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Saigo Takamori - Tokyo Tourist Guide

Saigo Takamori, Last Samurai

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Saigou Takamori - The Last Samurai


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Saigō Takamori, Villain or Hero?

       Many Japanese will readily agree that Saigo Takamori was probably the most influential Samurai in history and for that reason even today his statue takes a prominent position in Ueno Park. Saigo Takamori is often dubbed as the last Samurai. He was born on 23 Januari 1828 in Kagoshima in southern Kyushuu, which was then a part of the Satsuma Domain. He was the eldest son of a low-level Samurai family and was greatly interested in Confucianism and Zen Buddhism, which strongly contributed to his deep commitment of acting on individual conscience and made him a symbol of devotion to principle. Saigo was a quite impressive figure; he was about 1.80 meters tall, very tall for Japanese people, especially in those days and he was stout, with broad shoulders. He worked as a Samurai official till 1854 when you was sent to Edo to assist Shimazu Nariakira the Daimyo of Satsuma in his efforts to promote better relations or reconciliation between the Tokugawa Shogunate in Edo and the Imperial Court in Kyoto.

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          However in 1858 and 1859 during the Ansei Purge 100 people were purged from the Bakufu and because of the sudden death of Daimyo Shimazu Nariakira, Saigo fell in disgrace. He fled back to safety in Kagoshima, but he was arrested and banished to Amami Oshima, an island between Kyushuu and Okinawa until 1861.  He was recalled but banished again by the new Satsuma Daimyo, Shimazu Hisamitsu, who finally pardoned him in 1864.  After his return he trained Satsuma worries and he was one of the commanders in the Satsuma and Chosu troops that marched to Kyoto in January 1868 and occupied the imperial palace in a coup d'état to restore the emperor to power. Satsuma and Chosu had always been the great opponents of the Tokugawa Shogunate. The emperor was only 15 years old by that time and was more a paw in a Japanese chess game than a leader with power. Saigo became advisor to the new Meiji Emperor and he rejected Westernization of Japan.

In 1873 the so-called Iwakura Mission was sent abroad with many senior statesman. Saigo pressed the government invade Korea, because it had refused to open to relations with the Meiji government. Naturally the idea that Japan needed to expand against the growing Western influence was the main reason behind this.  When the Iwakura Mission returned his plan was rejected, out of fear that Western powers would intervene and Japan was still technologically backward. On top of this, the Meiji government started to abolish the system that had helped the Shoguns to stay in power so long. Although Saigo supported this in the beginning, however when these reforms effectively put an end to the privileges of the Samurai class, there was great moral conflict for Saigo. He felt he was forced to make a choice for serving his country on the one hand and his loyalties towards the members of his own Samurai Class on the other.  Saigo took this all very badly, he resigned from the government and returned to Kagoshima. There he gathered his supporters and samurai who were hostile towards the Imperial government.

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In 1877 this resulted in open military conflict. About 20.000 samurai faced 600.000 Imperial troops, who were equipped with modern weapons and were trained in modern warfare. There were several lost battles after which Saigo and about 300 die-hard samurai finally retreated to Shiroyama near Kagoshima. The exhausted samurai did not have ammunition and food and they understood fully that they did stand a chance. They knew that the next battle would be their last. In the morning of 24 September 1877, when the government artillery started shelling their holdout the last samurai, including Saigo, committed seppuku, a Japanese ritual suicide.

Since Saigo Takamori was deeply admired by many, the Meiji government made a clever move to pardon him posthumously and so  the man they first considered a dangerous terrorist was made a national hero. Hence his famous statue in Ueno Park in front of the place where he fought his most glorious battle: the Battle of Ueno . History tells that Saigo used to walk his dog during the "better days" in Tokyo. Maybe this pet was included in this bronze image to give this political and physical giant a little softer appeal for generations to come?

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