The Satsuma Rebellion Begins

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Last samurai (2003) - final battle
A more “romantic’ end…

In March 1876 (Meiji 9) the government issued a decree banning the carrying of swords by anyone but members of the armed forces and uniformed police. Then in August, the government, realizing it could no longer afford to subsidize the former samurai, issued another decree ordering the commutation of all shizoku stipends. All former samurai were thus required to transform their annual incomes into low-interest yielding government bonds, in essence reducing the assets of the shizoku class to fifty percent of their original value. Both decrees were designed to destroy the last vestiges of feudalism in Japan.

The former samurai had had enough. Three rebellions broke out in October. The first one erupted in Kumamoto on the twenty-fourth, among some two hundred men. The Kumamoto revolt incited four hundred men in Akizuki (formerly a branch han of Fukuoka) to rise up on the twenty-seventh. The third rebellion broke out in Hagi on the twenty-eighth. All three rebellions were crushed by government forces within a matter of days. The last and greatest samurai rebellion, led by Saigō, was yet to come.

When Saigō returned to Kagoshima in November 1873 (Meiji 6), he seemed to have settled down to a quiet life, hunting in the mountains with his dogs, relaxing at the hot springs, writing poetry, and even farming. But that life would not continue for long. Each and every one of the officials in Kagoshima Prefecture, including the governor, Ōyama Tsunayoshi, and the police officers, were former Satsuma samurai dissatisfied with the central government. While outwardly abiding by the laws imposed by Tōkyō, the prefecture paid hardly any taxes, the old social hierarchy remained in place, the former samurai continued to receive feudal stipends, and universal conscription was completely ignored. In short, though the han had been abolished and the rest of Japan moved forward to adopt the industrial capitalism of the West, Kagoshima Prefecture became an autonomous political entity under the absolute rule not of the Shimazu family but of the former samurai class, with no substantial difference from the samurai-ruled Satsuma Han of old. And Saigō Takamori, either by design or circumstances (or both), was the undisputed leader.

Saigō’s control of Kagoshima Prefecture was bolstered by a network of so-called “Private Schools” he had established in June 1874 (Meiji 7). The two main schools were in the city of Kagoshima, with branches set up elsewhere in the city and throughout the prefecture. One of the main schools, headed by Army Major General Shinohara Kunimoto, was known as the “Rifle Corps School” (and also as the “Imperial Household Guard School” because Shinohara had served in the Household Guard infantry). The other main school, headed by Murata Shinpachi, a former artillery corps commander in Saigō’s standing army, was known as the “Artillery Corps School.” Besides military training, Saigō’s schools focused on nurturing samurai values through the study of the Chinese classics, particularly those pertaining to the art of war, among former samurai throughout the prefecture.6 Within one year Saigō’s schools had an estimated enrollment of some thirty thousand, ranging in age from the very young to former samurai in their forties.

In January 1877 (Meiji 10), a Mitsubishi-owned steam transport was requisitioned by the government to remove arms and munitions stored at the arsenal in Kagoshima. The government action provoked the Private School students, who broke into a powder magazine on the nights of January 29 and 30, and on the following night looted a naval shipyard, capturing large quantities of weapons and other materials of war. Saigō at the time was hunting in the mountains. On February 1, his youngest brother, Kohé, rushed to notify him of the event. Reportedly, Saigō’s immediate reaction was to utter a curse, then ask his brother just what they had expected to achieve by looting weapons. The Satsuma Rebellion had begun.

There is no conclusive evidence that Saigō planned or instigated the rebellion—and even as he led his army to Kumamoto, where the heaviest fighting would take place, he lacked a clear purpose or strategy of war. He had been absent when his men took the government weapons. He had refused Etō Shinpei’s earlier supplications to support the Saga Rebellion. And his loyalty to the Emperor, as he had demonstrated time and again, was unquestionable, even after he had quit the Imperial government. But it is a fact of history that Saigō led the Satsuma Rebellion. Was his antagonism toward the Ōkubo-led progressives so great that he would rise up against the Imperial government? Or perhaps he was motivated by other reasons, too—such as an Ōkubo-led plot to assassinate him.

