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On a muddy field outside Kagoshima on September 25, 1877, the feudal system that had dominated Japan for 700 years died, not with a whimper but with a defiant roar. At 6 that morning, the 40 remaining warriors of the last traditional samurai army in Japanese history rose from their foxholes, drew their swords and charged into the guns of the 30,000-man-strong imperial army.

Twenty-three years earlier, Japan was officially ruled by a figurehead emperor, while the real power rested in the hands of the shogun, or ‘barbarian-expelling commander in chief.’ Under the shogun, and answerable only to him, came the daimyo (‘great lords’), who were clan heads and hereditary provincial governors. Within the han (a term meaning both ‘province’ and ‘clan’), society was a rigidly controlled pyramid, with the peasant at the bottom. The glue that held that structure together was the military caste that served the daimyo: the samurai.

That system began to come apart in 1854, when U.S. Navy Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry sailed into Kagoshima Harbor and invited Japan to join the modern world — at gunpoint. Determined to prevent future humiliations, Japanese leaders decided that they needed a modern army equipped with the most up-to-date weapons, trained by the best officers of the day: the French and Germans. In 1872, the imperial army was reorganized as a force of 46,000 conscripts from every social class. Suddenly, 2 million samurai found themselves ineligible for careers that had once been theirs alone.

During the 1860s, Japan underwent a period of turmoil as conservative-minded daimyo and samurai attacked both the government and foreigners in an attempt to restore the country’s isolation. Japan’s future was ultimately resolved in 1868, however, when Emperor Mutsuhito stepped into power under the title of Meiji (‘enlightened peace’), abolished the shogunate, ratified a constitution and moved the imperial capital to Edo, which was renamed Tokyo. While the army was becoming westernized, statesmen such as Prince Tonomi Iwakura and Toshimichi Okubo championed industrialization, so Japan could sustain a modern, competitive war machine. In August 1871, the daimyo lost their old domains — for which they were given compensatory pensions — and the old provinces were replaced with prefectures. In the same year, the wearing of swords in public became optional, and in 1876 it became illegal. For the unemployed samurai, such edicts piled degrading insult upon injury. Many able men who had fought and bled to return real power to the emperor in 1868 now spoke of the ‘good old days’ of samurai dominance. Prominent among them was Field Marshal Takamori Saigo. Born in Satsuma, the westernmost province on the island of Kyushu, in 1827, ‘Great Saigo,’ as his supporters called him, had backed the Meiji emperor in 1867.

So great was his dedication that when his government sought a plausible excuse for a war with Korea, Saigo offered to go there as ambassador in 1873, intending to insult the Korean government to such a degree that it would be forced to kill him, thereby providing Japan with its casus belli. Saigo was already on board a ship to Korea when the government reconsidered its agreement to his scheme and recalled him.

Although deprived of his grand gesture, Saigo and fellow conservatives continued to agitate for war and a samurai-based army, but the peace party got the upper hand in the imperial councils. The war party resigned in protest, and Saigo returned to his home city of Kagoshima, where he went into voluntary retirement from public life. Even personal appeals for aid from his close friend, Shimpei Eto, who led 2,000 Kyushu samurai in revolt in 1874, failed to move him. The rebellion was quickly crushed, and Eto was beheaded.

A large number of imperial guardsmen had resigned with Saigo and later accompanied him to Kyushu. To help support and employ those men, Saigo started a series of 132 private schools, or shigakko, scattered throughout Satsuma province. Instruction at the schools centered on the Chinese classics, although French and English were also taught. In addition, all students were required to take part in weapons training and instruction in tactics. Saigo also started an artillery school. Emphasis was placed on the historical prowess of the Satsuma warrior, and students were indoctrinated in Bushido, the samurai’s ancient chivalric code.

