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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
The cabinet meeting for which Saigō had been impatiently waiting was finally held on October 14, a month after Iwakura's return from his observation mission to the West. The long delay in opening the meeting was due to Iwakura's maneuvering to keep Saigō from going to Korea and to prevent the conquest of that country by any means. Iwakura knew how necessary it was to first appoint Ōkubo, a man of eloquence, to the post of state councillor so that he would be entitled to attend cabinet meetings. The Cabinet, presided over by the chancellor (dajō daijin), consisted of the minister of the right (u-daijin) and the members of the State Council (Sangi). The heads of the various ministries were not cabinet members.
For the purpose of getting Ōkubo into the Cabinet, Iwakura had repeatedly negotiated with him, but Ōkubo had declined the offer. He knew from experience that it was not unusual for former court nobles—like Iwakura—to change their minds at the last moment. He doubted that Iwakura really intended to go all the way in confronting the Saigō faction. Ōkubo was a prudent man. He accepted Iwakura's offer two days before the cabinet meeting, but his method of acceptance was worthy of his character. He accepted the post only upon the condition that Iwakura pledge his total support of Ōkubo at the cabinet meeting. Furthermore, Ōkubo showed no satisfaction with an oral promise and had Iwakura give his word in writing.
Ōkubo, like Saigō, had been born into the family of a low-ranking Satsuma samurai. The houses of both families were located close to each other, and the two men were about the same age. (Saigō was just three years older than Ōkubo.) As boys they were friends. As men they had worked in the same cause: the restoration of imperial rule and the reforms which followed. Yet their characters were a study in contrast. Saigō attached more importance to mutual trust among people than anything else. To such a man it must have been beyond imagination that someone would demand a written promise from a colleague of almost 10 years standing. This decisive difference was one of the reasons why Saigō enjoyed a popularity denied Ōkubo.
On the day following Ōkubo's acceptance of membership in the State Council, Iwakura Tomomi also appointed Foreign Minister Soejima Taneomi, a man in favor of conquering Korea, to the same body. This step was probably taken out of respect for Saigō's feelings. On the same day, however, Iwakura secretly invited two councillors of the Saigō faction, Soejima and Itagaki, and maneuvered to get them to persuade Saigō to abandon his idea of going to Korea. Itagaki is said to have showed some signs of wavering, but in the end he did not assent.
Thus, on October 14 the cabinet meeting was held at last. Of those present, five favored the conquest of Korea: Saigō, Itagaki, Soejima, Etō Shinpei, and Gōtō Shōjiró. Minister of the Right Iwakura and three councillors—Ōkubo, Ōkuma Shigenobu, and Oki Takato-were against it. Kido, another councillor against the dispatch of Saigō to Korea, was absent on the grounds of health. Chancellor Sanjō Sanetomi, the nominal head of the Cabinet, had moved toward 'a position rejecting the Korean adventure after Iwakura's return to Japan.
In the cabinet meeting Iwakura opened the debate by bringing up the recent clashes between Japanese and Russian residents of Sakhalin Island north of Hokkaidö. Iwakura stressed that priority should be given to solving the Sakhalin affair rather than to sending envoys to Korea. Furthermore, he said, domestic affairs should have priority over diplomacy. Saigō brought forth the counterargument that the Sakhalin affair was a matter concerning Japanese and Russians as private individuals, but the Korean affair was an insult offered by one government to another. Therefore, the latter was of far greater importance. Three councillors, including Ōkubo, supported Iwakura. Four, including Itagaki, supported Saigō. Opinion was divided, and no decision could be reached. The question was left open until the next day.
Saigō did not attend the second day of the Cabinet meeting for some unknown reason although he presented a written opinion stating his usual view. Some letters tell us that Saigō was in poor health around that time. This is true, but it does not seem that he was so seriously ill that he could not attend such an important conference.
With Saigō absent, his childhood friend Ōkubo outshone the others. In a vehement, eloquent speech, Ōkubo frontally opposed the conquest of Korea. He stressed that the national finances had already shown a deficit. A tremendous expenditure for war, he argued, would throw the economy into disorder and the public into confusion. Ōkubo continued to say that if Japan fought a war, imports, including weapons and warships, would increase. The balance of foreign trade would show an increasingly large excess of imports. Besides, Japan was already greatly in debt to Britain. If Japan fought a war and found it difficult to repay her debts, Britain would intervene in the nation's internal affairs, and Japan would become another India. Thus, on the strength of knowledge acquired during his term as finance minister, Ōkubo eloquently unfolded his opinion with an incisive tongue.
The Saigō faction, including Itagaki, could not bring forth a sufficient counterargument. But its members persistently claimed that Saigō's opinion should be accepted and hinted that unless it were, a rebellion of former samurai would possibly break out.
