- James Houser
September 24, 1877 - The Death of the Samurai & The Battle of Shiroyama
Updated: Jun 13, 2021
September 24, 1877. Progress always leaves someone behind. As Japan enters the modern age, the old feudal nobility – the samurai – launch an uprising to preserve their traditional privileges and status. Against the conscript armies of the Imperial army, though, the outcome is inevitable. Cornered in the mountaintop fortress of Shiroyama, Saigo Takamori and his 500 warriors make the last stand of the samurai.
For two and a half centuries starting from 1600, Japan was closed off from the outside world. The Tokugawa Shogunate, a military dictatorship based in the city of Edo, ruled in the Emperor’s name – the Emperor himself had almost no power. The Tokugawa Shoguns suppressed Christianity and other “barbarian” religions, demilitarized the realm, and prevented new technologies from entering Japan. Foreign trade was restricted to only one port and heavily monitored. As the rest of the world underwent revolution, enlightenment, industrialization and conflict, Japan remained in stasis. The Tokugawa Shoguns valued order and peace over anything new and threatening to the established regime.
One of the cornerstones of this order and peace was the declawing of the samurai. For centuries the powerful nobility had been a disruptive force, and from the 1100s to the 1600s Japan had been roiled by one conflict after another. When the Tokugawa family emerged triumphant from the last of these wars, they neutered the samurai, turning them into courtiers, bureaucrats and administrators instead of warriors. With internal conflict eradicated, the samurai lost their military function, and the katanas at their side were increasingly a sign of status rather than a weapon to be used. Many samurai were bitter about their fate, and it seemed they were destined to become like the court nobles of Europe: once a warrior class, but now a pampered upper elite.
And the samurai were an upper elite. The decline and fall of the samurai is often seen in the West as a tragedy (most notably in the Tom Cruise film covering the events I’m talking about today), but the samurai were very much an oppressive feudal noble class, obsessed with their privileges and status. A samurai had the right to literally execute any commoner who did not show proper respect, and often tested their swords by a traditional random attack on helpless civilians. The samurai ruled their private domains and estates as completely as a European lord or Russian count, and they were always jealous of their ancient rights. So don’t feel too sorry for them is all I’m saying.
Japan was rudely shaken awake by the modern world in 1854, when Commodore Perry’s squadron of American warships forced the Tokugawa Shoguns to open Japan’s ports under the implicit threat of force. The museum-piece culture of Japan was suddenly and traumatically open to foreign commerce, trade, technology, and Westernizing influence. American fleets were soon joined by British and French squadrons, and they inflicted unequal treaties on the Japanese that gave them immense privileges and trade advantages. Against the steam-powered ironclad gunboats of the West, the Japanese were virtually helpless.
The sudden intrusion of the West into the Japanese bubble triggered an equally sudden crisis of identity and confidence. A great debate began among the higher echelons of Japanese society as to how much, and in what ways, Japan should westernize versus preserve its traditional way of life. Anti-Western sentiment spread rapidly across the country, usually accompanied by attacks on foreign merchants. The Tokugawa Shogunate saw its power over the country begin to fall apart, since it was obvious to everyone in Japan that they could do nothing to stop Western encroachment and their tradition-obsessed policies had led Japan down this road. The 1860s saw the beginning of a breakdown in order throughout the islands, as local samurai lords began to ignore the Shogun and raise private armies.
The biggest samurai domain to oppose the Shogun was the Satsuma. Based on the southwestern island of Kyushu around the port of Kagoshima, the Satsuma had long been one of the most modern and outward-looking Japanese factions thanks to their outward-facing coastline. The Satsuma faction in particular had a large number of young samurai who saw the need to rapidly modernize and industrialize if Japan’s independence was to be preserved. To accomplish this, they actively began to seek foreign aid.
The French government had taken the Shogun under their wing, sending weapons, steamships and a military mission to help the Tokugawa modernize their armed forces. The British countered French influence by backing the Satsuma faction, and soon the Satsuma were building up a large private army of their own with British aid and weaponry. By 1868, the Satsuma army was fully equipped with modern rifles, Gatling Guns, and artillery, but the Shogunate was lagging behind.
In January 1868, the Satsuma staged a coup in the Imperial capital of Kyoto with the support of 15-year-old Emperor Meiji. The Satsuma claimed themselves in support of “restoring” the power of the Emperor over the Shogun and “expelling the foreign barbarians.” This was an obvious move to cloak their uprising in legitimacy, patriotism and tradition, even though the demise of the Shogunate would be the most groundbreaking political change in Japanese history; it was, in every sense, a Revolution. Meiji would have a complex and ambivalent relationship with his Satsuma backers, and it is still not clear how much of this was his idea and how much came from the revolutionaries. Either way, the Shogun mustered his armies in Edo, and open war had broken out. The Boshin War had begun.
