*Image Credit: Wikipedia
The Satsuma Domain, home to a number of influential figures in the Imperial Japanese government, became a central location in the fight to slow modernization in Japan early in January 1877. As the restored Emperor Meiji’s dynasty moved away from the traditional feudal system, one in which the samurai were considered among the most respected, rebels from Satsuma — some of them in seats of power — acted out to restore the customs which had defined Japanese culture for hundreds of years. On September 24, 1877, after nine months of fighting, the Imperial Japanese Army (IJA) ended the resistance with victory at the Battle of Shiroyama.
In the wake of the Tokugawa Shogunate swearing its allegiance to Emperor Meiji in late 1867, divisions between those holding on to the classic Japanese way of life and moderates looking to develop an economy more in line with the West seemed to have disappeared. Just over a decade after seeing Commodore Matthew C. Perry bring large ships from the United States Navy to the shores of Japan in search of trade, it became clear that the ancient feudal system would have to be eradicated in order for the nation to modernize.
Over the course of the next decade, some of the emperor’s ministers — Saigo Takamori, Okubo Toshimichi, Ito Hirobumi and others — became concerned with his increasing influence on the policy and goals of Japan. When they agreed to follow the Imperial system, it was with the belief it would continue as it had before Emperor Komei (Emperor Meiji’s father) had been pushed into exile: the emperor would be a figurehead providing spiritual leadership and bolstering national pride while his cabinet would act as the administrators of the empire, governing its day-to-day operation. Emperor Meiji had different ideas, determined to bring Japan closer to the level of the West in order to avoid colonization.
Saigo, in particular, found himself concerned at the development of a more capitalist system. Noticing a quiet birth of corruption under the Meiji regime, began to push for the Japanese to behave as they always had. Disgusted with the government of Korea for its steadfast denial of Emperor Meiji’s claim to the leadership of Japan, he loudly offered to sail across the Sea of Japan and incite a war by personally insulting Korean officials. Believing it would help the IJA gain valuable experience and increased numbers, not to mention give his beloved samurai purpose once again, he even volunteered to be killed. His plan was rejected, leaving him no choice but to resign.
Retiring to his home of Kagoshima in Satsuma prefecture, Saigo immediately went to work opening schools that doubled as military training camps. Backed by the governor, he managed to open 132 branches within the borders of Satsuma and created enough political clout to create concern in Tokyo. When a few dozen police arrived in the prefecture to investigate late in 1876, they were caught and tortured, confessing under duress they had been sent to kill Saito. The samurai, itching to restore themselves to their perceived rightful place, now felt conflict was inevitable.
Within a few weeks, after Emperor Meiji had sent a ship to Kagoshima in an attempt to remove arms from the arsenal there, high tension erupted into all-out war. The samurai laid siege to Kumamoto Castle in February 1877, ultimately losing out do to inferior numbers. Forced to use guerilla warfare for several months after a second defeat at Tabaruzaka in March, Saigo and his remaining men were eventually cornered Shiroyama in late August.
Saigo, willing to fight to the end, refused an offer of fair terms for surrender on September 1st and IJA General Yamagata Aritomo set his troops to work preparing fortifications as Admiral Kawamura Sumiyoshi moved five ships into position to fire into the rebel settlements. Even with a 60-to-1 advantage, the Imperial forces prepared as though they would be taking on an army of similar size. On September 24, 1877, Imperial soldiers lurched forward to conquer the remaining opposition. Their numbers reduced to just 40 — and with Saigo dead from a bullet wound — the few dozen remaining samurai drew their swords and ran toward the IJA, facing death with honor.
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