralized militaries without hereditary postings. Despite being loyal to the Shogunate, he bemoaned the state of his country — even insisting to Saigo that the Shogunate was simply too outmoded to survive in the modern world.

For Saigo, this idea came as a shock. Despite his criticisms, Saigo assumed the Shogunate would remain a fixture of the Japanese polity long into the future. Now, impressed by Katsu’s knowledge and prescience, he began to think otherwise. Perhaps the country really needed to do away with the Shogunate entirely.

The First Choshu Expedition

Saigo’s thought process had now shifted from enacting revenge on Choshu to a more lenient stance. Envisioning a future in which powerful daimyo would have to dismantle the Shogunate, he preferred to keep even this enemy domain intact. To this aim he convinced the head of the expedition, Tokugawa Yoshikatsu, to avoid bringing it to a fight. Instead, Saigo approached Choshu with an appreciably fair offer: he would exchange Choshu captives from the battle in Kyoto for the heads of the domain elders who had spearheaded the attack, the execution of some battle commanders, and the expatriation of radical nobles who had been hiding in Choshu. The first two demands were quickly met. The third, however, was delayed by the breakout of civil war in Choshu.

Saigo, eager to quickly end this Shogunal conflict, risked life and limb to travel deep in rebel territory in Shimonoseki. There he negotiated with radical Sonno Joi leaders. Despite his position as an arch-enemy of Choshu, the radicals found they trusted Saigo. By January 1865 the Kyoto nobles in question were transferred to a jointly-run site outside of the battle zone. Saigo’s bravery in risking his life for a bloodless end to the conflict added to his fame and growing legend. The Shogunal expedition could now disband; meanwhile, Choshu fell deeper into civil strife.

Such was Saigo’s success that even Hisamitsu, ever wary of his stalwart retainer, congratulated him. Saigo received gifts and accolades in a private meeting with the daimyo regent; more significantly, he was raised to the fourth-highest governmental position in Satsuma Prefecture. A year later, in mid-1866, Satsuma Domain granted him an even greater honor: Saigo Takamori was made a member of the Satsuma Council of Elders. In hardly more than a decade, Saigo had risen from a tax office to be an elite local and national figure.

Fateful Alliance: Satsuma and Choshu Come Together

Sakamoto Ryoma, another key figure in the fall of the Shogunate and the onset of the era of modernization. (Picture: Wikipedia)

Despite working with the Shogunate, Satsuma was becoming increasingly hostile towards the erstwhile central government. Saigo was particularly disgusted by the dishonorable violence meted out against surrendered rebel troops at the end of the Mito Rebellion. For its part, Choshu Domain, now firmly in the grip of imperial loyalist radicals, wished for revenge against the Shogunate for the punitive expedition. While both domains were still enemies, it became clear that they had a mutual foe in Edo.

Into this situation stepped another samurai whose name has echoed through to modern-day: Sakamoto Ryoma (坂本龍馬). Ryoma was a samurai of modest origins from Tosa Domain on Shikoku and an impassioned imperial loyalist and modernizer. (In fact, Ryoma, like Saigo, had come under the influence of modernizing ideas of Shogunal naval master Katsu Kaishu.) As a well-known figure from a neutral domain, Ryoma was in a unique position to mediate between Satsuma and Choshu. He and fellow Tosa samurai Nakaoka Shintaro negotiated a deal in which Satsuma would supply Choshu with much-needed modern armaments (via surreptitious dealing with Scottish merchant Thomas Glover). Choshu would then help supply the Satsuma compound in the imperial capital. The final exchange was signed by a samurai of Choshu named Ito Hirobumi — the man who would go on to be Japan’s first modern prime minister.

The groundwork had been laid for the Satsuma-Choshu Alliance (薩長同盟, Satchō dōmei) — the very force that would spearhead the fall of the Shogunate and usher in the modernization of Japan.

