Monday, May 25, 2015

The Satsuma Rebellion

A rebellion caused by disillusionment and neglect. The Satsuma Rebellion, led by Saigo Takamori, it synthesized the discontent that the samurais felt under the rapidly changing culture under the new Meiji Era. The rebellion could that could have change the fate of Japan’s transformation.

The Satsuma Rebellion, otherwise, known as the Seinan War, happened from January 29 to September 24, 1877. Saigo Takamori led the rebellion after his defeat in the political limelight of the Meiji government. It grew into a major rebellion because it strike on a pressing issue at that time – the decline in the welfare of the former samurais. Saigo’s “rebellion” became a hurdle that stroke a significant blow to the inclusiveness of the transformation of Japan in the Meiji Era.

To understand the Satsuma Rebellion, a background about the samurais had to be discussed. The samurai embodied the warrior culture of Japan. The samurais had played a role in Japanese society as far back as the 12th century. Japanese society showed deep respect and admiration to them. They ranked second to the top of the social caste structure of Japan, placing bellow the nobility and the daimyos, which the samurais served. People, even to this day, admired the unlevelled skills in swordsmanship in handling the katana, and the discipline and the warrior code called bushido that they abide with their life and upheld until death. Things, however, began to change in the late years of the Tokugawa Shogunate. The Tokugawa began to decline rapidly after they conceded to western demands. For the samurai, the actions of the shogunate translated into weakness and saw their concessions as an insult to the warrior culture and to the pride of their country Japan. Samurais from the Satsuma and Choshu Domains plotted against the shogunate and won the Boshin War in 1858, which ended with the restoration of imperial power and in their minds a new era of glory and prosperity for Japan.

The Meiji Era, however, turned to be an era of development for Japan but an era of decline for the acclaimed samurais. Although most of the senior officials in the Meiji government came from low ranking samurai families, they pressed on with the reformation of the Japanese society and began the process of westernization. Suddennly, many samurai lost their privilege and respected status in the society. The government prohibited them from wearing their traditional top-knot and even wearing their lifetime-companions – their swords. The government provided pensions to the former samurais as compensation for their loss of status and also livelihood because the government abolished the domain systems and also dropped the daimyos, which were the employers of the samurai.

For the samurai’s it became a disaster. Apparently, a lifetime hardwork dedicated to the bushido and to the perfection of their skills as swordsmen suddenly became insignificant and useless in modern Japanese society. Although some moved on, like Iwasaki Yataro became a businessman and founded Mitsubishi, most of the samurai fell astray, jobless and clueless how to proceed. From proud warriors the society and the government neglected their whereabouts. Even worse, they saw many of the officials in the government, who came from samurai background, as corrupt. They never pointed their despair to the Emperor because in their code, they swear also a loyalty to the imperial crown. There impression of the officials in the Meiji government continued to sour as they continue to bow down to foreign demands.

Nevertheless, there were officials in the Meiji government that knew and attempted to act for the benefit of the samurais and the nationalist passion that the warrior class had. One of them was Saigo Takamori. Saigo led imperial forces to victory during the Boshin War. He became a senior official in the Meiji Government. In 1871, when most of the senior officials went to the two-year Iwakura Mission, Saigo became the caretaker of the government. Under Saigo, an incident with Korea, however, rocked the politics of Japan. In 1873, the Joseon Dynasty refused to recognize the sovereignty and the authority of the new Meiji Government. Saigo saw this as insolence to Japan. He felt that Japan’s pride as well as that of the sovereignty of the Emperor. The issue whether to invade take though military actions against Korea as punitive measure became known as the Seikanron. Saigo advocated an invasion. In the sidelines of avenging the insult to the nation and the Emperor, he saw it as an opportunity of employment for the former samurai. War needed soldiers, and samurai could be employed for the fight. Many samurai then supported Saigo’s advocacy and called for an invasion of Korea. However, talented politicians from the Iwakura Mission, like Ito Hirobumi and Okubo Toshimichi, returned home to opposed the proposed invasion. They argued that Japan wasn’t strong enough and that it must concentrate first in cementing completely the power of the Emperor locally and strengthening the condition of Japan through industrialization and modernization. With most of the officials opposing the invasion of Korea, the proposal failed to be passed. In dismay, Saigo other samurais in the police and the military resigned from their post. Saigo returned to Kagoshima in Satusma Domain.

Building schools in Satsuma Domain became Saigo’s primary activity after his resignation in the government. He build numerous schools across the Satsuma Domain, which placed emphasis in tradition and military arts, including swordsmanship off course. He even set up a specialized artillery schools. By 1877, his schools numbered around 120. Because of his position and his views. Saigo gathered a lot of followers, numbering around 2,000. And with his schools, he developed a cohesive network of followers.

Saigo’s followers increased further as government policies made samurais more anxious. In 1876, the government stood in the brink of bankruptcy and planned to reduce the budget dedicated for the pension of the samurais. In 1873, the government had already gave options for the samurai to receive huge compensation at once. The government made the option to reduce spending, but by 1876, financial conditions worsen and drastic spending decrease had to be made. And so in 1876, they made it mandatory for samurais to receive their compensation in lump sum instead of pensions. And by 1877, rice stipend for the samurais ended. This angered the samurai further as it meant to drain them of their last source of income.

Former samurais rebelled against the measures of the government and the phase of reforms in society that made them further disenfranchisement. Numerous samurai uprising rose up in different areas in Japan. In 1874, the samurai from Saga Domain rose up. Two years later, samurais in Shimpuren, Hagi, and Akizuki rebelled against the new Meiji government. With the rise in numbers of disgruntled samurai rebelling, the government became paranoid with the activities of Saigo in Satsuma.

Satsuma’s activity made the government anxious. The government became suspicious with Saigo’s school for their martial theme. They also feared the growing followers of Saigo and the huge network that he had in the domain. Furthermore, they had the right to fear Saigo because he had the motives to rebel for his defeat in the Seikanron in 1873. And so, seeing the activities of Saigo as a path towards rebellion, they moved quickly in order to prevent them from being well-armed.

Government then sent a warship to Kagoshima in January of 1877. Tokyo sent a naval warship to take the arms and ammunitions stockpiled in the Kagoshima arsenal. Samurais in Kagoshima suspected the warship bearing ulterior motives. Rumors spread that the government had plans to assassinate Saigo. The rumors along with years of aggregation of neglect caused infuriation to bold and militant young samurai followers of Saigo. Samurais then attacked government troops. They also viewed Tokyo’s decision to send a warship in Kagoshima as a signed of harassment.

Saigo found himself trapped in the middle. On one hand, and some suggested, that Saigo had no intentions of starting a rebellion against the government. Many saw Saigo’s activities in the previous years as preservation of traditional samurai martial traditions and his network of samurai aimed to be a social and moral support group for loss and impoverished samurais. And so, when the samurais that attacked government troops sought his leadership, Saigo became shocked by the sudden turn of events. He hesitantly accepted the leadership and proposed a march to Tokyo in order to demand the government an explanation for the sending of warship to Kagoshima, a change in the phase of reform, and better treatment for the former samurais. In February, 1877, they marched out of Kagoshima and go to Tokyo.

Government reaction came swiftly. They viewed the attack as sign of rebellion and they sent more troops to Kyushu Island to stop Saigo. A garrison of troops took position in Kumamoto under the command of General Tani Kanjo. In addition, the government quickly called on the imperial army composed of conscripted peasants but armed with modern rifles and supported by modern warships. Saigo, on the other hand, with over 20,000 followers already by the time they reached Kumamoto, armed themselves with traditional samurai weapons. They had katanas, spears, and bow and arrows. And so the rebellion did not only meant a decision on the future of reforms but also a face-off between conscripted ill-experienced peasants armed with modern weapons and traditional experienced and specialized samurais – a fight between the old and the new.

In Kumamoto, a siege occurred. Saigo asked General Tani to surrender the town and leave. However, government troops opened fire to what they deemed as rebels. Soon after, Saigo besieged Kumamoto with the government troops garrisoned inside on February 22, 1873. The siege bogged downed and weakened the rebels for 50 days. Before the end of March, Saigo’s forces had low supplies and also morale. Their hardship intensified when government forces numbering around 65,000 under the command of Yamagata Aritomo arrived in Satsuma. Saigo fought the imperial forces in the battle of Tabaruzaka and lost thousands of his followers. By April, the imperial army relieved Kumamoto and began to push Saigo’s rebels back. For months, Saigo’s followers fought government soldiers while continuing their retreat to Kagoshima. By September, Saigo had only 400 loyal followers with him. In a heroic act and a desire to die by the sword and as a samurai, Saigo along with his remaining followers made a final charge against the government force near the mountain of Shiroyama. Soldiers in the other side wipe Saigo’s followers out, even firing artillery from the warships in Kagoshima Bay. In accordance to the warrior code, Saigo committed a ritual suicide on September 24, 1877 to preserve his dignity as a samurai.

Afterwards, Japan continued its process of modernization and westernization. Nevertheless, there were samurais who despised the government that acted violently. Such as, after the Satsuma Rebellion, disgruntled samurais assassinated Minister Okubo Toshimichi in a district in Tokyo. The plight of the samurais continued.

The Satsuma Rebellion became the last obstacle for Japan’s Meiji Government. The end of the Satsuma Rebellion with the government as victors meant that reforms would press on. It provided the government a display of Japan’s new imperial army made of conscripted peasants armed with modern weapons. It showed that the samurai had no match against modern rifles and the samurai’s age had ended. For Saigo, the government showed respect and mercy. In remembrance of his contributions to the establishment of the Meiji Era, the Emperor pardoned Saigo in 1899, and a statue of him was erected in Kagoshima Castle. The Satsuma Rebellion inspired modern filmmaker for its theme of tradition versus modernization and it became the basis for the film starring Tom Cruise, The Last Samurai.

See also:

Hunter, Janet. "Satsuma Rebellion." in Concise Dictionary of Modern Japanese History. Los Angeles, California: University of California Press, 1984.
Watts, Tim. "Seinan (Satsuma) Rebellion (1877). In Japan at War Encyclopedia. Edited Louis Perez. Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO, 2013.
Newman, Edward. Understanding Civil Wars: Continuity and Change in Intrastate Conflict. New York, New York: Routledge, 2014.

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