Word of the shigakkos‘ martial nature was greeted with considerable alarm in Tokyo. The government had already dealt with several small but violent samurai revolts, and the prospect of Satsuma samurai, which were widely regarded as the best in Japan, being led in rebellion by the Great Saigo was too terrible to contemplate. During the days of the han, Satsuma had taken a lead in arms manufacture and importation. As a result, there was considerable weaponry stockpiled at several armories scattered throughout the province. On January 30, 1877, a government ship arrived in Kagoshima and, without explanation, began removing munitions. Officials intended to transport them to Osaka. The result transformed the government’s concerns about rebellion into a self-fulfilling prophesy. Outraged by these high-handed tactics, 50 students attacked the Somuta arsenal and tried to carry off arms. During the next three days, more than 1,000 students raided the naval yards and the Iso arsenal, stealing 84,000 rounds of ammunition.

The officer in charge of removing the arms lodged a formal protest with the provincial government. The police, however, reported that they were unable to find even one of the raiders, in spite of the students’ having paraded their trophies through the city streets. Giving up in disgust, the officer ordered the ship to leave Kagoshima. The students then seized the arms factories, hired more workers and went into full production. When Saigo, who was away hunting at the time, heard what had happened, he flew into a rage at the student leaders. The deed was done, however, and he later congratulated his students.

Between February 3 and 7, the Satsuma provincial government arrested 58 government agents. Several of them were Satsuma-born Tokyo policemen, the type of men the government wanted for spying operations in Satsuma since they could speak the dialect, which even today is unintelligible to outsiders. Soon after word of the arrests got out, a rumor circulated that several of the suspected spies had confessed under torture to having been sent by the government to kill Saigo and stir up insurrection as an excuse for the government to invade. His students began agitating for war.

Over his subordinates’ objections, Saigo decided to go to Tokyo and try to negotiate with the government. He opposed taking an armed bodyguard with him, preferring to rely on his rank as a marshal of the imperial army for his protection. Matters had gone beyond Saigo’s control, however, since an advance body of rebellious samurai had already departed for Tokyo without his knowledge. The rebels knew that Saigo was too much of a traditionalist to abandon his fellow samurai in a time of crisis, and would be morally obligated to take command.

Saigo was still trying to avoid war. Rejecting large numbers of volunteers, he began his journey with only 12,000 students. Furthermore, he made no attempt to contact any of the other han for support, and no troops were left on Kagoshima to secure his base against an attack. For his war chest, Saigo took only 25,000 yen, sufficient to buy supplies for a month. To aid in the air of legality that he was trying to project, Saigo wore his army uniform.

On February 17, Saigo paid his respects at the gate of the Shimayu clan, his hereditary overlords. He then departed Kagoshima with his rear guard, the main body of his army having left the day before. Marching north, the army was hampered by the deepest snowfall Satsuma had seen in more than 50 years.

Two days earlier, Maj. Gen. Taketa Tani, commander of Kumamoto Castle, had received a letter, purportedly from Saigo. In brusque terms, the letter informed him that Saigo would soon be passing by his command, and requested that the garrison be turned out to meet Saigo and receive his orders. The authenticity of that letter is doubtful, since its harsh tone was calculated to incite determined resistance. Saigo, with his small force, could hardly have wanted a fight, and if he had, he would not have warned Tani that he was on the way. Moreover, the letter was not in Saigo’s handwriting. There is, however, a second letter authenticated as being in Saigo’s hand, which politely informed Tani that he and his army would soon be passing through Kumamoto on a peaceful mission, asking that measures be taken to prevent alarming the population. The first letter may have been sent by shigakko extremists hoping to provoke a confrontation.

Whatever Saigo’s intentions, Tani had no intention of letting his army pass. By February 21, he had 3,800 soldiers and 600 policemen at his disposal. The police contingent was no mean addition to the garrison, for Japanese policemen were a paramilitary force recruited from the samurai class, comparable to the French gendarmerie or Italian carabinieri. It is interesting to note, however, that the Japanese police shunned the use of firearms, preferring to rely on their swords and martial arts skills.

Since most of the garrison of Kumamoto Castle was from Kyushu, and many of the officers were natives of Kagoshima, their loyalties were open to question. Rather than risk desertions or defections, Tani decided to stand on the defensive. After laying in a large store of food and demolishing several hundred houses around the castle to provide fields of fire, the general and his command settled down to wait for Saigo.