The Shogunate Begins to Crumble

The Shogunate continued to commit political blunders amidst the establishment of this new alliance. The first came as an attempt to scuttle Saigo’s peaceful resolution of the Choshu Expedition. The Shogunate dispatched troops to collect the five imperial hostages under joint Satsuma-Choshu guard.

Saigo was enraged that the Shogun would undo his good work. He sent trusty Satsuma samurai (and future prime minister, conqueror of the Ezo Republic, and modernizer of Hokkaido) Kuroda Kiyotaka to repulse the shogunal force.

The Shogunate was further embarrassed by Satsuma one month later. In April of 1866, the central government commanded Satsuma to join in a second military expedition to Choshu. Satsuma refused. Soon enough, domains around the country found they could simply ignore orders from once-mighty Edo. What’s worse, the Shogunate suffered outright humiliation when Choshu defeated their invasion.

Fate was simply not on Edo’s side. While the course of the disastrous Second Choshu Expedition played out on the other side of the country, the Shogun himself, Tokugawa Iemochi, had quietly died in Edo. This paved the way for Hitotsubashi Keiki, once Satsuma’s greatest hope and now dogged foe, to finally be named Shogun. Such a prodigious title deserved a new name. Keiki took the mantle of Shogun under the name Tokugawa Yoshinobu (徳川慶喜). He would be the 15th — and final — Shogun of Japan.

The newly-named Yoshinobu set about a final attempt to empower the central government. He initiated an impressive array of modernizations, contracting the French and Russian armies to help improve his military. Back in Satsuma, Saigo was doing likewise. The domain army was purchasing major modern armaments, and Saigo himself was meeting with British officers to obtain their assistance. The famed British diplomat Ernest Satow even personally pushed Saigo to act quickly against the Shogun. Something of a quiet arms race between the center and the periphery of Japan was underway.

Countdown to Revolution

While all this was going on, another major player unexpectedly passed away. Emperor Komei died suddenly in 1867 at the young age of 25. Although his likely cause of death was smallpox, the abruptness of his illness gave birth to rumors of assassination. Komei had been the source of much anti-foreign rhetoric, but domestically he and the new Shogun had become allies in moderation. Now his even younger son, Mutsuhito (who we now know as the Emperor Meiji) would reign.

In an attempt to diminish the Shogun and sway the new emperor in their direction, Saigo and Okubo convinced Hisamitsu and other powerful lords to convene an imperial conference in Kyoto. Their aim was to punish Yoshinobu over his attempts to open a treaty port for the British in Kobe. Alas, Yoshinobu was a skilled debater, and roundly bludgeoned the arguments of his interlopers in front of the emperor. The court sided with Yoshinobu, and the opposing daimyo came away with renewed hatred of the Shogunate.

Saigo again leaped into action. Via meetings with Choshu, Saigo reaffirmed their alliance and began actual preparations for war. Saigo and Ryoma also engineered an even more concrete alliance between Satsuma and Tosa directly calling for their defeat of the Shogunate (although its ratification was stalled at the last moment). Saigo then returned to Kyoto in October of 1870. There, he and Okubo petitioned leading nobles to support a direct attack on the Shogun.

Soon a falsified imperial edict was sent to Satsuma calling for the “annihilation” of Tokugawa Yoshinobu. The Shogun barely avoided the breakout of war by vaguely announcing his resignation. Though in fact still acting as Shogun, this de jure resignation was enough to placate the imperial court. Yoshinobu had briefly stalled the arrival of his day of reckoning.

Saigo and Okubo, however, refused to allow the Shogunate to again escape its fate. Saigo sent forth Satsuma samurai to cause unrest in Edo. Violence broke out on the streets of the Shogunal capital, as pro-imperial samurai attacked Edo officials and set fires. Meanwhile, Saigo engaged in a flurry of meetings, traveling throughout southeastern Japan to meet with likely daimyo. A military force was soon assembled. Saigo and Okubo convinced Hisamitsu that his son, the daimyo, should lead the Satsuma troops himself.

So it came to be that in November of 1867, Lord Shimazu Tadayoshi lead a force of 3000 samurai towards Kyoto, intent on toppling the longest-lasting ruling dynasty in Japanese history.

