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The dramatic arc of Saigo Takamori's life, from his humble origins as a lowly samurai, to national leadership, to his death as a rebel leader, has captivated generations of Japanese readers and now Americans as well - his life is the inspiration for a major Hollywood film, The Last Samurai, starring Tom Cruise and Ken Watanabe. In this vibrant new biography, Mark Ravina, professor of history and Director of East Asian Studies at Emory University, explores the facts behind Hollywood storytelling and Japanese legends, and explains the passion and poignancy of Saigo's life. Known both for his scholarly research and his appearances on The History Channel, Ravina recreates the world in which Saigo lived and died, the last days of the samurai.
The Last Samurai traces Saigo's life from his early days as a tax clerk in far southwestern Japan, through his rise to national prominence as a fierce imperial loyalist. Saigo was twice exiled for his political activities — sent to Japan's remote southwestern islands where he fully expected to die. But exile only increased his reputation for loyalty, and in 1864 he was brought back to the capital to help his lord fight for the restoration of the emperor. In 1868, Saigo commanded his lord's forces in the battles which toppled the shogunate and he became and leader in the emperor Meiji's new government. But Saigo found only anguish in national leadership. He understood the need for a modern conscript army but longed for the days of the traditional warrior.
Saigo hoped to die in service to the emperor. In 1873, he sought appointment as envoy to Korea, where he planned to demand that the Korean king show deference to the Japanese emperor, drawing his sword, if necessary, top defend imperial honor. Denied this chance to show his courage and loyalty, he retreated to his homeland and spent his last years as a schoolteacher, training samurai boys in frugality, honesty, and courage. In 1876, when the government stripped samurai of their swords, Saigo's followers rose in rebellion and Saigo became their reluctant leader. His insurrection became the bloodiest war Japan had seen in centuries, killing over 12,000 men on both sides and nearly bankrupting the new imperial government. The imperial government denounced Saigo as a rebel and a traitor, but their propaganda could not overcome his fame and in 1889, twelve years after his death, the government relented, pardoned Saigo of all crimes, and posthumously restored him to imperial court rank.
In THE LAST SAMURAI, Saigo is as compelling a character as Robert E. Lee was to Americans-a great and noble warrior who followed the dictates of honor and loyalty, even though it meant civil war in a country to which he'd devoted his life. Saigo's life is a fascinating look into Japanese feudal society and a history of a country as it struggled between its long traditions and the dictates of a modern future.
Saigo's Early Years in Satsuma
Saigo was born in Kagoshima, a castle town and the capital of Satsuma domain. Kagoshima was, depending on one's perspective, a primitive backwater or Japan's gateway to the world. Viewed from the shogun's capital of Edo (now Tokyo) or the imperial capital of Kyoto, Kagoshima was remote in the extreme: it lay at the far southwestern corner of Kyushu, the southernmost of the four main islands of Japan. Osumi, one of the three provinces that comprised Satsuma domain, means "big corner": if Kyoto and Edo were the center of Japan, then Satsuma was at the periphery. The overland route from Edo to Kagoshima was nearly a thousand miles; the speediest couriers took two weeks to bring news from Edo. Natives of Satsuma spoke a dialect of Japanese virtually unintelligible to the rest of Japan. Popular literature reinforced this image of Kagoshima as primitive. In his famous collection of erotic fiction, Ihara Saikaku described Satsuma as "remote and backward."
On the other hand, Satsuma was a link to the outside world. Before the 1630s traders coming up from China often made their first stop in Satsuma, and the domain became an entry point for new goods and technologies. The Japanese word for sweet potato, for example, is satsumaimo, or"Satsuma potato": the tuber was brought to Japan from China through Satsuma. (In Satsuma, however, term is karaimo, or "Chinese potato.") Guns also first arrived in Japan through Satsuma, specifically the island of Tanegashima in 1543. An early Japanese term for matchlock was tanegashima, reflecting the weapon's point of arrival. When nineteenth-century students from Satsuma produced one of the first Japanese-English dictionaries, satsuma jisho, or "Satsuma dictionary," was briefly a term for Japanese-English dictionary.
