Last Stand of the Samurai

Owen Dunbar, Reporter

January 29, 1877- September 24, 1877

The feudal system that controlled Japan for 700 years started to collapse in 1854, when U.S Navy Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry, arrived at Kagoshima Harbor and introduced Japan to the modern world.

The system that controlled Japan for so long was officially ruled by a figurehead emperor, meaning that the emperor had no real power. Shogun held the real power. Answering only to the Shogun was the Daimyo, the clan head and hereditary provincial governors. The whole system was a pyramid with the peasants at the bottom and the Shogun at the top.

And it was the samurai that held this whole system together; they were a military force that served the Daimyo.

The leaders of Japan wanted to get the most up-to-date weapons possible — along with French and German — officers which were the best at the time.

In 1872, the imperial army was a force of 46,000 conscripts for all people. This left 2 million samurai unemployed.

In response, many Daimyos and samurai attacked foreigners and members of the government in hope to restore their nation to what it was before.

Hope to restore the nation was almost lost in 1868, when Emperor Mutsuhito came to power under the title of Meiji (enlightened peace) and completely got rid of the class pyramid and moved the capital of Japan to Edo, later renamed Tokyo.

Japan started to industrialize to keep up with modern needs, and in the August of 1871, the Daimyos lost their domains.

Not all of the Daimyos were against this change, among them was Field Marshal Takamori Saigo from Satsuma, western most island of Kyushu, who even backed the Meiji in 1867.

In 1873, Takamori offered to go to Korea as an ambassador when the government wanted to wage war on Korea. He even offered to anger the Korean government to the point that they would kill him, just so they would have a reason to start a war.

But just as Takamori was about to leave, the government decided against his plan and recalled him.

After being deprived of his gesture, and in hopes of embracing the old samurai culture, Takamori resigned from being a field martial and returned to his home in Kagoshima, where he started training and teaching students in private schools that taught the old ways of the samurai.

Takamori set up 132 private schools all around Satsuma, which taught Chinese classics along with French and English. Weapons training and battle tactics were required.

They also started an artillery school which taught bushido, the code of honor the samurai lived by.

The new government of Japan had already dealt with many violent rebellions of samurai and were worried about Takamori training more of these soldiers and creating an army–a Satsuma samurai army–widely considered the best.

Aware of this Tokyo sent ships with officers on board to take the weapons away from Satsuma.

January 29, 1877, was the unofficial start of the Satsuma Rebellion.

Around 50 or so of Takamori’s students got word of officers taking their weapons and started trying to take them back. Over the next three days more than 1,000 students took back weapons and ammunition.

In an attempt to make peace with Tokyo, Takamori and 12,000 of his students departed for Tokyo.

A few days before at Kumamoto Castle, Maj. Gen. Taketa Tani, general in command of the castle received a fake letter from Takamori saying he and many of his students would soon be passing through the castle. This letter was thought to be fake because the tone was harsh and wasn’t in his handwriting.

But to Maj. Gen. Taketa Tani it didn’t matter if the letter was real or not because he was under orders to not let Takamori pass no matter what.

When Takamori and his students arrived on February 21, Maj. Gen. Taketa Tani was prepared with 3,800 soldiers and 600 policemen.

Small battles went on from February 21 to March 4.

With Takamori and his forces reduced to 2,000 now, he made a retreat back to Kagoshima, but on their way they were intercepted by the imperial army, and barely managed to get past them with 500 rebels.

On September 1, the rebels arrived at Shiroyama, castle mountain, and soon after did 30,000 imperial troops.

The imperial troops surrounded Shiroyama, and set up cannons to lay siege to Shiroyama.

After over 7,000 shells fired, on September 24 at 3 a.m., the remaining 500 samurai, outnumbered 60-1, charged to meet the imperial army. The samurai killed many of the imperial troops but were far too outnumbered, and by 3 a.m. only 40 rebels remained.

During the fight Takamori was shot in the leg and stomach; close to death, he asked his close friend, Shinsuke Beppu, to cut off his head and hide it so the enemy wouldn’t find it. He did this because it was dishonorable to surrender or admit defeat in the samurai culture.

At 3 a.m., on September 24, 1877, the remaining 40 samurai charged, and were gunned down.

At 7 a.m., the Satsuma Rebellion ended with a defiant roar, and the battle of Shiroyama came to be known as the last stand of the samurai.