The Satsuma Rebellion
Updated: May 15, 2022
Battle of Shiroyama by Japanese artist Yoshitoshi, 1877
One of the threads of history is the point/counterpoint of revolution and counterrevolution. With any great social, political, or economic change, there come the reactionary forces that will resist those changes. These reactionary efforts, like the changes themselves, can take on many forms. They can be individual defiance, fought within the existing political system, lead to the creation of new movements and organizations, or as is often the case, result in armed conflict. Some are successful for a period of time. Others fail right away.
In the mid-1860s, a coalition of Japanese samurai and daimyos (feudal lords) forced the overthrow of the Tokugawa shogunate regime. The Tokugawa shoguns had ruled Japan since 1600. They had reestablished social and political order after a lengthy period of internal conflict among the various daimyos. They had consolidated their power by binding the daimyos to the shogunate and limiting their ability to acquire land and power. Fearing foreign intervention and Western colonialism, the Tokugawa regime banned Christianity from Japan, prohibited trade with Western nations, and prevented Japanese merchants from trading abroad. Through the Act of Seclusion of 1638, the shoguns cut Japan off from the West for over two hundred years.
Society under the Tokugawa shogunate was highly restrictive and stratified with no social mobility. There were four classes: samurai, merchants, artisans, and peasants. The samurai were the warriors, the only ones trained to fight in combat. Much like their knightly counterparts in Medieval Europe, the samurai were expected to keep up their warrior pride, maintain military readiness, and follow a strict code of chivalry based on Confucian ideals of honor and duty. (And like their counterpart in Europe, the reality of the samurai often did not mesh with the ideals and romance of being a samurai.) Their world remained that of warfare even when many started transitioning to being bureaucrats or involved in commerce. At the bottom of the social ladder were the peasants who were locked into perpetual serfdom unable to participate in anything but agriculture.
In the beginning, the shogunate oversaw an expansion of the Japanese economy. The shoguns promoted industry and commerce which gave rise to a wealthy merchant class. There was urban growth that created a vibrant urban culture that catered to this new wealth. Yet by the early 18th century, agricultural production lagged behind the mercantile sector, and the landed samurai and daimyos were not faring well leading to increased opposition to the ruling shogunate. Then a period of famines hit Japan that resulted in an increase in peasant uprisings. This further weakened the Tokugawa regime.
Then in July 1853, US Commodore Matthew Perry sailed a squadron of gunboats into Tokyo Bay. Essentially at gunpoint, Perry forced the Tokugawa government to open up relations. Thus the United States became the first Western nation to establish a relationship with Japan in over two hundred years.
Many daimyos were fearful that the shogunate was not strong enough to resist further Western influence. An alliance was made between the Satsuma and Choshu Domains or hans in Japanese. (Hans also meant a clan.) In 1867, this alliance challenged the power of the Tokugawa regime and forced the weakened shogunate to restore power to the emperor after nearly 700 years. At the time, this was the young Emperor Meiji. In January 1868, imperial rule over Japan was reestablished in what is now known as the Meiji Restoration.
The Meiji Restoration would have a significant impact on Japan. The Meiji government realized that the only way Japan could adequately defend itself against Western influence was to modernize and become more Westernized. They immediately set out to enact a series of policies and reforms that would achieve this end. They created a cabinet of advisors and expanded the government bureaucracy. Many of these new bureaucrats were recruited from the daimyos and samurai class. The daimyos ceded their rights to land to the new imperial government, and the hans were reorganized into administrative prefectures. The Meiji government invested heavily in building up industry and infrastructure. Many of the reforms began breaking down the traditional structures of Japanese society including abolishing the privileges of the samurai class. They adopted many of the ideals of the Western Enlightenment and ended the old feudal ways. They created a standard national language and established free public schools to educate their citizens. The government oversaw the creation of an imperial standing army. The recruits for this new army did not come from the old samurai class, but from the general population of peasants and artisans, those who previously were not allowed to be in the military. The changes were rapid and widespread.
Of course, not everybody was happy with these changes. The daimyos and samurai lost much of their prestige and power. Many of those that assisted in restoring the emperor were becoming dissatisfied with the direction the government was heading. One of the leaders that led the challenge against the old shogunate was Saigo Takamori.