Satsuma's extensive contact with the world outside Japan had a political dimension as well as a geographical one. The domain had a special relationship with the kingdom of the Ryukyus, now the Japanese prefecture of Okinawa. Satsuma conquered the Ryukyuan capital of Naha in 1609 and thereafter demanded tribute from the Ryukyuan kings as a sign of their subjugation. The daimyo of Satsuma, the Shimazu house, used this relationship to elevate their status within Japan: they were the only daimyo house to receive an oath of fealty from a foreign king. Externally, however, the Shimazu took great pains to conceal their power over the Ryukyus. The great value of the kingdom was as an economic bridge to China. According to Chinese diplomatic protocol, the Ryukyuan king was a Chinese vassal, and Satsuma had no desire to imperil trade by challenging this relationship. Thus Japanese officials in the Ryukyus concealed all signs of their presence before the arrival of Chinese diplomatic personnel: they left the capital, Naha, for a nearby village and ordered the Ryukyuans to hide all records of their presence. Chinese diplomats suspected that something was afoot but never disputed the arrangement. The Shimazu were not alone in handling foreign trade. The Tokugawa shogunate entrusted trade with Japan's trading post in Pusan, Korea, to the So house of Tsushima domain, and the Matsumae house of Matsumae domain managed trade with the northern frontier of Ezo. But the Shimazu's position was uniquely prestigious: the shogunate ordered them to "rule" over the Ryukyuan kingdom.
In Kagoshima itself there was a sizable Ryukyuan embassy, known as the Ryukyukan, which handled diplomatic affairs between the governments. The Ryukyuan community was probably never more than a few hundred people, but it had a marked impact on the city. A nineteenth-century visitor from Edo reported that people took no notice of Ryukyuans but greeted travelers from Edo with quiet laughter. Small as it was, the Ryukyukan community was nevertheless one of the largest foreign communities in Japan. In the seventeenth century the Tokugawa shoguns had drastically restricted travel to and from Japan. Japanese who left Japan were barred under penalty of death from ever returning, and oceangoing ships were prohibited. Dutch and Chinese merchants were restricted to Nagasaki.
The Shimazu were distinctive in other ways as well. Not only did they receive foreign ambassadors, but also they were the oldest surviving warrior house in Japan. Few daimyo families could comfortably trace their lineage past the 1500s. Most of the daimyo of the early modern era rose from lower status during the intense civil warfare of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Even the ancestors of the Tokugawa shoguns were but a minor warrior family in the 1540s.The Shimazu, by contrast, traced their lineage as warlords back to Japan's first shogunate, the Kamakura regime (1185-1333). In 1185 Minamoto Yoritomo, Japan's first shogun, appointed Koremune Tadahisa as a military steward (geshi) over Shimazu sho, a large investiture in what is now Kagoshima Prefecture. In 1197 he promoted Tadahisa to military governor (shugo) of the province, and the following year Tadahisa changed his family name to match his investiture. This is where the Shimazu daimyo began their genealogies. Remarkably, historians have traced the Shimazu back even farther, to an imperial courtier family in the sixth century and, with less certainty, to an émigré noble house from the Korean peninsula. But as daimyo preferred warrior ancestors to courtiers, Tadahisa became the official progenitor of the Shimazu line.
