The Satsuma Rebellion marked the final attempt by disaffected shizoku to overthrow the Meiji government. What does the failure of the greatest revolt reveal about the limits of shizoku rebellion?
After the first three weeks, Saigō’s army was outnumbered and outgunned. The core of the Satsuma army consisted of six infantry regiments of 2,000 men each, in addition to artillery and the rearguard. After entering Kumamoto, they were immediately joined by two bands of local shizoku, the politically conservative Gakkoto and the Kyodotai (an association of nominally progressive shizoku affiliated with the Popular Rights movement) and an additional 5,000 volunteers from nearby provinces. 49 Thus, at peak strength the rebel forces numbered no more than 22,000.
In contrast, the government initially fielded an army of 33,000 and sent an additional 30,000 before the end of the war. The rebel army was short of guns and munitions throughout most of the war. The looting of the Kagoshima arsenal secured an initial stock of guns and powder, but when the army marched out of Kagoshima in February, each soldier carried only one hundred bullets, enough for two to three days of combat. Attempts were made to purchase arms abroad, but even if the negotiations had succeeded, the Imperial navy’s control of the sea would probably have prevented their delivery. The government occupied Kagoshima in April, cutting off the overland supply of munitions that were manufactured locally.
Tactical miscalculations, and especially the decision to lay siege to Kumamoto Castle, undoubtedly hastened defeat. Because of the strategic advantages enjoyed by the government forces, it was unrealistic to expect victory in a prolonged war. The best hope lay in a rapid advance to link up with sympathizers and create the impression of success before the government had time to mobilize. If Saigō had proceeded directly to Fukuoka and thereby carried the rebellion into northern Kyushu, additional groups might have declared for the rebellion. As the Shimpuren, Akitsuki, and Hagi uprisings of the previous autumn had demonstrated, shizoku disaffection was intense, and the decision of the “liberal” Kumamoto Kyodotai to join Saigō when it appeared that the rebellion might succeed suggests that the timing was indeed a critical factor. How long would Itagaki and the Risshisha have held off if Saigō’s army had crossed the Inland Sea? One does not have to be a cynic to recognize that opportunism was a powerful determinant of political alignments in the early Meiji period. But by failing to stay on the offensive, Saigō forfeited his one chance of victory – a general uprising against the Tokyo government.
Following defeat at the Siege of Kumamoto Castle and in other battles in central Kyūshū, the surviving remnants of the samurai forces loyal to Saigō Takamori fled back to Satsuma, seizing the hill of Shiroyama overlooking Kagoshima on 1 September 1877.
Imperial army troops under the command of General Yamagata Aritomo and marines under the command of Admiral Kawamura Sumiyoshi began arriving soon after, and the rebels were surrounded. After combat losses and defections, Saigō had only 300 to 400 samurai remaining of a force of over 20,000 which had besieged the government garrison in the city of Kumamoto only six weeks earlier.
With 30,000 troops, Yamagata greatly outnumbered Saigō. Having been outfought and outmaneuvered so often in the past, however, Yamagata 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. The five government warships in Kagoshima harbor added their firepower to Yamagata’s artillery, and began to systematically reduce the rebel positions, firing more than 7,000 shells.
Saigō defended his position with limited musket support, and no cannon. Saigō’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. Yamagata sent a letter to Saigō, which entreated him to surrender, but bushido honor would not let Saigō surrender.
Yamagata’s battle plan was to assault Saigō’s position from all sides at once. 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 to prevent Saigō from escaping.
Following an intensive artillery bombardment the night of 24 September, imperial forces stormed the mountain in the early morning hours. The samurai, under heavy fire, charged the lines of the imperial army, which had not been trained for close-quarter sword fighting. In just a few minutes the once organized line turned into discord. Highly skilled samurai swordsmanship prevailed against an army with very little traditional training. For a short time Saigō’s lines held, but was forced back due to weight of numbers. By 6 a.m., only 40 rebels were still alive. Saigō was wounded in the femoral artery and stomach. Losing blood rapidly, he asked to find a suitable spot to die. One of his most loyal followers, Beppu Shinsuke, carried him further down the hill on his shoulders. Legend says that Beppu acted as kaishakunin and aided Saigō in committing seppuku before he could be captured. However, other evidence contradicts this, stating that Saigō in fact died of the bullet wound and then had his head removed by Beppu in order to preserve his dignity.
However, military defeat was inevitable given the very narrow political base of the rebellion. Although Satsuma had been made into a bastion of counterrevolution, the high level of mobilization achieved there between 1874 and 1877 depended on a combination of factors unique to the domain: size and composition of the warrior population, virtual autonomy from central authority, sanction and support of prefectural officials, and Saigō’s prestige as a “founding father” of the Meiji Restoration. Because these conditions could not be duplicated, Satsuma stood alone. In fact, its strength was also its weakness, for the leadership’s parochial political loyalties stood in the way of horizontal alliances. From Saigō’s return to Kagoshima in the fall of 1873 until the attack on the Kumamoto garrison in February 1877, mobilization had been carried out entirely within the prefecture; no effort was made to encourage, aid, or link up with like-minded shizoku bands outside Satsuma. As we have seen, Saigō steadfastly held aloof, even in the autumn of 1876 when the disaffected shizoku in nearby Kumamoto, Akitsuki, and Hagi went on the offensive. When Saigō finally moved against the government and authorized sending emissaries in search of allies, the optimal moment for a general uprising had passed. Potential allies had already committed themselves to local uprisings, which produced little more than suicidal insurrections. Lacking advance notice of Saigō’s rising, in some cases sympathizers were not able to act quickly enough.
Saigō Takamori (1827-1877) Warrior and political activist. Saigō, born in the Satsuma domain in Kyushu to a samurai family of low rank, was a leading figure in the overthrow of the Tokugawa shogunate during 1867-68 and the subsequent restoration of imperial rule. Prior to 1864, Saigō served the Shimazu family, lords of Satsuma, in various capacities and with varying degrees of success, and he was exiled on two different occasions. In 1864, once again in favor, he was dispatched to Kyoto by the Satsuma domain to command the Satsuma troops stationed there. During this time, Saigō was involved in negotiations between supporters of the shogunate and imperial loyalists in an attempt to defuse the growing tensions between these two factions. In November 1867, imperial rule was restored when Tokugawa Yoshinobu resigned, thus bringing the Tokugawa shogunate to an end. Saigō’s fame, however, came when he led imperial loyalist troops against shogunate forces resisting the restoration of imperial rule. Saigō arranged for the surrender of shogunate supporters in Edo and finally routed the remaining resistance in November 1868. Saigō received honors for his service on behalf of the new imperial government. Saigō, however, ended up rebelling against the Meiji government over issues of the role of samurai in the new Japan. He died leading a force of samurai insurgents against the imperial army.