You probably haven’t. It’s a tragic tale, not one the history teachers would tell you. A tale of sorrow, defiance and ultimately sacrifice. As of yet I know little, not the man he was or the life he lived, only how he died. Saigo was a samurai, referred to as the last, and the leader of the final rebellion in the war for the heart and soul of Japan. Known as the Satsuma Rebellion that happened in 1877 as a reaction to the vilifying of the Samurai lifestyle, most noticeably the barring of carrying swords. Ultimately he lost. In defeat he became legend. Inspired by his tale of defiance until the bitter end I have began reading “The Last Samurai” (and no it has nothing to do with the 2003 film of the same name) to discover the story behind this impressive figure.
Like many in Western Europe we have have been on the receiving end of heavily romanticized view of the samurai in popular culture, often depicted as honorable, brave warriors and loyal till the end. Strictly adhering to the Bushido code, the way of the warrior, they would devote themselves day and night to its tenets. This is not necessarily wrong although it does leave out quite a considerable amount of others duties which the samurai held in Japanese society. Outside of combat one of which was the samurai constituted a large portion of the bureaucrats, operating as the pseudo ennobled governing class of feudal Japan, forming its own caste in Japans hierarchical societal structure.
The first time I heard the name Saigo was a reference in the Sabaton song “Shiroyama”, one of the tracks on their latest album whose theme is based around some of histories famous last stands. What made song stand out above the rest, and what intrigued me the most was the basis of the last stand and its consequences. Unlike those fables where the meek defenders hold out or even die fighting against overwhelming odds, such as the Spartans at Thermopylae or British colonial troops at Rorkes Drift, was what Shiroyama represented, while armies might have been lost but the nation lived on, was the total and utter destruction of an entire culture.
At Shiroyama, Saigo and his students would meet their end in the form of the modernized Imperial Japanese conscript army. Trained warriors and nobles embracing the Bushido code against the peasant masses, the way of the sword against rifles and howitzers, the epitome of old versus new. The old lost. Lasting just over 3 hours, the engagement started with an artillery bombardment on the rebels fortifications and ended in a heroic charge. Saigo along with 40 others, including some of his most loyal companions, leaped out of their positions for a frontal attack into Imperial positions. The last remnants of the way of the warrior went out in a blaze of glory worthy of the annals of history. In life they fulfilled their duties required, in death they not only were they rewarded with a fitting end but also the end of the Samurai culture, taking it to the grave with them.
Such an incredibly emotional end to an entire way of life. It’s impossible to describe how one feels in moments like this, tremendous courage on the battlefield and the tale of sacrifice which follows is one thing, but to take almost a thousand years of tradition with them to the gave is something completely different. To describe the depth of what it means is unquantifiable.