This extraordinary genealogy shaped the thinking of Saigo and his cohort. Satsuma samurai could take unique pride in serving the Shimazu, who had ruled the same territory uninterruptedly for more than six centuries. The Shimazu, in fact, proved more durable than the shoguns who invested them: they developed an independent base of power and survived the collapse of the Kamakura shogunate in the 1330s. The second shogunate, known as the Muromachi or Ashikaga shogunate, confirmed Shimazu authority over Satsuma. After the collapse of the Ashikaga regime in the 1400s, Japan deteriorated into pervasive civil war, and the Shimazu, like many daimyo, expended great effort suppressing obstreperous vassals. Unlike many daimyo, however, the Shimazu emerged victorious, and they consolidated and expanded their territories. In the unification struggles of the late 1500s, the Shimazu opposed Japan's preeminent warlords. The Shimazu fought against Toyotomi Hideyoshi in the 1580s and lost their territorial gains in northern Kyushu. They also opposed the founder of Japan's third shogunate, Tokugawa Ieyasu. In the great Battle of Sekigahara in 1600, the Shimazu and the Tokugawa fought on opposing sides: Tokugawa Ieyasu led the eastern alliance, while the Shimazu fought with the western alliance. The Tokugawa won. Ieyasu's appointment as shogun in 1603 confirmed his supremacy and inaugurated the 265-year reign of the Tokugawa dynasty, Japan's most durable shogunate. To reward his allies and enhance his own holdings, Ieyasu seized millions of acres of land, taking all or part of his enemies' territory. Remarkably, Ieyasu left Shimazu holdings untouched. Although defeated, the Shimazu were still a formidable enemy, and Ieyasu had reason to avoid a fight. Furthermore, because Kagoshima was nearly a thousand miles from the shogun's new capital, Edo, the Shimazu were unlikely to attack the shogunate. The result was a compromise. The Shimazu recognized the supremacy of the shogunate and performed the appropriate acts of obeisance, such as signing an oath of loyalty in blood. For his part, Ieyasu confirmed Shimazu control over their traditional lands in southwestern Kyushu.
The Tokugawa settlement of the early 1600s still affected politics two centuries later. Having opposed the Tokugawa in 1600, the Shimazu were labeled tozama daimyo, or "outside" lords. Tozama lords were barred from holding posts in the shogun's administration and excluded from decisions in national politics. Most of the great lords of the southwest were tozama lords, as were most of the daimyo with large holdings. Daimyo who had won Ieyasu's trust before 1600 were commonly enfiefed as fudai daimyo, or vassal lords. This distinction between fudai and tozama lords became a cornerstone of daimyo politics: even in Saigo's day, key shogunal offices were reserved for fudai. The fact that daimyo with important shogunal posts were far more invested in the strength of the shogunate than were tozama lords shaped Japan's response to imperialism in the 1850s and 1860s. Many tozama lords pushed for a power-sharing arrangement that would give them a voice in international affairs. Fudai lords were far more wedded to traditional power structures and supported the shogun's exclusive authority over diplomatic matters. The Shimazu were arguably the quintessential tozama lords. They did not openly challenge the shogunate until the 1860s, but they were remarkably independent in civil and diplomatic affairs. The Shimazu thought of themselves less as warlord vassals of the Tokugawa than as Tokugawa equals who had lost a key battle. During the last years of the Tokugawa shogunate, the Shimazu grew particularly brazen, sending an independent delegation to the 1867 International Exhibition in Paris that represented not Japan, but the kingdom of Satsuma and the Ryukyus.
Today the Shimazu no longer rule, but they remain a distinct presence in Kagoshima.The Shimazu descendants are active in tourism, including taxis, hotels, and museums, so any visitor to Kagoshima is likely to meet an employee of the Shimazu. The seal of Kagoshima City is clearly derived from the Shimazu family crest. Nowhere else in Japan are the descendants of feudal warlords as visible in contemporary daily life.
Saigo's homeland, the Shimazu family territories, was a huge domain, encompassing not only the province of Satsuma but also the province of Osumi and the southwestern part of the province of Hyuga. With these three provinces, known collectively as Satsuma domain, the Shimazu ruled the entire southern tip of Kyushu, an area of more than thirty-five hundred square miles. The Shimazu holdings were also among the most populous in early modern Japan: in the 1870s roughly 760,000 people lived in Satsuma domain. Only three domains had larger populations: Kaga, Nagoya, and Hiroshima. The Tokugawa shoguns commonly ranked daimyo by the official rice harvest; by this standard the Shimazu had the second-largest investiture in Japan, smaller only than the Maeda holdings in Kaga.
