Friday, August 07, 2009

Saigo Takamori - The Real "Last Samurai"

Back in 2003 I saw the movie "The Last Samurai" starring Ken Watanabe in the title role. The screenplay was inspired by the somewhat romanticized legend of a samurai by the name of Saigo Takamori who was literally one of the last true samurai of Japan.

Saigo Takamori was born in 1827, Kagoshima, Japan. He was a low ranking samurai in the Satsuma region whose rise up the ranks was a bit of a mess. For a while he was even banished to the Amami Islands for "anti-shogunate" activities, but was eventually pardoned and sent back "to work."

Emerging from the mists, Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe) sees his vision of the white tiger in the form of John Algren. Of course this is all the beautiful fictional work of screenwriters, but it works for me.

From the 12th up until the 19th century, Japan's true ruling power rested in the military and its "commander and chief", the Shogun. The Emperor, on the other hand, was considered more of a symbolic or ceremonial leader. However, Japan's increasing contact with the West set off a series of "cause and effect" reactions that eventually led to the end of the Shogunate and the restoration of the Emperor.

While the Portuguese left their imprint on Japan during the 17th century (like the tasty cakes of the previous post), it wasn't until Commodore Perry's arrival in 1854 that Japan was forced to deal with the rest of the world and its place in the West's obsession with manifest destiny.

Food tie-in: Kitty as Saigo makes an appearance on a box of a Kagoshima specialty; Satsuma Age or fried fish cakes. The illustration on the box shows "Kitty-as-Saigo" with canine companion overlooking Kagoshima Bay and the volcano Sakurajima. They are eating delicious fried fish cakes as one of Admiral Perry's "Black Boats" floats in the background.

Needless to say, not everyone was ready to accept the West's entry into their ports especially under implied military force and they grew resentful of the Shogunate's inability to resist Perry's threats and the terms of the Harris Treaty . The shogunate's critics cried sonnō jōi or "Revere Emperor, Expel the Barbarians!" Japan needed to close its doors, preserve its tradition as well as rebuild its strength before allowing the foreigners back in. Within their slogan, it was clear. The shogunate had failed as Japan's leader and it was time to bring unified Japan back to the Emperor.

Although Saigo Takamori began his early exploits in support of the Tokugawa shogunate in Satsuma (modern-day Kagoshima), he eventually found his role in the efforts to restore the Emperor.

Unable to withstand the pressures from foreign and internal threats, Tokugawa Yoshinobu agreed to step down from his role as Japan's ruling shogun and thus restoring the Emperor as Japan's leader. However the Tokugawa family still retained much of its ruling power.

To make a very long and complicated story somewhat short and sweet, there were some who strongly argued that the shogunate needed to be abolished and the Tokugawa family be stripped of its lands. Saigo Takamori, a samurai from the Satsuma domain (now modern-day Kagoshima) was one of the strongest proponents of this belief. Despite his early exploits as defender of the shogunate, he would successfully prevent the Tokugawa regime from ever posing a threat to the new government.

However, the tides were changing for Saigo. Despite his participation in overthrowing the old system, Saigo saw the new ruling body turning too far from the original goals of preservation. The new government's commitment to modernization and establishing new international identity was starting to threaten the way of the warrior. A conscripted imperial army was now the defender of Japan's figure head and there was no place for the samurai and therefore no privileges. Their way of life was coming to an end. Saigo resigned from his new government position and returned Satsuma.

Like his statue in Ueno Park, Tokyo, Saigo-Kitty strikes a pose with his/her canine companion.

Although Saigo retreated, he established a kind samurai academy in Kagoshima for the disaffected warrior. It's from this point in Saigo's life that John Logan and Edward Zwick draw inspiration for their character Katsumoto in their movie "The Last Samurai". In his academies, Chinese classics and Bushido were taught as well as weapons training, both traditional and modern. Soon the one academy turned into 132 academies and the new government was starting to grow concerned over Saigo's influence in the Satsuma region. Trouble was already surfacing around the region and they saw an organized revolt led by the popular Saigo as a real threat.

After a failed assassination attempt on Saigo by government envoys, the situation quickly escalated into an open conflict. Students of Saigo's academies were running raids on the local arsenals in both protest to the government's restrictions and in preparation for revolt. Meanwhile, Saigo became the reluctant leader of what was now being called the Satsuma Rebellion.

Needless to say (especially if you've seen "The Last Samurai") things turn out rather tragically for Saigo and his fellow warriors. While the historical context gets a bit sketchy, the sentiments of these warriors running down the hill to face certain death as samurai may be quite true.

Saigo's last stand has come to symbolize the end of the way of the true Samurai. However, not all of Saigo's mythos fall into the category of tragedy. Written accounts describe him as imposing in stature; over 6 feet tall and rather husky. He was said to have commanded both honor and respect by his actions rather than in words or force. Like the Logan/Zwick version, Saigo has become a symbol of honor, bravery and wisdom in the face of a changing world.


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