Takamori Saigo

The Japanese rebel and statesman Takamori Saigo (1827-1877) was the military leader of the Meiji restoration. His eventual revolt against the Meiji government in 1877 represented the resistance of the old warrior class to the swift and often ruthless policy of Westernization of Japan.

Takamori Saigo was born the eldest son of a lower-ranking samurai family on Feb. 7, 1827, in Kagoshima, the castle town of the Satsuma domain. As a youth, he showed much interest in both Wang Yangming Confucianism and Zen Buddhism, both of which stressed the importance of acting on individual conscience. After briefly attending the domain academy, he became a minor domain official. A huge man, physically powerful with a dark penetrating gaze and a commanding presence, he attracted the attention of the lord of the domain, Nariakira Shimazu, who agreed with his views that major domestic reforms were necessary to meet the challenge of the West. He acted as courier and confidant to Nariakira until the latter's death in 1858.

After an abortive attempt at suicide in 1858, Saigo remained in retirement until 1864, when he reemerged as a military leader in the domain. He led Satsuma troops in skirmishes with Choshu forces at Kyoto in 1864 and later in the shogunate's expedition against Choshu. Gradually, however, he became convinced that it was in the interest of both his domain and the country that Satsuma act in concert with Choshu to bring an end to continued domination of the country by the Shogun. In 1868 Saigo served as field commander of the imperial forces in campaigns against the military resistance of the shogunate. As a result of this experience, he won a reputation as a great military hero and the universal respect of the samurai who served under him.

Discontent with Meiji

Once the Meiji restoration was accomplished, Saigo found himself in growing disagreement with the leaders of the new imperial government. Although he was appointed minister of war in 1871 and became a field marshal and court councilor in 1872, he opposed the growing centralization of the government, the trimming of the legal and social privileges of the samurai class, and the rapid pace of Westernization. In 1873 he finally broke with the government when some of its members, who had returned from an extended trip to Europe, rejected his plan for an invasion of Korea to provide military glory for former samurai and to enhance Japan's international position.

Saigo returned to his native province, where there was much samurai discontentment with the abolition of their privileges and the shift of power from the feudal domains to the central government. Saigo seems to have remained politically inactive and even resisted pressure by discontented elements in other domains to revolt. But in 1877, when an army of former Satsuma samurai rebelled against the central government's attempts to end Satsuma's semi-autonomous administrative status, he agreed to lead them. On Sept. 24, 1877, he took his life in traditional samurai fashion during the final battle with government troops, which ended the rebellion.

Further Reading on Takamori Saigo

One biography of Saigo in English is a translation of a work by a well-known novelist, Saneatsu Mushakoji, Great Saigo: The Life of Takamori Saigo (1942), which is romanticized and eulogistic. The story of Saigo's involvement in the rebellion of 1877 is treated in a contemporary journalistic account by Augustus H. Mounsey, The Satsuma Rebellion: An Episode of Modern Japanese History (1879).

Additional Biography Sources

Yates, Charles L., Saigo Takamori: the man behind the myth, London; New York: Kegan Paul International; New York: Distributed by Columbia University Press, 1995.

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