What of the
With the permission of The East magazine, we will provide about six episodes of an article published in the February 1978 issue of the magazine. The East Magazine's website is: www.theeast.co.jp
There are statues of Saigo Takamori in Kagoshima and in Ueno Park.
Saigo Takamori (西郷隆盛）and the Seinan Revolt
Son of Poverty
What motivated his wish to bring about the conquest of Korea, even at the cost of sacrificing his life? There seems to have been two factors. One was the need to establish a strong foothold in East Asia in order to make Japan’s national prestige known overseas. This was based on the idea, which was shared by other pivotal members of the government, that Japan could not view the future with optimism in light of the Western powers’ advances from late in the Edo Period as long as it meekly submitted to the situation. The other, perhaps primary, motive was characteristic of Saigō. It was consideration for the many ruined members of the samurai class, which was now called shizoku.
The estimated population of Japan in 1870, the year preceding the abolishment of the domain (han) system and the establishment of the prefectural system, was 34.3 million. Of these, 1.89 million, or 5.5 percent of the whole population, were former samurai. In the year before, 1869, the new government had taken the drastic step of sharply reducing the stipends doled out to former samurai families in amounts determined by rank. It was inevitably a great shock to the former samurai. Payment of the stipends had passed from the domains to the new central government. But the percentage by which the stipends were reduced was different for each domain. Generally speaking, the reductions ranged from one-fifth to one-tenth. Former samurai were thrown into poverty, with some exceptions, such as former daimyo, high-ranking samurai, and those who had made distinguished contributions to the restoration of the Imperial Regime. Members of this last group, in addition to their stipends, were not only granted special bonuses in recognition of their distinguished achievements but also appointed to important posts in the new government and guaranteed high salaries. Saigō was among them.
With the reduction of their stipends, which from the beginning had not been overgenerous, most samurai were in deep financial trouble. To supplement their income, they applied for official posts in the prefectural governments or as soldiers under the direct control of the government. Those in such posts could receive salaries for their jobs in addition to their stipends. However, the number of positions available was very small compared to the number of former samurai.
In 1870 as a way out of the dilemma the government launched a measure to encourage former samurai to go into agriculture and trade. It granted those who volunteered for such employment five years’ stipend as a lump sum. This grant was to be used as capital in starting their new enterprises, but the new entrepeneurs also lost the right to receive stipends. Former samurai could hardly bear to pocket their traditional pride and were far from willing to enter such callings. Nevertheless, many had no choice. Such changes in their financial situation caused former samurai out of office to feel increasing discontent under the new government.
Their dissatisfaction was also caused by another factor. With the abolishment of the domain system, most former samurai were not merely discharged from their military duties but also encouraged to give up wearing swords, although on a voluntary basis. Wearing swords had long been a privilege of the samurai, and swords had even been regarded as the soul of the samurai. However, many former samurai, such was their financial need, sold their swords, which were now mere encumbrances. They were dealt in by the lump and were worth as little as kitchen knives.
Furthermore, the new government adopted conscription in 1872, thus ending the samurai’s 300 year monopoly on military service. The government believed it to be more advisable to enlist soldiers widely from all classes than to pay soldiers’ wages to former samurai, who received stipends as well. This system without class distinction was unpopular among the former samurai. Their pride was injured by the fact that military duties were assigned to commoners. Some former samurai grew scornful in their criticism. “How can petty peasants or mere tradesmen fight a war!”
Thus, as the policy to, in effect, dissolve their class was carried forward, former samurai grew more antagonistic toward the new government. If such a situation continued, there even seemed to be a possibility that civil war would break out. This worried Saigō Takamori more than anything else.
Although he was a key member of the government, Saigō took a rather negative attitude toward its policy to dissolve the former samurai class. He believed that former samurai should not be left helpless as they underwent the process of ruin.
Saigō had been born into the family of a very low-ranking samurai serving Satsuma Domain. He had himself tasted the bitterness of a poor life as a low-ranking samurai. In his boyhood he and his five brother and sisters had even shared a single futon, sleeping with only their legs in the mattress, under the leaking roof of their house.
Saigō’s personality and thought were characterized by deep sympathy, composure even in difficult situations, respect for simplicity, and hatred of arrogance. The fact that he grew up as an eldest son in such straitened circumstances seems to have had great influence on forming his personality. And it was this personality that attracted a great number of low-ranking samurai of not only Satsuma Domain but many others throughout the country when he commanded troops in a number of battles to destroy the shogunate.
Those lower-ranking samurai serving in a united body under Saigō’s leadership rendered contributions to the successful establishment of the new government which were far from ignoble. However, once the new regime was established, former low-ranking samurai, the majority of the samurai class, were compelled to take the path of ruin. To those former samurai Saigō was the only person they could rely on in the new government. He could not escape two facts. He was a member of a government whose policy was to dissolve the former samurai class. He was regarded throughout the country as the pillar of the former samurai. This was his dilemma. This was also the situation of Japan when the subject of conquering Korea arose.
Saigō planned to raise volunteers from among discontented former samurai, those who might cause a civil war, and to use them on the foreign expedition. He also embraced the idea of committing the Imperial Guards, which he commanded, to the war. Most of these 8,000 former retainers of Satsuma, Chushu, and Tosa domains were former low-ranking samurai. Many of them, too, despite their position, were dissatisfied with the new government’s treatment, and their feelings were not in a stable state. Visions of conquering Korea excited those discontented former samurai with the expectation that their long-overdue turn on stage would come soon. In short, Saigō, at the cost of sacrificing himself, aimed at justifying the opening of the war and meeting the expectations of former samurai, who had laid their hopes on him. Records suggest that Saigō expected a time when former samurai were treated favorably to come after the conquest of Korea.
In August 1873 Saigō’s extraordinary zeal convinced a cabinet meeting to dispatch him to Korea as an envoy. Chancellor Sanjō Sanetomi reported the decision to the emperor, who was spending the summer in Hakone near Tokyo, and obtained imperial sanction under the condition that the official announcement should be made after the Iwakura Mission’s return from Europe. The emperor was then 21.
Invited to Sanjō’s residence, Saigō rejoiced when he heard of the imperial sanction to the cabinet decision. Vibrant with his joy was a letter addressed to Councillor Itagaki Taisuke, who had aided Saigō in the matter. In the letter Saigō, who was then in ill health, wrote: “Truly, thanks to your endeavors I feel renewed . . . Now that imperial sanction has been obtained, there is no fear of obstruction. Nothing in my life has pleased me more than this.”
Saigō began preparations to depart for Korea. But an unexpected “obstruction” appeared.