In the center of Kagoshima City lay Tsurumaru Castle, a strikingly unimpressive fortress built in 1602 as a residence for the daimyo Shimazu Iehisa. Tsurumaru was more a villa than a fortress. The castle had an inner keep (honmaru) and outer enceinte (ni-no-maru), but nothing in either section was designed to repel a sustained attack. Although the castle originally had steep stone walls and a small moat, it lacked the high, multistory towers common in castles of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Shirasagi Castle in Himeiji, for example, now a tourist landmark because of its striking beauty, has a towering six-story keep and three small keeps. Moats, turrets, steep walls, and battlements surround the castle. Routes into Shirasagi are circuitous and deceptive: the inner passages form a maze of blind alleys. By contrast, Tsurumaru's fortifications were both minimal and poorly maintained. A mid-eighteenth-century report on the castle observed, with some exaggeration, "although diagrams of the keep and enceinte show turrets, walls and moats, these do not actually exist." Access to the castle was surprisingly straightforward: a small bridge led directly from Kagoshima City, across the moat, and into the enceinte.
Why did Iehisa build such a simple and poorly defended castle? Today a plaque in front of the castle ruins tells the visitor that the Shimazu did not need an elaborate castle because "the people are their fortress." This is an appealingly populist explanation, but it is seriously misleading. Kagoshima was defended, against both invaders and its own peasants, by a dense network of castles: in Saigo's day more than a hundred small fortresses, called tojo, dotted the landscape. Tsurumaru Castle had no defenses because they were not needed: with fortresses throughout the domain, a large central castle would have been redundant. The Shimazu system of rural fortresses was technically a violation of Tokugawa policy, which in 1615 had limited each daimyo to one castle. The Shimazu ignored the order, and the Tokugawa chose not to contest their decision. The Shimazu network of castles meant that the Satsuma countryside was under constant samurai surveillance. In most domains the vast majority of samurai lived in the daimyo's castle town, and peasant villages enjoyed a margin of self-governance. In Satsuma, however, thousands of low-ranking samurai lived in the countryside, and even the lowliest details of village life were part of samurai rule.
Kagoshima was a sizable city, with a nineteenth-century population of roughly seventy thousand. The vast majority of its residents, perhaps 70 percent, were samurai and their families. Like most warrior capitals, the city of Kagoshima was explicitly hierarchical in its layout. At the center was the daimyo's castle, the political and administrative heart of the domain. Nearest the castle were government offices and the residences of the domain's elite retainers. Next were the residences of lower retainers: the government's middle managers and staff. Last were commoners' residences, which banded the city to the north and south. There lived the artisans and merchants whose activities made urban life possible. In classic castle towns, such as the shogun's capital of Edo, the city's hierarchy resembled a series of concentric rings centered on the lord's castle. Kagoshima resembled this model, but was constrained by a topography that bounded the city to the west by Mount Shiroyama and to the east by Kinko Bay. The mountain and the sea pressed the standard pattern of rings into a series of bands.
Immediately in front of the castle lay a broad avenue known as Sengoku baba, or, in loose but effective translation, "Millionaire Avenue." Sengoku, or one thousand koku, referred to the annual income of the residents. A koku was just under five bushels, and one thousand koku was, by any measure, a lot of rice. Some residents of Sengoku baba had investitures in excess of ten thousand koku. Had these men been direct vassals of the shogun, rather than vassals of the Shimazu, they would have ranked as daimyo in their own right and enjoyed direct audiences with the shogun. The residents of Sengoku baba were the daimyo's senior advisers. They had storied ancestries and privileged access to the daimyo.
Excerpted from The Last Samurai by Mark Ravina Excerpted by permission.
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Note To The Reader.
1. "Powerfully Sentimental".
Siago's Early Years in Satsuma.
2. "A Man Of Exceptional Fidelity."
Siago and National Politics.
3. "Bones In The Earth."
Exile and Ignominy.
4. "To Shoulder The Burdens Of The Realm."
The Destruction of the Shogunate.
5. "To Tear Asunder The Clouds."
Saigo and the Meiji State.
6. "The Burden of Death Is Light."
Saigo and the War of the Southwest.
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