On February 10, Ernest Satow, in Kagoshima at the time, heard allegations that one Kawaji Toshiyoshi, formerly a Satsuma samurai and now chief commissioner of police in Tōkyō, in cahoots with Ōkubo, had sent a hit squad to Kagoshima to assassinate Saigō. Whether or not Ōkubo actually planned Saigō’s assassination is unclear. The leader of the alleged hit squad, Nakahara Hisao, was captured by Private School students on February 5. According to some sources, he confessed under torture that he and his men had been sent by Kawaji to kill Saigō. According to other sources, a government spy in Kagoshima, Tanaka Naoya, wired a message to Tōkyō proposing that three powder magazines in that city be torched, and that during the ensuing uproar Saigō and forty of his officers be cut down. The same sources assert that Tanaka’s message, intercepted by Private School students, incited the rebellion.

Saigō returned to Kagoshima on February 3, upon hearing that his men had taken the government weapons. On February 5 and 6, councils were held at one of the main Private Schools in Kagoshima to discuss a plan of action. Some opposed mobilizing troops, and one man proposed that Saigō, Kirino, and Shinohara go to Tōkyō to censure the government for ordering Saigō’s assassination. But Kirino and Shinohara, with two other of Saigō’s closest aides—Beppu Shinsuké and Henmi Jūrōta—urged Saigō to lead their army to Tōkyō. Saigō knew that at this point his men would not stand down, asserts Inoue, and so he followed the consensus for war because he was not about to let them die while he himself would live. And as we shall see, all of the leaders would die in the coming war. For unlike revolutions throughout history, including the Meiji Restoration, theirs was not a rebellion to eliminate the old and create a new government—it was, rather, a battle to the death with the relentless and powerful tide of history which had rendered their way of life, and indeed most of their most cherished values, obsolete.

On February 12, Saigō, Kirino, and Shinohara signed a brief statement which they presented to Governor Ōyama, notifying the central government that they, with former soldiers of the Japanese Army, would proceed to Tōkyō to “question” the government, presumably to highlight the numerous grievances of the shizoku class and the alleged plot to assassinate Saigō. There was no mention at all of rebellion. Rather than a threat to the Imperial government, then, the statement might be construed as a plea.

War in the Southwest

On February 12, Yamagata Aritomo sent a message to Sanjō Sanétomi, warning that the situation in Kagoshima was so tense that once the Satsuma rebels moved into action, former samurai in other prefectures were likely to join them.3 Just a few days prior, Sanjō, Kido, and Itō had expressed similar concern that the rebellion might spread to other hot-beds of samurai unrest, including Kumamoto, Saga, Fukuoka, Kōchi, Okayama, Tottori, Hikoné, Shōnai, Kuwana, and Aizu—and it is not without some irony that Satsuma’s most bitter enemies, Aizu and Kuwana, were included on the list of Saigō’s prospective allies. Keene incisively remarks that the Satsuma Rebellion “pitt[ed] heroes of the Restoration against one another.” It threatened the very survival of the Meiji government, and at its start it was by no means certain that it would fail. Had the rebellion succeeded, “the entire political configuration of Japan would undoubtedly have changed.”

Saigō’s army of some thirty thousand former samurai was comprised of thirteen thousand from his private schools, an additional ten thousand from Kagoshima Prefecture, and men from other prefectures (i.e., former han) around Kyūshū. The government forces, exceeding fifty thousand, consisted mostly of conscripts, and included more than 2,200 naval personnel. The supreme commander was Prince Arisugawa-no-Miya Taruhito Shinnō, under whom Saigō had served as a staff officer during the Boshin War. In command of the army was Yamagata Aritomo. Heading the naval forces was Kawamura Sumiyoshi of Satsuma, Saigō’s cousin and Katsu Kaishū’s successor in the Navy Ministry. Both Yamagata and Kawamura had served under Saigō, and many of their officers were former Satsuma samurai with close personal ties to the rebel leader. If, as biographer Tanaka Sōgorō asserts, Saigō’s rebels had that undaunted samurai spirit by which they would never give up, the government forces had the clear advantage in both arms and number of men.

On February 15 the rebel army headed northward from Kagoshima for Kumamoto amid heavy snowfall, the first in fifty years to hit the temperate region of southern Kyūshū. Four days later the government declared war on the rebels. On February 22, fifteen thousand rebel troops attacked Kumamoto Castle, a government garrison. The subsequent siege of Kumamoto Castle was long and bitter, lasting fifty days. The defenders lost communication with the outside, while awaiting the arrival of relief forces. If the castle fell, the rebels would rule all of Kyūshū. But if the Kumamoto garrison could hold off the rebels until relief arrived, they foresaw victory. On March 15, government forces launched an attack on the rebels’ stronghold at Tabaruzaka, just north of Kumamoto. It was the scene of the bitterest fighting of the war, with high casualties on both sides. But the government was victorious at Tabaruzaka, the turning point of the war. The siege continued for another three weeks until the arrival of the full force of the government army under Kuroda’s command. Saigō’s army began to retreat on April 15.