Saigo was the head of the Satsuma clan and after initially joining the new government, he grew concerned about how the samurai were losing their way of life and how the country was turning away from Japanese traditions and customs. The aim of restoring the emperor had been the sonno joi: "expel the barbarians". At the same time, relations between Japan and Korea had soured, and in 1873, Saigo became an important proponent of war with their Asian neighbor. At one point he volunteered to go to Korea and create an incident, a casus belli, that would provoke war. Not only did he feel that Japan could win such a conflict, but he also felt it would provide a meaningful and honorable death for the samurai whose cause he championed. He was denied his chance as the Meiji government decided to conclude a peace with Korea. Disappointed, Saigo quit his position in the government and returned to his home town of Kagoshima at the southwestern tip of Kyushu island. Many samurai who had joined the government, the military, and the police followed his lead and quit their positions.
Saigo opened up a series of private schools aiming to keep the samurai tradition and code of honor alive. These schools not only taught academics, but they also taught weapons training, martial arts, and strategy and tactics. He also created an artillery school. These academies soon grew into what we would think of as paramilitary organizations. Saigo had the support of the governor of Satsuma, and ex-samurai were attracted to the region to be appointed to government jobs. By 1876, Saigo's support was so strong that for all intents and purposes, the region had seceded from the central government.
Having all these disaffected samurai in one area under the strong leadership of Saigo alarmed the imperial authorities. Towards the end of 1876, government officials arrived in Satsuma to investigate rumors of subversive activities. Locals feared the men were there to assassinate Saigo Takamori. The appearance of an imperial warship in Kagoshima Harbor at the end of January 1877 heightened tensions and resulted in students from Saigo's schools to raid arsenals and other weapon stockpiles throughout the region. The imperial government decided that the Japanese Imperial Army would be needed to prevent the spread of what appeared to be a rebellion. Saigo, prompted by these early successes, decided to officially come out of retirement and lead the rebel army.
In February, under the pretext of going to Tokyo to discuss the situation with the emperor, Saigo marched his army to Kumamoto Castle. Unable to take the castle, he admitted that the conscript army was more effective than he thought, and he settled into a siege. The siege was broken in the second week of March with the arrival of a large contingent of imperial troops under the command of General Yamagata Arimoto. The rebel army was also cut off from Kagoshima by a number of warships and an imperial garrison.
Saigo and his troops managed to retreat from Kumamoto. They fell back to the city of Miyasaki. Lacking any long-term strategy, the rebels began conducting guerrilla warfare against the imperial army which was waiting for reinforcements throughout the summer. By August, the Imperial Army caught up with the rebels at Mount Eno Dake. The number of rebels by this time was greatly reduced and they had lost much of their modern military equipment. Yamagata's forces outnumbered them by 7:1. During the attack, many of the rebels either surrendered or committed ritual suicide, seppuku. Saigo escaped with about 500 men and headed to Kagoshima.
Saigo found himself trapped at Shiroyama, a mountain that overlooked the city of Kagoshima. He was outnumbered 60:1, surrounded, and faced not only army artillery but also naval guns in the harbor. Yamagata did not want to underestimate his opponent ordered his troops to construct a series of elaborate ditches, walls, and obstacles. On the morning of September 24, 1877, Yamagata ordered a direct frontal assault on the rebel position. By 6 AM, only about forty rebels remained. Saigo Takamori was severely wounded and legend has it that he committed seppuku. Other evidence points to his death being caused by a fatal bullet wound. Rather than surrender, those that remained drew their swords and charged downslope into the Imperial position.
The Battle of Shiroyama marked the end of the samurai age in Japan. The old feudal order of warriors, much like the knights in Europe, was gone. Their attempt to turn back the clock had failed. In its place was a highly trained, paid, professional army and navy. Japan would continue to rapidly modernize and adopt Western ways in contrast to her mainland neighbor China. They continued to strengthen their military power. In doing so, the balance of power in East Asia shifted until Japan became a dominant force equal to its Western counterparts. Japan eventually would become the aggressive, imperialistic state in Asia leading up to its role in World War II.
Point/Counterpoint. Revolution/Counterrevolution. Action/Reaction. Throughout history, there is the play, the back and forth, between these opposing forces.
(Side note: The film The Last Samurai, starring Tom Cruise, is inspired by this transitional stage in Japanese history and loosely based on the events surrounding the Satsuma Rebellion.)
The Battle of Shiroyama: The History and Legacy of the Samurai's Last Stand in Japan: Charles River Editors
Whatever Happened to the Samurai?: Matthew Wills (JSTOR Daily)