Leading the Satsuma army was a samurai of the highest rank: Saigo Takamori. Saigo, the most prominent Satsuma samurai, had been a leading voice in the slide to war, and had demanded the abolition of the Shogunate as a component of the Restoration. Saigo was a Japanese nationalist and a believer in military modernization, but was importantly not a political or economic progressive. He firmly held to the rights and privileges of the samurai, the need to resist Westernization, and the importance of getting rid of Western influence as soon as possible. This placed him in sharp contrast to other, younger Satsuma radicals like Yamagata Aritomo, who wanted to fully modernize Japan by adopting Western practice wholeheartedly.
Saigo’s military leadership won the Boshin War for the Satsuma clan in 1868-1869. The Tokugawa were driven from their capital of Edo, and Emperor Meiji entered the city in triumph and made it his new, modern capital to supersede the old Imperial capital of Kyoto. In keeping with the new age, Meiji gave Edo a new name: Tokyo. By the end of the Boshin War, Japan was unified under a single powerful government. Meiji reigned, but the Satsumas and Choshu ruled, and they began to implement a breathtaking series of changes. The Satsuma were not just a transitionary faction: this little cadre of men would literally hold the dominant hand in Japanese policy until the 1930s.
Literally no country has ever modernized faster than Japan after what has been called the Meiji Restoration. The Satsuma government sent teams out to every Western country to observe, report, and drink in Western influences. They brought back Westernizing reforms and the Satsuma government put them into overdrive. The need to catch up with the West as fast as possible – to preserve themselves from imperial takeover – was overwhelming. Within a few decades railroads, telegraphs, steam power, banks, and factories were everywhere. Japan soon had a Parliament, a civil administration, a civil code and a standing professional army. A British observer recalled that when he first met the samurai who had taught him Japanese, the man had a sword, robes and a ponytail; ten years later, he wore a suit, spectacles and a moustache. Japan modernized *fast*.
All of this was horrifying to Saigo Takamori and the traditionalist samurai. They had wanted a restoration of their old marital, testosterone-induced privileges and glory; they had wanted to expel the barbarians and make Japan a military power again. Instead, their country was turning into something unrecognizable. Saigo famously opposed the construction of railroads, commerce with the West or the foreign missions, seeing them as corrupting influences. The Satsuma faction that had just won the Boshin War was splitting apart between those who had waged the conflict to return Japan to the glory days versus those who wanted Japan to westernize.
In 1873, Saigo began to push for war with Korea as a matter of honor, even volunteering to go get himself killed in a diplomatic incident to provide a casus belli for Japanese intervention. The other Satsuma leaders, though, strongly opposed these plans due to the fragile state of modernization and the very real fear of Western intervention. The foreign observation teams had basically come back and told the Imperial government “Yeah, these guys will crush us like an ant, we need to Westernize NOW.” With his plans for a glorious war of samurai conquest rejected, Saigo resigned from his government posts and returned to Kagoshima in the Satsuma home territories on Kyushu. He was followed by many other Satsuma samurai in the military and police forces, finalizing the split within the Satsuma faction. Down in Kagoshima, they began to prepare.
Saigo Takamori began to attract traditional-minded samurai from all across Japan, and he established a private military academy that soon branched out across the province. It soon became clear that Saigo was raising a paramilitary political organization from the disaffected samurai. The growing power of the Meiji government and the Westernization of Japan was eroding their ancient privileges and rights, and the new Meiji conscript army – modeled on Western lines – spelled the end of the road for the samurai warrior tradition. There was no place for the armored swordsman on the field with rifles, cannon and Gatling Guns. Though Saigo’s followers armed themselves with limited numbers of guns and artillery, their primary weapons were the traditional bow, sword and polearm.
Yeah, you can already tell this is not going to end well.
The Imperial government decided that they had to act. In December 1876, investigators sent to Kagoshima by the Meiji government were captured and “confessed” that they had come to kill Saigo. This conspiracy may or may not have been true, but it was widely believed in Satsuma and soon Saigo’s samurai army was in an uproar. The fuse was lit. Everything finally went to crap on January 30, 1877, when a Meiji warship tried to seize the weapons stockpiled at Kagoshima arsenal. The British could have told the Imperial government that when a bunch of rebels are mad at you, the last thing you want to do is try and take their guns. Saigo’s academy students resisted the Imperial sailors and began to attack the navy yards and arsenals.
Saigo was dismayed by the open breach with Tokyo, not only because it forced him to fight against his Emperor but also because his armies were nowhere near ready. Professing – much as the original rebels had done – to be fighting on behalf of Emperor Meiji, he reluctantly agreed to lead the rebellion against the Imperial government. Saigo actually had some hope for victory. He believed that the superior warrior spirit and martial skill of the samurai would easily overwhelm the peasant conscripts that made up the Imperial Army: the triumph of will over material. Saigo was so confident of samurai superiority that he refused any recruits that were not samurai – which would leave him stupidly outnumbered when the war finally began. By February 1877, the Satsuma Rebellion was in full swing, with 12,000 angry samurai boiling out into the other provinces of Kyushu.