The cabinet meeting continued to be guided by Ōkubo's initiative. However, after the possible rebellion of former samurai was hinted at, the two former court nobles, Sanjō and Iwakura, suddenly began to waver. When the meeting recessed, they put their heads together over the matter and decided that if Saigō was forced to resign from his post, it would be a matter of grave concern. Therefore, Saigō's wishes should be met.
Ōkubo was enraged and submitted his resignation on the spot. Not only councillors Ōkuma and Oki, but also Kido, who was absent from the meeting, followed Ōkubo's example. Ōkubo, however, was too skilled a tactician to resign without a fall-back position. His resignation was a ruse, since he continued to try to persuade Iwakura while devising plots to reverse the situation.
Another cabinet meeting was scheduled for October 17 to report the decision of the October 15 meeting to the emperor and to obtain imperial sanction. However, the meeting was attended only by Chancellor Sanjō and the five councillors favoring the conquest of Korea. Iwakura was absent, as were the councillors who had tendered their yet unaccepted resignations. His voice raised, Saigō urged the chancellor to report immediately the decision of the October 15 conference to the emperor. However, Chancellor Sanjō said that the reporting was to be postponed until the other members arrived, and finally asked Saigō to give one day's grace to the absentees. Trusting Sanjō's words, Saigō accepted the proposal. If Saigō had been Ōkubo he would have demanded a written promise from the chancellor.
Caught between the pro-conquest faction and the anti, Sanjō agonized over the dilemma throughout the day. On the following morning he was suddenly incapacitated by a mental illness of some sort. There are historians who doubt—without solid grounds—if this is true. But Sanjō probably worried himself into a nervous breakdown of the worst kind. Whether he was ill or not, the fact remains that Sanjō submitted his resignation from his post as chancellor. The issue of Saigō's mission to Korea reached a deadlock.
Taking advantage of this development, Iwakura and this seem to have promptly stepped up their behind-the-scenes maneuvering. On October 20 Emperor Meiji made a call of inquiry on Sanjō. He next visited Iwakura's residence and appointed him acting chancellor. Although both had originally been court nobles, Iwakura was far bolder than Sanjō. At this point Iwakura seems to have been determined to confront the Saig faction without flinching. On October 22 four councillors, including Saigō, paid a visit to Iwakura's residence and urged him to report the decision of the October 15 cabinet meeting immediately. However, Iwakura refused, saying, "I am not Lord Sanjō. I have ideas of my own."
On October 23 Iwakura reported to the throne on his own proposal against the conquest of Korea and the dispatch of envoys, an opinion contrary to the cabinet decision. His proposal met with imperial sanction. Giving up all hope, Saigō on the same day resigned from all his posts: councillor, commander of the Imperial Guards, and general of the army. On the next day the other four councillors of the Saigō faction all tendered their resignations. Thus, the new government was disbanded only five years after its establishment.
Their resignations were all accepted on the same day, as though the other faction was jumping at the chance to get rid of the opposition. Saigō's resignation as general of the army was the single exception. This decision resulted from the Iwakura faction's foresighted consideration of the respect in which Saigō was held by former samurai. By retaining Saigō in that one post the Iwakura faction hoped to show that the government would not completely abandon Saigō.
In the meantime the resignations which had been tendered by the councillors of the Iwakura faction, including Ōkubo, were all turned down. Ōkubo was shrewd enough to begin selection, together with Iwakura and Okuma, of new councillors on the very same day. Saigō had tasted defeat too miserable for words.
Saigō's resignation caused unrest among the Imperial Guards, especially those from Kagoshima Prefecture, what had once been Satsuma, who were mostly in favor of the conquest of Korea. Saigō's followers among the commissioned officers, including Shinohara Kunimoto and Kirino Toshiaki, both major generals, submitted their resignations. The barracks were thrown into an uproar. Inflamed by anger, Kirino shouted, "Those who rejected the proposal to conquer Korea against the sacred imperial orders are traitors to the nation.
I will slay the chancellor and the several councillors to carry out the conquest of Korea!" Informed of this, Saigō is said to have given Kirino a severe scolding to keep him from resorting to such measures.
Viewing the situation with anxiety, Emperor Meiji on October 24 summoned 13 officers of the Imperial Guards to palace to personally admonish them to serve loyally. Major General Shinohara did not obey the summons on the pretext of illness.
On October 28, four days after tendering his resignation, Saigō left for his home prefecture of Kagoshima. Many others followed him, including Kirino and Shinohara. The imperial guardsmen originally from Satsuma Domain who returned numbered 300. What did Saigō have in mind by leaving for his home?