The Boshin War

Samurai who fought in the Boshin War. (Picture: Wikipedia)

The Satsuma army surrounded Kyoto on November 23rd, 1867. There they joined thousands of other troops already assembled to place pressure on the court. Two weeks thence, on the 8 thof December, the imperial court convened. The aristocracy, now firmly on the side of reform, pardoned many exiled court radicals. They also restored the standing of the daimyo of Choshu, Mori Takachika. The fate of the Tokugawa would have to wait for the next day.

On the 9th, the young Meiji emperor called forth the daimyo of the domains he now counted on to enact its will: Tosa, Fukui, Hiroshima, Owari, and — of course — Satsuma. While Saigo commanded the Satsuma troops guarding the gates to the palace, young Meiji read out an edict that effectively restructured the Japanese government. The Shogunate was officially abolished. In its place, Japan was to have a president, senators, and councilors (although all these positions were still to be filled by those of hereditary noble or samurai background).

The Shogun himself had fled to Osaka, whose castle was a Tokugawa stronghold. There, he attempted to find a way to counter the new imperial policy to his benefit. Saigo, back in Kyoto, rushed from meeting to meeting in an attempt to form an alliance to lead an attack. Yet before this could occur, things reached a head in Edo. Saigo’s Satsuma assailants had been carrying out consistent attacks for a week, including lighting a portion of Edo Castle ablaze. When definitive proof that these men were Satsuma ronin appeared, Edo soldiers were sent to destroy the local Shimazu Family villa, killing many Satsuma retainers in the process.

The Shogunate had finally had enough. Although Tokugawa Yoshinobu had been willing to make sacrifices to uphold some imperial edicts, the attacks in Edo now spurred him to go to war. His troops massed south of Kyoto, forming separate lines at the villages of Toba and Fushimi. The imperial loyalist forces rode out to meet them. The Shogunate had a decisive advantage in numbers: 2,500 troops at Toba (including many highly-trained warriors from Aizu) and upwards of 3000 at Fushimi. By contrast, Toba was to be defended by a mere 900 Satsuma men; Fushimi, a combined force of 1400 Satsuma, Choshu, and Tosa samurai. Saigo, heading to the front, was prepared for potential disaster and had helped plan an evacuation route for the Emperor in case Kyoto fell.

On January third, 1868, Satsuma cannons began to shell the Tokugawa troops at Toba. The Boshin War had begun.

The Battle for Japan’s Future

The twinned battles of Toba-Fushimi (鳥羽・伏見の戦い) lasted a grand total of three days. It was a frenzied affair. Both Shogunal and imperial forces had cannons, howitzers, and rifles. In stark contrast, many samurai of Aizu Domain fought with swords and spears, and some Satsuma samurai did the same. At times, warriors who looked like they belonged to the battles of the warring states era would be mowed down by machine-gun fire; at others, Aizu samurai armed with spears and katana charged Satsuma and Choshu ranks as the latter fumbled at their rifles, setting them to flight before they could reload.

But despite their numerical majority, the battle went poorly for the Shogunate. Perhaps there was a problem with motivation — soldiers fighting for a weakened central state against warriors who claimed the divine will of the emperor. Indeed, Saigo received a message from the emperor on the second day of the battle: the Shogunate were officially branded enemies of the imperial court. Saigo’s forces continued to push both Shogunal armies further backward. (Meanwhile, in the seas off Osaka, Enomoto Takeaki granted the Shogunate one of its few victories in the naval Battle of Awa — the first time Japanese navies had faced each other using modern warships.)

On the third day, the Shogunate forces were in full retreat. They hoped to find succor from the allied lord of Yodo Castle — only to find the gates barred to them. The daimyo, apprehending how the winds were blowing, had switched sides.