Katsu Kaishū first heard of the outbreak of the Seinan Sensō (literally the “War in the Southwest”), as the Satsuma Rebellion is called in Japanese, on February 10. He clearly sympathized with Saigō; and he harbored ill feelings toward Ōkubo Toshimichi, who had been the cause of his exclusion from the government. He almost certainly blamed Ōkubo for the unfolding tragedy in the southwest, and on March 31 noted that he had discussed his feelings with Satow. Satow wrote in his diary that Kaishū believed all that “was required to prevent this civil war was the retirement of Ôkubo and Kuroda,” and “that Kawaji did send down men to assassinate Saigô, and that Ôkubo was a party to the project, not perhaps explicitly…. He wished that Sir Harry cld. find an opportunity of interposing with friendly advice to prevent further bloodshed …” When Satow informed Kaishū that Iwakura had told Parkes “that the Satsuma men were in no disposition to surrender … Katsu laughed, [and said] ‘No! truly the government is more likely to do that…. If the government were to win, all its prominent members would be assassinated.’” Kaishū also told Satow that the “chief Satsuma officers in the army are nowhere to be heard of, and it is principally led by the Chôshiu men”—i.e., the rebellion was a fight between the Saigō-led samurai party on the one side, and the Ōkubo party backed by Chōshū on the other.

The government was mindful of Kaishū’s friendship with Saigō. On March 20, Kaishū noted a request by Iwakura communicated through Genrōin member Sano Tsunétami of Saga, that he personally see to it that the uprising in the southwest would not spread to Tōkyō—i.e., that Kaishū “pacify” anti-government sentiment among former Tokugawa vassals in Tōkyō and nearby Shizuoka who might take advantage of the Satsuma Rebellion to stage an uprising in the capital. Kaishū accepted Iwakura’s request, which he vaguely noted in his journal, and more specifically in a financial ledger that he kept. During the Satsuma Rebellion he noted a number of times in his journal and ledger that he gave money to numerous former Tokugawa samurai in need. Why he did this is unclear, though it might have been part of a plan to “pacify” them. It is also unclear what Kaishū did, if anything, to honor Iwakura’s request.

Kaishū had met with Sano Tsunétami at least three times between January 21 and March 1. Based on an interview at Hikawa twenty-one years later, it seems that during at least one of those meetings Sano asked Kaishū to travel to Kagoshima to persuade Saigō to stand down. If he were to go to Kagoshima, Kaishū replied, he would need “plenary powers.” Asked what he meant by that, Kaishū told Sano that Ōkubo and Kido must be forced to resign. Iwakura refused, and so Kaishū did not go to Kagoshima. Kaishū obviously believed that Ōkubo’s clash with Saigō was the cause of the Satsuma Rebellion.

The British, too, were aware of Kaishū’s special relationship with Saigō. On the afternoon of July 13, Satow called on Kaishū to urge him to intervene with Saigō. Again Kaishū refused to involve himself. “Katsu was entirely opposed to any such undertaking,” Satow wrote. Kaishū’s reason was twofold: “detestation of Ôkubo and fear lest any manifestation of sympathy for Saigô should endanger his own liberty. He had long ago vowed not to serve the government under Ôkubo, whom he had not seen since Ôkubo’s mission to Peking. Overtures had been made to him several times on behalf of the govt. before the uprising of Satsuma, to go down to Kagoshima, and offer such promises as would avert trouble, but he had refused to be used as a coolie to carry Ôkubo’s messages. So that scheme failed.”

Around this time, in Heartrending Narrative, Kaishū elaborated on the reasons for his antagonism toward the government under Ōkubo, though both Ōkubo and Saigō would be dead by the time the book was published in the following year:

It has already been ten years since the Restoration, everything has changed, and [you] head, by degree, toward luxury. Officials of the government, take heed! I have something to say. When the Bakufu was rotten and ready to fall, it was easy for you to bring it down. But without so much as considering that fact, you are arrogant enough to think you are brave and wise, and you insult neighboring countries, trifle with the military … live in beautiful houses and wear fine clothes, and impose heavy taxes—but you will gain nothing from any of this. Your most urgent task now is to learn from the past, repeatedly, and be mindful of what’s to come….

