The Last Samurai begins with a section describing the birthplace of Saigo, which was the provincial capital of the Satsuma province, Kagoshima. The Satsuma provinces were located on the very south-western tip of the Japanese island of Kyushu.
The Satsuma provinces geographical location were of great importance as it allowed them to become a gateway for new technologies and trade to come to Japan from the rest of the world. Such as the introduction by Portuguese traders of gunpowder weapons, named Tanegashima after the island of the same name which they were brought through or the Potato which subsequently became known in the rest of Japan as the Satsuma potato.
The structure of Kagoshima was slightly different, being hemmed in on the east by Kagoshima bay and the west by Mt Shiroyama. The result of this was structure reflected a series of bands rather than rings of more traditional layouts. These bands represented the divisions of class, wealth and status between the cities inhabitants, at the centre was the Daimyos residence, following this are the inner bands which were the home of the upper classes, gradually declining until you reached the outer bands that were slums for the peasants of lower classes.
The Satsuma provinces were ruled by the Shimazu clan, whom the first Daimyo received Kagoshima as a gift from the first Shogun, adding to their gains in the decades following. During the reign of the first two Shogunates their relationship was like any other, loyal to the Shogun.However during the period following civil wars which occurred in the 1500’s they opposed the founder of the third Shogunate. Though in defeat their power was still formidable, allowing them to achieve an understanding with the new Shogun. The understanding was this, the Shimazu clan would swear an oath of allegiance and in return the independence of their provinces would be respected. This lead to the Shimazu seeing themselves as equals to the Shogun, rather than as subservient vassals.
This was reflected in how the Shimazu were given more leeway in enforcing of Shogunate policy. An example of this was the Satsuma provinces were littered with small fortresses to defend its territory from foreign invaders or resistance at home¹. From the 1600’s this was against Shogunate policy which limited Daimyos to a single castle, though the Shimazu ignored the policy the Shogunate did not contest.
The Shimazus place within the power structure of Japan could be best described as the Satsuma provinces being a city state existing more in a juxtaposition within the shell of the overarching Shogunate domain.
The development of the Satsuma provinces and the Shimazu clan make for quite an interesting bit of backstory to the tale of Saigo, their positions within Japan, both geographically and politically, gives an insight into the lands in which the legend would be born.
[¹] Interesting note one of the affects of having smaller forts placed throughout the domain as opposed to a singular fortress was the villages and their inhabitants suffered from more samurai influence than normal.