A further blow to the Tokugawa came when the daimyo of Tsu, a traditional Shogunal ally, suddenly began shelling Aizu forces during a major engagement. The news of the betrayals, carried as it was by the retreating troops streaming to Osaka Castle, was too much. Tokugawa Yoshinobu gathered up the loyal daimyo of Aizu and Kuwana and slipped out the castle. After finding refuge in an American warship for a time, the three boarded the Shogunal warship Kaiyo-maru and escaped towards Edo.

Saigo, Elated

Saigo, despite being a senior commander who by all accounts should lead from the rear, had twice gone to the Fushimi front. Watching his soldiers do battle, Saigo was inspired by the bravery and skill with which the men of Satsuma fought. As it became clear that the imperial forces would win the day, his anxiety melted away, replaced with the flush of victory.

This swelling pride, however, was dimmed by his own increasingly ill health. Saigo was aging and had developed a number of chronic ailments that prevented physically joining in the fighting. Despite progressively important military positions — including being named as one of the highest-ranking officers in the newly-minted imperial army — he began to feel useless.

(Extant letters from Saigo about the failures of old age and the worthlessness of a weakening body echo similar statements by famed 20th-century author and controversial right-wing nationalist Mishima Yukio, who would write that a man should kill himself upon turning forty-five. Indeed, Mishima was a major fan of Saigo’s).

After taking Osaka, the imperial army split into three parts, progressing up the Tokaido Road towards Edo. Saigo was now the leading force of an army intent on invading the Shogunal capital. They engaged the Tokugawa twice more during this march, taking the fortress of Kofu (甲府, modern Yamanashi Prefecture) and defeating a small contingent led by Kondo Isami, the famed leader of the Shinsengumi (新選組, the elite Tokugawa bodyguards). Saigo then formed a headquarters in modern Shizuoka and prepared for a brutal siege of Edo Castle.

In the Shogunal capital itself, Tokugawa Yoshinobu had retired from public view. The actual running of Shogunal defenses and policy was left to the very man who had so set Saigo against the Shogunate: Katsu Kaishu. Katsu knew the war was a lost cause. Sending a messenger directly to Saigo, he entreated his opposite commander to grant Edo leniency. His words were couched in the mutual sense of honor and justice he knew they both shared. Saigo rode into Edo to meet with Katsu (again braving an enemy stronghold as he had in Shimonoseki), where the naval genius employed his considerable charisma and logic to convince Saigo to spare Edo from destruction. Katsu insisted that a show of leniency to the great house of Tokugawa would enhance the moral fiber of the entire realm.

Saigo was swayed. Despite intense passions, this tendency towards leniency over revenge or petty violence is part of what has made Saigo an enduring figure. So it came to be that Edo was surrendered without a climactic spilling of blood. Tokugawa Yoshinobu, no longer Shogun, voluntarily cloistered himself off in the Kan’ei-ji temple in Ueno. Saigo Takamori lead his armies into the city of Edo, unopposed.

Just the Beginning

Depiction of the Battle of Koshukatsunuma ( 甲州勝沼の戦い), one of the battles of the Boshin War. (Picture: Wikipedia)

The Tokugawa had surrendered; Edo lay in the hands of Saigo and the imperialists. The Boshin War, however, proved to be far from finished. In the streets of Edo itself, Tokugawa loyalists refused to accept the end of the structure which had dominated Japan for 260 years. Bands of former Tokugawa retainers harried Satsuma and Choshu troops in Edo and the surrounding regions. To the north, the majority of the domains of the Tohoku region allied themselves to Aizu, still loyal to the Shogunal system. Enomoto Takeaki had also absconded with the Shogunate’s greatest battleships. As the bulk of the Satsuma-Choshu forces were sent north to fight what would be some of the bloodiest battles of the war, Saigo remained in Edo. He and Katsu were entrusted with putting down rebellion within the city.

This final battle for the heart of Edo took place in the neighborhood of Ueno. There, Tokugawa loyalists converged on the hills around Kan’ei-ji temple where the ex-shogun was still hiding away. This time, Saigo was determined to lead his troops into battle. He marshaled his forces directly at the Kuromon Gate, encountering hail of bullets and fierce resistance from the Tokugawa samurai.