Small clashes and skirmishes took place on February 21, forcing the imperial advance guards to withdraw inside Kumamoto. Although the castle, built in 1598, was among the strongest in Japan, Saigo was confident that his 9,000 samurai would be more than a match for Tani’s hitherto-untried peasant conscripts. After surrounding the castle on the 22nd and keeping up small-arms fire all day, the rebels launched a series of ill-coordinated assaults on the walls after dark. Though bloodily repulsed by concentrated fire, the samurai continued to hurl themselves at the walls with suicidal ferocity. After two days of fruitless attack, however, their ardor began to wane. While 3,000 men dug into the rock-hard icy ground around the castle and tried to starve the garrison out, a rebel detachment sent to block the passes north of town soon encountered the forward elements of the relief force. After several sharp clashes, both sides disengaged on the 26th.

By the time fighting resumed on March 3, both sides had been reinforced and numbered about 10,000 each. They faced each other along a 61¼2-mile front from Tabaruzuka southwest to Ariake Bay. Although Prince Taruhito Arisugawa was the official commander of the imperial forces assigned to put down the Satsuma rebels, real command was in the hands of General Aritomo Yamagata. A samurai from Chosu who had studied military science in Europe and headed the War Ministry in 1870, Yamagata was an old friend of Saigo’s. He believed in authoritarian government and shared Saigo’s desire for military expansion into Taiwan, Korea and Manchuria, but he also favored modernizing the Japanese army along Prussian lines. It was Yamagata who ordered a frontal assault on the Satsuma positions on March 4, which developed into the eight-day Battle of Tabaruzuka.

As the two sides were well dug in, a fierce war of position developed in which neither side could gain an advantage. There was little shooting, either due to lack of ammunition or from inclination. Imperial troops, no less than the rebels, made their assaults with cold steel alone. By the time the imperial forces managed to dislodge the rebels, each side had suffered more than 4,000 killed or wounded.

At the height of the battle, Saigo wrote a private letter to Prince Arisugawa, restating his reasons for going to Tokyo. His letter indicated that even at that late date Saigo was not committed to the rebellion and sought a peaceful settlement. The government, however, refused to negotiate. Its armament factories were producing 500,000 rounds of small-arms ammunition a day. The empire was on a full war footing and was determined to crush the rebellion.

In order to cut Saigo off from his base, an imperial force made up of three warships, bearing 500 policemen and several companies of infantry, arrived in Kagoshima on March 8. After the troops landed, they seized the arsenals and took the provincial governor into custody.

Deprived of supplies from home, rebel forces lived on food purchased from the local peasants with paper promissory notes, bearing the stamp of the Satsuma commander. Those notes continued in circulation long after the rebels had been driven out of the area and in spite of a government ban on their use. Nor was popular support for the rebels limited to monetary matters. A local dissident leader, Kichijuro Ikebe, gathering a force of 2,000 samurai from students of the private schools that he had founded in imitation of the Great Saigo, joined the rebellion.

During the stalemate at Tabaruzuka, Yamagata decided to land a detachment behind the rebel lines, so as to fall on them from the rear. That force, comprising two infantry brigades and 1,200 policemen, boarded ship at Nagasaki on March 17 and sailed to Yatsushiro Bay. Though contested by rebels, the imperial forces landed with nominal losses, then pushed north to the city of Miyanohara, reaching it on the 19th. After receiving reinforcements, the imperial force, now totaling 4,000, attacked the rear elements of the Satsuma army and drove them back upon the main rebel force.

Meanwhile, at Kumamoto Castle stocks of food were running dangerously low. The shortage of ammunition was so severe that rationing was necessary and the artillerists were reduced to firing unexploded Satsuma shells back at the besiegers. The garrison, however, no longer had to contend with the wild frontal assaults that had characterized the early stage of the siege. Most of the fighting was now confined to sniping and isolated clashes between rival swordsmen.

