The Legend of Saigo Takamori

I discussed the film “The Last Samurai” in a recent blog post (https://theskepticalsamurai.wordpress.com/2010/11/02/the-skeptical-samurais-guide-to-the-movies/).  In that post I discussed the fallen samurai Saigo Takamori,

who was the basis for the character Katsumoto in the film “The Last Samurai”.

Much is known about the life of Saigo, but much mystery surrounds his death.

As discussed in a previous blog post Saigo was a high ranking samurai of the Satsuma domain.  He fought on the side of the Imperial army and helped to overthrow the Tokugawa Shogunate, which resulted in the formation of the Meiji government.  Saigo was highly involved with the, newly formed Meiji government and became a bureaucrat.  However, over time he became increasingly frustrated and unhappy with the policies being put forth by the Meiji government and resigned from his position. 

After his resignation, Saigo returned to his hometown of Kagoshima.  While in Kagoshima, Saigo established a private military academy.  This academy soon became the home for thousands of other samurai who had also left positions within the Meiji government.  Although not the original intention of the academy, Saigo would eventually go on to help lead the members of this academy into a war against the Meiji government.  As outline in my previous blog post, this is referred to as the Satsuma Rebellion.  In the final altercation of the Satsuma Rebellion, Saigo lead the remaining samurai of the Satsuma domain into the Battle of Shiroyama, where Saigo (along with the samurai he lead) perished.  And this is where the legend/mystery of Shiroyama begins…

It is known that Saigo was one of the last samurai involved in the final charge of the Battle of Shiroyama.  It is also known that Saigo was mortally wounded by gunfire from the Meiji army.  But, this is when things start to get a little less clear.    

There several different  surrounding his death. 

The 1st (and most popular) tale of Saigo’s death, has the fallen samurai, aware that death was imminent, managing to get himself to his knees and commit seppuku in order to ensure an honourable death.  Historians argue that this scenario is highly unlikely, as Saigo would have been so badly wounded he would not have been physically capable of positioning himself in an upright position, much less having the physical strength and mental capability to perform the ritual of seppuku.  Many historians feel that this story is simply a romanticized version of Saigo’s death, and most likely did not actually happen.

The 2nd most commonly told tale of Saigo’s death, has Saigo, realizing that he did not have the strength to commit seppuku, requested that one of his subordinates end his life, again ensuring an honourable death.  Most historians argue that, similar to the above story, this tale is not true.  Again, due to the severity of the wounds he sustained, historians argue that Saigo would have quickly slipped into state of  unconsciousness, and would not have had the ability to make such a request. 

The 3rd, final, and most likely tale of Saigo’s death, is that, seeing that his leader had fallen, one of Saigo’s subordinates would have cut off his head, preventing it from being captured by the enemy side (the Meiji army), thus ensuring that Saigo had an honourable death.

It is also worth noting, that around the time of his death (and for that matter for decades after his death) a legend persisted in Japanese culture that Saigo had not perished in the Battle of Shiroyama.  Those that believed in (and propagated) the legend thought that he had gone into hiding and that he would eventually reappear to fight against injustice suffered by the Japanese people.  This legend persisted for decades after the actual death of Saigo, despite several reputable sources (both Japanese and Foreign) that witnessed his burial shortly after the Battle of Shiroyama.

So what should we take from all of this?

Due to the passage of time, the legend of the death of Saigo will remain just that…a legend.

History, or more accurately our memory/account/retelling of a historical event, is not always 100% based in reality.  Instead, a memory/account/retelling of a historical event is often (but not always) an amalgamation of fact mixed with fiction, and there is nothing wrong with that, as long as we are honest about what fact is and what is fiction.

This has been the Skeptical Samurai

Working to serve…

Through the process of inquiry…

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