The Last Samurai – Best Clips & Soundtracks
The last shizoku revolt, the 1877 Satsuma Rebellion, was by far the greatest. Unlike the minor insurrections that preceded it, the Satsuma Rebellion is rightly considered a civil war. Commanded by Saigō Takamori, the Satsuma army fought unrelentingly for seven months. Although confined to the southern half of Kyushu, the scale and intensity of combat were far greater than in the Restoration wars. Defeat proved to be decisive, for the annihilation of the Satsuma army extinguished the threat of counterrevolution in the foreseeable future.
The leader of the “war party” in the debate over relations with Korea, Saigō had resigned from the Council of State and given up his commission as supreme commander of the armed forces immediately after his proposal for armed intervention was defeated. Enraged by the tactics employed by Iwakura and Ōkubo, Saigō realized that in the near future he would have little power to influence policy. If he remained in the government, his principal role would be the unrewarding and morally distasteful task of reconciling former comrades at arms in the army and bureaucracy to policies that further undercut the position of the shizoku class. Saigō was disgusted by the pretentiousness, venality, and vanity of many of his colleagues. He had publicly insulted Inoue Kaoru, Kido Takayoshi’s protege over his unsavory connections with the business world, and his relations with Yamagata, whom he respected, had recently become strained owing to the Yamashiroya incident.
After resigning, Saigō insisted that he wanted nothing more to do with politics and refused to support either Etō’s revolt or Itagaki’s campaign for an elected national assembly. However, whatever his initial intentions may have been, the possibility of his living out his life as a gentleman farmer was greatly diminished by the actions of his followers. As soon as Saigō’s break with the government became known, a large contingent of officers and soldiers from the Imperial Guard picked up their weapons and followed him back to Kagōshima. Soon they were joined by more than three hundred clansmen from the newly formed national police, who, like the guards, pointedly ignored appeals from the emperor not to desert. Together they formed the nucleus of a potential rebel army; the only question was what Saigō would do.
Saigō had not encouraged his followers to defect and may have been, as some argue, more dismayed than pleased by their actions. Nevertheless, six months after returning to Satsuma, he established a system of “private schools” (shigakkō) which closely resembled military academies. The success of the shigakkō was due in no small part to Saigō’s patronage: He provided funds for the schools from the large salary he still collected from the government; his popularity among the Satsuma shizoku had only been enhanced by the circumstances surrounding his break with the government; and his status as a “founding father” of the Meiji Restoration contributed to the schools’ prestige. Equally important was the support of the shigakkō system provided by local government officials. Governor Ōyama Tsunayoshi, a close friend of Saigō, used prefectural funds to pay the salaries of the schools’ staff and to provide rations to students, and he even purchased guns and ammunition which were distributed throughout the shigakkō system. The directors of the schools served under Ōyama in the prefectural administration, and many graduates of the schools were appointed to positions in the lower ranks of the provincial bureaucracy. Before long the entire administrative apparatus of Satsuma was staffed by shigakkō people or by senior officials like Governor Ōyama who were in complete sympathy with the anti-government movement.
As the line separating public and private institutions became increasingly blurred, the authority of the central government in Kagōshima all but disappeared. Satsuma officials openly criticized, and even disobeyed, the policies and directives of the central government. Governor Ōyama ignored instructions from the Finance Ministry to pay the shizoku stipends in cash rather than rice, and he refused to impose a surtax on shizoku income. Opposed to universal primary education and the progressive features of the Meiji land tax, he refused to implement either law. But most egregious was the use of the shigakkō to recruit, equip, and train an army hostile to the central government. The first academies established in Kagōshima were known as the “infantry” and “artillery” schools; the teachers and most of the students were former officers and soldiers of the Imperial Guard. The curriculum included academic subjects such as the study of Chinese classics, but the daily regime stressed physical fitness, military tactics, drill, and troop maneuvers conducted on land donated by the prefecture. By 1876, branch schools had been set up in every district to enroll gōshi, rural samurai. For military-age males, attendance became practically compulsory.
Nearly one-quarter of the population of Satsuma were shizoku who provided a very large pool of potential recruits to the anti-government movement. The extraordinarily large proportion of the population in Satsuma that claimed samurai status was due to the fiefs policy of including gōshi, “rustic warriors,” within the warrior classes. In most fiefs the gōshi had lost their warrior status at the beginning of the Tokugawa period and were assimilated into the wealthy farmer (gōnō) class. However, the Satsuma gōshi were accorded elite status and continued to think and act as warriors. They served the fief as rural administrators – district magistrates, policemen, and, most commonly, village headmen. Gōshi headmen governed hamlets of up to twenty households and lorded over the peasants like the estate managers of the medieval period. Elsewhere in Japan during the Tokugawa period, villages enjoyed considerable autonomy, and peasants acquired de facto proprietary rights to the land they cultivated. However, in Satsuma, the gōshi headmen strictly supervised the village economy and treated the peasants like tenant farmers. They had the authority to assign land to individual cultivators and adjusted the tax rate from year to year to take from the peasants all but what was needed for subsistence.
Meiji reforms struck at the very heart of gōshi privilege. Like castle town samurai, they were accustomed to thinking of themselves as an elite, superior in status, if not always in wealth, to commoners. And as the lowest-ranking status group within the warrior class, they perhaps felt even more keenly the loss of the symbols of elite status, such as the right to bear arms. More concretely, the 1873 land tax revision threatened their socioeconomic power in the village. By conferring ownership rights on peasant farmers and taxing individual proprietors, the Meiji land tax eliminated the feudal role of the Satsuma gōshi as petty overlords. Not surprisingly, they flocked to the shigakkō once branch schools were established outside the city and later joined the rebel army in large numbers.
The government did not attempt to counter the shigakkō movement until late 1876, in part because it remained ignorant of the actual state of affairs. Prefectural officials, who would normally inform Tokyo of anti-government activity, were in complete sympathy with the movement; they remained silent and, if questioned, denied that there was any cause for alarm. Furthermore, Okubo and the other Satsuma men in the oligarchy did not want to believe that Saigō and their clansmen in Kagōshima were capable of sedition. As late as November 1876, Okubo argued that Saigō’s refusal to support the Shimpuren, Akitsuki, and Hagi uprisings was sufficient proof of his loyalty and honor and held that as long as Saigō remained in command, Satsuma would never rebel. Events soon proved Okubo wrong, but he was not entirely mistaken in his estimation of Saigō’s character, for Saigō authorized rebellion only after the actions of government agents forced his hand.
Late in 1876, the government sent police spies into Kagoshima to infiltrate the shigakkō. It appears that their mission was to gather intelligence, foment dissention, and in other ways undermine the movement. A few weeks after arriving in Satsuma, the spies were exposed and apprehended. Under torture, one agent confessed that he had been sent to assassinate Saigō. The only evidence was his confession, but the officers and many of the students of the shigakkō desperately wanted an excuse to go to war, and Saigō appears to have believed the facts as reported to him.
Because of the increasingly tense situation in Satsuma, the government next tried to remove munitions stored at the Kagōshima arsenal. Although a commercial steamship and civilian crew were employed to disguise the operation, shigakkō students soon discovered what was going on. Without Saigō’s knowledge, they broke into the arsenal and began carting off guns and powder. The local police did not try to stop them; emboldened, the students went one step further and forcibly prevented the ship’s crew from loading cargo. The captain immediately set sail and, upon reaching Kobe, telegraphed the news to Tokyo.