General Tani, facing the supply problem, decided to dispatch a sortie in hopes of linking up with the relief force. At that time, the relief force was then only a few miles away. On the night of April 8, eight companies of infantry under Major Sasukata Oku slipped through the Satsuma lines, dispatching the enemy sentinels with swords or garrotes. Oku’s small force, though discovered and attacked the next morning, was able to keep a hole open in the rebel lines long enough to revictual the garrison before passing through and linking up with the imperial army.

Working in cooperation, the two imperial forces closed in on the Satsuma army. A final attack was planned for April 14, but before it could be carried out, Saigo disengaged and his men took up new positions on high ground east of Kumamoto. The imperial forces linked up with the castle garrison the next day, ending 54 days of siege.

Both armies had suffered heavy casualties, but the conscription system allowed the imperial army to replace its losses. It now had more than 20,000 men, compared to the rebels’ 8,000. Many of the Satsuma commanders advocated a fight to the death where they stood, but Saigo vetoed the plan. Reorganizing his army into nine companies, he retreated to the east.

After seven days and a march of 100 miles through rugged wastes, the samurai limped into Hitoyoshi. Morale was so low that Saigo ordered that any samurai who deserted, failed to obey orders or abandoned his weapons would be compelled to commit suicide. Lacking any definite strategy, the rebels dug in to await the next government offensive.

Although reinforced, the imperial army had suffered so much from the fighting that it was forced to suspend operations for several weeks in order to regroup. During that period, one of Saigo’s subordinates slipped into Kagoshima, despite the presence of the imperial garrison, and raised a force of 1,500 samurai. To prevent a recurrence of that sort of thing, the garrison was reinforced by an additional infantry brigade on May 4.

After their reorganization, imperial troops resumed the offensive and forced the rebels back to Miyazaki. Several weeks of guerrilla fighting followed as the government forces mopped up small pockets of samurai scattered throughout the Kyushu hills. On July 24, the imperial forces opened their main offensive against Saigo’s army in Miyakonojo. Retreating before the government troops, the samurai next tried to make a stand at Nobeoka, a coastal city north of Miyakonojo.

By landing troops at Oita and Saiki to the north of Saigo’s position and making rapid forced marches up from the south, Yamagata was able to surround Saigo again, but the rebels proved too strong to hold. Concentrating on one point of the encirclement, they were able to cut their way free. The battle around Nobeoka had been so fierce that the imperial army was forced to detail troops to keep floating bodies from fouling a pontoon bridge over which their supply lines passed. John Capen Hubbard, an American sea captain in the service of the Mitsubishi company, happened to be in the area soon after the battle, and in a letter to his wife reported that most of the bodies were of rebels.

By August 17, constant marching, fighting and retreating had reduced the Satsuma army to a mere 3,000 effectives. Almost all of their modern firearms had been lost. Among the rebel weapons captured by the imperials at Nobeoka were numerous matchlock muskets of ancient vintage. The only heavy ordnance the rebels still possessed were some homemade wooden cannons wrapped with bamboo strips.

The rebels’ next position was on the rugged slopes of Mount Enodake. They were soon surrounded. Determined not to let the rebels escape again, Yamagata issued orders for extra security precautions and then set about tightening the ring.

With their backs against the wall, outnumbered 7-to-1, large numbers of samurai surrendered, but for many others the very idea was anathema. As victory and surrender were ruled out, there remained only the hope for a glorious death. Enodake’s rugged slopes, however, were not to Saigo’s liking as a final resting place. He decided to break the ring of steel one more time, determined to fall back on Kagoshima or die trying.

On the evening of August 19, Saigo burned his private papers and his imperial army uniform. Abandoning their sick and wounded, the remnants of his army climbed to the misty summit of Mount Enodake, where the imperial cordon was weakest. Forced to carry Saigo on a special litter, since he was suffering from a hydrocele, the little army managed to slip through the fog undetected, quietly dispatching the few guards who barred its path.