The loyalists outnumbered the imperialists, and the Satsuma took heavy losses. The fight only turned in Saigo’s favor as troops from Choshu belatedly attacked the loyalists from the rear. Blood caked the streets of Ueno, and fires raged across the neighborhood. But when the dust had cleared, Tokugawa resistance in Edo had ended.

Three months later, on September 3rd, 1868, Edo (江戸) was renamed to Tokyo (東京, Eastern Capital). Emperor Meiji made his new residence in what had been Edo Castle. The governing and reigning structures of Japan had been consolidated in a single city for the first time in a thousand years.

Yet Saigo was not content. He felt the need to be involved up until the last actions of the Boshin War. Saigo’s chronic illness stalled his arrival in the Northern front, but he still appeared in time to lead the siege of Shonai Castle in modern Yamagata Prefecture. Saigo treated the defeated defenders of Shonai with leniency. Again he gained the respect of those against whom he had been fighting. Nearly a year later, he would set sail to modern Hokkaido, barely missing the defeat of Enomoto Takeaki’s self-declared Ezo Republic, the so-called “Samurai Democracy.” As Saigo made shore in Hakodate Harbor in June of 1869, the Boshin War had come to an end — and he had missed the very last moments of that battle.

The war against the Shogunate had ended. Saigo Takamori had accomplished all he had set out to do. He had returned from two periods of exile to enact his late lord Nariakira’s will in the world of the living. He had proven the value of his continued and unlikely survival.

And yet, with victory so firmly grasped, the future seemed paradoxically more uncertain. The Shogunate had fallen, but what did that mean? Even in the early days of the Boshin War, the most basic concepts we now associate with the “Meiji Restoration” — the abolition of feudalism, the end of the samurai class, the leveling of Japanese society, and the destruction of the domain system — were all far from certain, nor even expected. The reality of the massive changes Japan was about to embark on would startle many who had fought to eradicate the Shogunate and leave as many feeling alienated and left behind.

Such forces would push Saigo inexorably towards a new, doomed confrontation with the state he himself had helped create. For Saigo, as for Japan, the Boshin War was just the beginning. The duel source of Saigo Takamori’s enduring legend still lay nearly a decade in front of him, when his Satsuma Rebellion would forever seal his place in Japanese history.

Sources

Ravina, M. (2011). The Last Samurai: the Life and Battles of Saigo Takamori. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Yates, C. (1994). Saigō Takamori in the Emergence of Meiji Japan. Modern Asian Studies,28(3), 449–474.

RAVINA, MARK J. “The Apocryphal Suicide of Saigō Takamori: Samurai, ‘Seppuku’, and the Politics of Legend.” The Journal of Asian Studies, vol. 69, no. 3, 2010, pp. 691–721.

薩英戦争 — フリー百科事典『ウィキペディア』. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://ja.wikipedia.org/wiki薩英戦争

西郷隆盛 — フリー百科事典『ウィキペディア』. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://ja.wikipedia.org/wiki/西郷隆盛.

上野戦争 — フリー百科事典『ウィキペディア』. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://ja.wikipedia.org/wiki/上野戦争

Noah Oskow is a professional Japanese translator and interpreter who holds a BA in East Asian Languages and Cultures. He has lived, studied and worked in Japan for nearly seven years, including two years studying at Sophia University in Tokyo and four years teaching English on the JET Program in rural Fukushima Prefecture. His experiences with language learning and historical and cultural studies as well as his extensive experience in world travel have lead to appearances at speaking events and popular podcasts. Noah is currently working on his Masters Degree in Global Studies at the University of Vienna in Austria.


Originally published at https://unseenjapan.com on January 8, 2020.

Dialogue & Discourse

News and ideas worthy of discourse. Fundamentally informative and intelligently analytical.

Unseen Japan

Written by

The Japan you don't learn about in anime. Stories about people and events in Japan, past and present. By Unseen Japan Press.

Dialogue & Discourse

News and ideas worthy of discourse. Fundamentally informative and intelligently analytical.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade