JAPANESE SAMURAI / SAIGO Takamori

APRIL 2021 (VOL. 162)

西郷隆盛 SAIGO Takamori

1828 – 1877

A Beloved Giant Hero, Born in Satsuma

Saigo’s Childhood

Saigo Takamori was born in 1827 in the town of Satsuma (Kagoshima Prefecture).  Because Saigo’s family was a low-ranked samurai and was a large family with seven children, Saigo lived in poverty.  However, Saigo’s parents gave him a good education from an early age.  He began studying Confucianism at the age of five, and at the age of seven, he entered “Gochu.”  Gochu is an education system where neighbor samurai children gather to spend time together while the elders instruct and educate the younger ones.  During this time, Saigo became friends with Toshimichi Okubo, a later great leader of Japan.  Saigo, who took good care of others, was loved and admired by friends and was a leader in the town.  From around this time, he had a good physique and skill in swordsmanship that people thought Saigo could be the strongest samurai in Japan.  But when Saigo was 11 years old, he fought with a boy from another town, and he got injured in his right arm.  This injury made him unable to grasp his sword.  Saigo, who dreamed of becoming the strong samurai, had to give up swordsmanship.  It must have been a shocking event for him.  However, instead, he began to study hard to become the smartest in Japan.

Saigo As A Tax Collector

Saigo got the job of managing the harvests and collecting taxes from farmers.  Saigo continued this job for ten years with a low salary and no prospect of promotion.  Saigo learned that farmers were suffering from the tough taxes, and so he advocated his opinions on agricultural policy.  The opinion reached Shimazu Nariakira, the leader of the Satsuma.  Nariakira took Saigo’s opinion as advice and succeeded in growing Satsuma into a better and stronger domain.  Saigo built his trust with Nariakira.

Went to Edo with Nariakira

Nariakira, the leader of Satsuma, started to trust Saigo and took Saigo to Edo with him as a secretary/bodyguard.  It was an unbelievable promotion!!  Saigo traveled all around to collect information to let Nariakira know.  At this time, Saigo expanded the connection and formed his political ambition of ​​evolving Japan.  He also achieved a big success as a Love Cupid between Nariakira’s daughter and the Shogun.  Meanwhile, Nariakira died suddenly.  Saigo decided to commit suicide for his loss, but a monk named Gessho stopped him and encouraged Saigo to take over Nariakira’s will and devote himself to national affairs.

Back and forth

When the Shogunate started great repression, Gessho was targeted, and what’s more, Saigo got commanded to kill Gessho.  Instead of doing what Saigo had been commanded, Saigo jumped into the ocean with Gessho, but Saigo was rescued and saved while Gessho lost his life.  After that, Saigo was taken to a far-away-island to hide.  However, he actually enjoyed a peaceful life there, getting married to a local woman there and even having children.  In the meantime, a lot was going on in Japan, and Toshimichi visited Saigo to take him back because they needed Saigo’s knowledge and connections.  Saigo came back to Satsuma where Nariakira’s younger brother, Hisamitsu, was driving its politics.  For some reason, Saigo couldn’t get along with Hisamitsu, then Hisamitsu kicked Saigo out again to an even farther island.  This time, Saigo was put in jail as a criminal and gradually weakened by the poor jail environment and diet.  Still, Saigo spent time in jail, learning Chinese poetry, reading books, and teaching the youth on the island.  A year had passed, Satsuma once again asked Saigo to come back and appointed him to be commander-in-chief of the army and responsible for diplomacy.  Saigo finally got a powerful position in Satsuma.  When Saigo came back from the island, the place where he first headed in Satsuma was Nariakira’s tomb.

Leaving the New Government

When Japan made great progress from the Edo era to the Meiji era, Saigo and his best friend, Toshimichi started to work as core members of the New Government Team.  There was this idea that came up among them to attack and conquer Korea.  Saigo liked this idea because by doing so, he could give the job to his subordinates, samurai, who had lost their jobs and were suffering for their lives.  However, other members, including Toshimichi, dismissed the war with foreign countries.  Because of that, Saigo left the New Government Team, and 600 other officials also left the government.  Saigo returned to his hometown, Satsuma, and established a school to educate and train samurai.

A Traitor at Last

Among samurais, there was a movement happening of starting a war against the government.  Saigo, who had worked as a government army, knew they couldn’t beat the New Government Team, but decided to start a war, saying that the last thing he could do for his subordinates samurai was to prepare places for them to die.  Then, the biggest civil war in Japanese history, the “West-South War,” began.  In a fierce battle, the New Government Team hunted down Saigo’s group, using the newest weapons.  While the New Government Team started the final attack on Saigo’s remaining 1000 troops, while Saigo committed suicide, saying, “We have done enough.”  Saigo was the one that was leading the Meiji Restoration and ended his life as a traitor.

Saigo’s Appearance is Unknown by the World Today

Many of them who worked actively in the Meiji Restoration had left photographs of their portraits, but Saigo did not leave any.  It is said that there are no pictures of Saigo because he didn’t have time to take them, he hated Western technology and was afraid of people knowing his face.  Because Saigo was targeted by the shogunate, taking pictures could have increased the risk of being assassinated.  The most famous portrait of Saigo was painted by a painter from Italy.  He drew a portrait with the upper half of his face modeled on Saigo’s younger brother and the lower half modeled on his cousin.  Although this work was drawn without fully encountering Saigo, it is said that it captures Saigo’s characteristics well.

He Was on a DIET

According to his uniform size, it is said that Saigo was around 5’8” tall and weighed about 240lbs.  Saigo used to be skinny when he was young, but he gained weight because he was put in prison where he couldn’t exercise at all, and he didn’t go to the battlefield after he became an official of the Meiji government.  Also, Saigo loved pork, eels, and sweets.  He was at the point where he wasn’t able to work due to obesity and a German doctor advised him to work on a Western-style diet, which was the first time being brought up in Japan.  Saigo started going on walks with his dog, cut down on sweets, and ate a healthy diet.  He had succeeded in losing 66lbs in three years.

Saigo’s Love for Dogs

The story that Saigo loved dogs shows his generous and gentle personality.  He once had nearly 20 dogs at a time.  Saigo cherished his dogs so much that he gave his favorite meal, eels, to his dogs without enjoying it himself numerous times.  At that time, dogs usually were kept as hunting dogs or guard dogs, and Saigo was known as a rare person as he kept his dogs as pets.  When people saw a man with his dogs, they knew it was Saigo.  Dogs must have been great healers for Saigo, who had been through a tough life.