The Imperial Army, under General Yamagata Aritomo, moved to face them. They were extremely well-armed with breech-loading rifles, disciplined cavalry, and Krupp mountain guns from Germany, but the Imperial Army was still a new force and its morale was a constant concern during the battles to come. The peasant conscripts seemed almost in awe of the samurai they were fighting, and quailed at the prospect of fighting Japan’s hereditary nobility. Keep in mind that this whole modernization thing was still very new, and that every man in the Imperial Army remembered a time where the samurai were legally allowed to kill anyone who looked at them funny. There was some serious psychological baggage to shake off.
But there were samurai on both sides. Many of the officers and generals of the new army were samurai, including Saigo’s former subordinate and Satsuma samurai Yamagata Aritomo, would lead the Imperial Army to battle the Satsuma Rebellion. The Imperial Guard regiments were entirely composed of ex-samurai. So it wasn’t like every samurai took up arms against the Imperial government, but certainly those fighting under the Imperial colors had placed tradition aside in exchange for progress. They would put their kinsmen down in what, essentially, was the final struggle between samurai warlords.
Saigo scored an early success when his forces seized Kumamoto Castle in February, the 12,000-strong samurai army overwhelming the 3800 Imperial troops stationed there and forcing them to retreat. Nevertheless, even this small force inflicted heavy casualties on Saigo’s army, and as the samurai besieged the castle Yamagata was arriving with the bulk of the Imperial army. Though many local samurai had rallied to Saigo’s banner, upping his total force to 20,000, he was now heavily outnumbered and forced to retreat.
Yamagata followed, and on March 4 confronted Saigo’s main army at Tabaruzaka. The Imperials numbered almost 90,000 against Saigo’s 15,000 in this eight-day long battle, but weather and terrain allowed Satsuma forces to put up a strong resistance. Ultimately, though, they were overwhelmed by firepower and sheer weight of numbers and retreated once again. Saigo resorted to guerrilla warfare for the next few months as the Imperial forces pushed deep into Satsuma province, even as his foes captured Kagoshima with their gunboats. Yamagata used the Imperial Navy to land troops in Saigo’s rear areas, exercising command of the sea to its fullest potential. As Saigo’s army dwindled and morale collapsed, the end was inevitable – but still the samurai resisted.
By August, Saigo only had 3,000 remaining troops against the overwhelming might of the Imperial Army. His force had lost all its firearms and artillery, and the samurai were only armed with the traditional katana, bow and yari spear. Yamagata surrounded Saigo atop Mount Enodake, and launched a brutal assault with his rifle-armed infantry and mountain artillery. While most of the Satsuma army either died, committed seppuku, or surrendered, Saigo was not done yet. He burned his papers and his army uniform and cut his way out of the Imperial lines with his final 500 loyal followers. The last samurai led his men to the hilltop fortress of Shiroyama, overlooking his hometown of Kagoshima.
It was at Shiroyama that Saigo and his samurai made their last futile stand. Yamagata and his 30,000 Imperial soldiers and marines outnumbered the 500 rebels sixty to one, but they took their time. They built trenches encircling the fortress to ensure that Saigo could not escape, and bombarded the mountaintop of Shiroyama with gunboats. On September 1, Yamagata sent his old leader a letter practically pleading with him to surrender. Saigo refused. The last samurai would not surrender.
After final preparations, on September 24, 1877, Yamagata launched a frontal assault. Bombarding the last 500 samurai with artillery and rifles and blasting the fortress with machine-gun fire, the Imperial Army slowly wiped out the Satsuma rebels in a grinding bloodbath of a battle. By 6am, only 40 samurai still remained, and Saigo himself was severely wounded in the melee. Sources are divided on whether Saigo committed seppuku atop Shiroyama, assisted by his follower Beppu Shinsuke, or died of the bullet wound.
Whatever the truth, Saigo Takamori died not as a Westernized Japanese but as a samurai. With his death, the last 40 of his men drew their swords, raised them over their heads, and charged downhill into the Imperial rifle fire. Not one of the 500 survived. When the guns went silent on Shiroyama, the age of the samurai was over.
It would not return. The Satsuma Rebellion was the end of the samurai. There was simply no place in modern Japan for a feudal warrior class with its own privileges, rights, and a history of controlling the government. The new Imperial Japanese Army, built from peasant conscripts, had proven that the samurai were no longer needed for military purposes, and the new civil administration and society destroyed the need for an elite professional class. Like the knights of Europe, the samurai went the way of the dodo.
There is, of course, a lot of romance around the last samurai, enough that an American movie starring Tom Cruise was made about this story. Emperor Meiji even posthumously pardoned Saigo, and the popular perception was that he was a tragic hero – but that his death, and the death of the samurai, were nevertheless inevitable. There’s a sense of sadness about the whole outcome.
I think this is too generous. The samurai might have been romantic and photogenic, harkening back to a glorious past, but they went to war because they could not let go of their privileges and traditions in an age where they would only cripple a modernizing Japan. Their “honor” was ultimately selfishness, as they were more concerned about their position in society than the future of their nation or the welfare of their people. Saigo Takamori was a war-hungry, autocratic regressive, no matter how bravely or honorably he died. There was no place for the samurai in modern Japan because they refused to compromise or find a place for themselves.
Old ways die hard and bloody. They certainly did at Shiroyama.