Yamagata, who had no idea in which direction Saigo had gone, sent out patrols in all directions. After eight days of tramping through rugged, rain-swept mountains and misty forests, Saigo’s men found their path blocked by a large patrol. They halted, facing the imperials all day. When night came, they split their force in two, slipped around both flanks of the patrol and escaped again. On September 1, the remaining 500 rebels slipped into Kagoshima, having eluded government patrols in a heavy rain. Gathering a few pieces of artillery from the private schools and some food from the local people, they took possession of Shiroyama (‘castle mountain’).

The government troops began arriving soon after, and once again the rebels were surrounded. With 30,000 troops at his disposal, Yamagata outnumbered Saigo’s forces 60-to-1. Having been outfought and outmaneuvered so often in the past, however, he was determined to leave nothing to chance. The imperial troops spent several days constructing an elaborate system of ditches, walls and obstacles to prevent another breakout. To his already extensive artillery train, Yamagata added the weight of five warships in the harbor and began to systematically reduce the rebel positions. During the siege, more than 7,000 shells were fired, and the imperial forces had another 7,000 in ready reserve if needed.

In comparison, Saigo’s force was reduced to melting down metal statuettes that local civilians smuggled in, and casting the metal into bullets. Medical supplies consisted of one carpenter’s saw for amputations and a few rags for bandages. The only shelters were shallow holes scraped in the hillside. During the last days of the siege, Saigo lived in a hole measuring only 6 feet deep and 3 feet wide.

Yamagata’s battle plan was to assault the samurai position from all sides at once. A special force was ordered to seize the area between a private school and Somuta, and occupy Iwasakiguchi, thereby splitting Shiroyama in half. Every man was to hold his position at all costs. Units were forbidden to assist one another without express permission. If a unit retreated with enemy troops in pursuit, the neighboring units were to fire into the area indiscriminately, killing their own men if necessary.

Two of Saigo’s officers approached the imperial positions under a white flag in the hope of finding a way to save him. To their disgust, the officers were treated as if they were deserters. Before returning to their own camp, they were given a letter from Yamagata to Saigo, which entreated him in the friendliest terms to cease the senseless slaughter and surrender.

Saigo read the letter carefully. His resolve remained unshaken. The war had cost the imperial forces more than 6,000 troops killed and 10,000 wounded, while the much smaller samurai army had lost 7,000 dead and 11,000 wounded. Too much blood had been spilled, but honor forbade surrender. Calling his closest friends to his dugout, Saigo spent his last night in a sake party.

Following an intensive artillery bombardment that lasted most of the night of September 24, imperial forces stormed the mountain at 3 a.m. By 6 a.m., only 40 rebels were still alive. While being carried toward Iwasakiguchi, Saigo was wounded in the thigh and stomach. Losing blood rapidly, he selected a suitable spot to die. One of his most loyal followers, Shinsuke Beppu, carried him farther down the hill on his shoulders. Then, kneeling on the ground, Saigo had Beppu cut off his head with a single sword stroke. A servant hid the head to keep it from falling into enemy hands. At that point, Beppu and the last of the samurai drew their swords and plunged downhill toward the enemy positions until the last of them was mowed down.

By 7 a.m., the Satsuma Rebellion was over. The greatest threat to the Meiji government was also the last of a series of civil wars that had raged through Japan for 1,500 years. Ironically, the conflict did more to defeat samurai goals than any act of legislation could have done. Fighting to preserve the old order, the samurai had gone down in bloody defeat to modern weapons wielded by the lower-class soldiers they despised. The modern Japanese army had passed its first test and would soon develop into a force that would terrorize Asia and briefly humble the Western forces of Russia, Germany, Britain, the Netherlands and the United States.

In spite of the futility of his cause, however, Takamori Saigo’s integrity and strength of convictions left a lasting impression on both the people and the government he had opposed. The latter posthumously withdrew the brand of traitor from his name and made his son a marquess. Later honored by a statue in Tokyo’s Ueno Park, Saigo is still popularly regarded as a heroic figure: the last of the noble samurai.

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