It seems certain that Katsu Kaishū sympathized with his friend Saigō when writing the above.

Saigō’s Death

While the rebels were fighting in Kumamoto, Kagoshima had been captured by the Imperial navy. Saigō, meanwhile, who was over-weight, was suffering from a swelling of the testicles caused by filariasis, a parasitic infection probably contracted during his exile on Amami Ōshima. Unable to ride a horse or even walk, he had to be carried by sedan. It is said that during the war Saigō kept two of his dogs by his side. Then on the night of July 7, before a planned attack on the government forces at Nagaimura in Nobéoka, Miyazaki Prefecture, Saigō, his eyes filled with tears, petted his dogs and commanded them to “go home.” One of the dogs made it back to Saigō’s house in Kagoshima. The other one disappeared. The rebel attacks on the government forces failed, and Saigō was forced to retreat to Kagoshima with just a fraction of his army remaining. When Saigō and his men reached Kagoshima on September 1, over ten thousand government troops occupied the city.

The exact circumstances of Saigō’s final days and the manner of his death are uncertain. Tanaka Sōgorō reports that only five hundred rebels made it back to Kagoshima alive. They entrenched themselves among the caves on the rocky summit of Shiroyama (literally “Castle Mountain”), behind Kagoshima Castle, overlooking the city. In his last known recorded communication, dated September 22, 1877 (Meiji 10), Saigō urged his men to die bravely in their imminent last battle.

At around 4 A.M. on September 24, Yamagata launched a general attack on the remnants of Saigō’s army. As Yamagata’s forces approached, Saigō, with only some forty men left, including Kirino, Murata, Beppu, and Henmi (Shinohara had died at Kumamoto), lined up in formation in front of the caves to march downhill to meet the enemy. According to Tanaka’s account, as they marched many were mowed down by gunfire. Finally, two of those still standing, Beppu and Henmi, urged Saigō to end it right then and there. But still Saigō would not give up—rather he ordered his men to carry on and die pursuing the enemy.

Soon after that, at around 7 A.M., Saigō was hit. “Saigō was shot through both legs by a bullet,” Ernest Satow wrote in his diary entry of October 3, “and being unable to move, his head was taken off by [ ]… All the other leaders were killed. Some four hundred were taken prisoners or surrendered, a few escaped.” According to most sources, Saigō, having been shot, turned to Beppu and asked him to perform the duties of a second. Kneeling down, Saigō drew his short sword, and as he brought the blade to his abdomen, Beppu honored Saigō’s last request. Augustus H. Mounsey, secretary of the British Legation at the time, offers the following graphic depiction of the tragic scene:

Saigô was amongst the first to fall, wounded by a bullet in the thigh. Thereupon Hemmi Jiurôda,9 one of his lieutenants, performed what Samurai consider a friendly office. With one blow of his keen heavy sword he severed his chief’s head from his shoulders, in order to spare him the disgrace of falling alive into his enemy’s hands. This done, Hemmi handed the head to one of Saigô’s servants for concealment and committed suicide. Saigô’s head was buried, but so hurriedly that some of the hair remained exposed, and it was subsequently discovered by a coolie. Around Saigô fell Kirino, Murata, Beppu, Ikegami Shiro, and one hundred of the principal Samurai of the Satsuma clan, who had sought to protect their chief to the last, and refused to survive him.

On the next day, Mounsey reports, corpses were retrieved from the battlefield for identification and burial in the cemetery of a small temple in the city. The bodies of Kirino, Beppu, Henmi, Murata, and others were laid side by side. “Close to the body of Kirino lay the headless trunk of a tall well-formed powerful man, with a bullet wound in the thigh and a stab in the stomach,” indicating that Saigō had, symbolically at least, attempted seppuku. While the Imperial Army officers discussed whether or not the body was Saigō’s, “a head was brought in by some soldiers. It fitted the trunk and was recognised as Saigô’s head. It was disfigured and ghastly, clotted with blood and earth. Admiral Kawamura, the senior officer present, reverently washed the head with his own hands, as a mark of respect for his former friend and companion in arms during the war of the Restoration.”

One can’t help but wonder, had Katsu Kaishū not resigned from the government, if he might have been present in Kagoshima—not as a military commander but rather again as a peacemaker in a kind of reenactment of his historical meeting with Saigō nine-and-a-half years earlier, in a last-ditch effort to save his cherished friend from a tragic end.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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