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The Meiji Restoration of 1868 signaled the beginning of the end for Japan's samurai warriors. After centuries of samurai rule, however, many members of the warrior class were understandably reluctant to give up their status and power. They also believed that only the samurai had the courage and training to defend Japan from its enemies, internal and external. Surely no conscript army of peasants could fight like the samurai! In 1877, the samurai of the Satsuma Province rose up in the Satsuma Rebellion or Seinan Senso (Southwestern War), challenging the authority of the Restoration Government in Tokyo and testing the new imperial army.
Located on the southern tip of Kyushu Island, more than 800 miles south of Tokyo, the Satsuma domain had existed and governed itself for centuries with very little interference from the central government. During the latter years of the Tokugawa shogunate, just prior to the Meiji Restoration, the Satsuma clan began to invest heavily in armaments, building a new shipyard at Kagoshima, two weapons factories, and three ammunition depots. Officially, the Meiji Emperor's government had authority over those facilities after 1871, but Satsuma officials actually retained control of them.
On January 30, 1877, the central government launched a raid on the arms and ammunition storage areas in Kagoshima, without any prior warning to the Satsuma authorities. Tokyo intended to confiscate the weapons and take them to an imperial arsenal in Osaka. When an Imperial Navy landing party reached the arsenal at Somuta under cover of night, locals raised the alarm. Soon, more than 1,000 Satsuma samurai appeared and drove off the intruding sailors. The samurai then attacked imperial facilities around the province, seizing weapons and parading them through the streets of Kagoshima.
The influential Satsuma samurai, Saigo Takamori, was away at the time and had no knowledge of these events, but hurried home when he heard the news. Initially he was furious about the junior samurais' actions. However, he soon learned that 50 Tokyo police officers who were Satsuma natives had returned home with instructions to assassinate him in the case of an uprising. With that, Saigo threw his support behind those organizing for a rebellion.
On February 13 and 14, the Satsuma domain's army of 12,900 organized itself into units. Each man was armed with a small firearm - either a rifle, a carbine, or a pistol - as well as 100 rounds of ammunition and, of course, his katana. Satsuma had no reserve of extra weapons and insufficient ammunition for an extended war. The artillery consisted of 28 5-pounders, two 16-pounders, and 30 mortars.
The Satsuma advance guard, 4,000 strong, set out on February 15, marching north. They were followed two days later by the rear guard and artillery unit, who left in the midst of a freak snowstorm. Satsuma daimyo Shimazu Hisamitsu did not acknowledge the departing army when the men stopped to bow at the gates of his castle. Few would return.
The imperial government in Tokyo expected Saigo to come to the capital by sea or to dig in and defend Satsuma. Saigo, however, had no regard for the conscripted farm boys who made up the imperial army. He led his samurai straight up the middle of Kyushu, planning to cross the straits and march on Tokyo. He hoped to raise the samurai of other domains along the way.
However, a government garrison at Kumamoto Castle stood in the Satsuma rebels' path, manned by about 3,800 soldiers and 600 police under Major General Tani Tateki. With a smaller force, and unsure about the loyalty of his Kyushu-native troops, Tani decided to stay inside the castle rather than venture out to face Saigo's army. Early on February 22, the Satsuma attack began. Samurai scaled the walls repeatedly, only to be cut down by small arms fire. These attacks on the ramparts continued for two days, until Saigo decided to settle in for a siege.
The Siege of Kumamoto Castle lasted until April 12, 1877. Many former samurai from the area joined Saigo's army, increasing his force to 20,000. The Satsuma samurai fought on with fierce determination; meanwhile, the defenders ran out of artillery shells. They resorted to digging up unexploded Satsuma ordinance and refiring it. However, the imperial government gradually sent more than 45,000 reinforcements to relieve Kumamoto, finally driving the Satsuma army away with heavy casualties. This costly defeat put Saigo on the defensive for the remainder of the rebellion.
Rebels in Retreat
Saigo and his army made a seven-day march south to Hitoyoshi, where they dug trenches and prepared for the imperial army to attack. When the attack finally came, the Satsuma forces withdrew, leaving small pockets of samurai to hit the larger army in guerrilla-style strikes. In July, the Emperor's army encircled Saigo's men, but the Satsuma army fought its way free with heavy casualties.
Down to about 3,000 men, the Satsuma forces made a stand on Mount Enodake. Faced with 21,000 imperial army troops, the majority of the rebels ended up committing seppuku (surrendering by suicide). The survivors were out of ammunition, so had to rely on their swords. Just about 400 or 500 of the Satsuma samurai escaped the mountain slope on August 19, including Saigo Takamori. They retreated once more to Mount Shiroyama, which stands above the city of Kagoshima, where the rebellion began seven months earlier.
In the final battle, the Battle of Shiroyama, 30,000 imperial troops bore down upon Saigo and his few hundreds of surviving rebel samurai. Despite the overwhelming odds, the Imperial Army did not attack immediately upon arrival on September 8 but instead spent more than two weeks carefully preparing for its final assault. In the wee hours of the morning on September 24, the emperor's troops launched a three-hour-long artillery barrage, followed by a massed infantry assault that began at 6 am.
Saigo Takamori likely was killed in the initial barrage, although tradition holds that he was just gravely injured and committed seppuku. In either case, his retainer, Beppu Shinsuke, cut off his head to ensure that Saigo's death was honorable. The few surviving samurai launched a suicide charge into the teeth of the imperial army's Gatling guns, and were shot down. By 7 o' clock that morning, all of the Satsuma samurai lay dead.
The end of the Satsuma Rebellion also marked the end of the samurai era in Japan. Already a popular figure, after his death, Saigo Takamori was lionized by the Japanese people. He is popularly known as "The Last Samurai," and proved so beloved that Emperor Meiji felt compelled to issue him a posthumous pardon in 1889.
The Satsuma Rebellion proved that a conscript army of commoners could out-fight even a very determined band of samurai - provided they had overwhelming numbers, at any rate. It signaled the beginning of the Japanese Imperial Army's rise to domination in eastern Asia, which would end only with Japan's eventual defeat in World War II almost seven decades later.
Buck, James H. "The Satsuma Rebellion of 1877. From Kagoshima Through the Siege of Kumamoto Castle." Monumenta Nipponica. Vol. 28, No. 4, Sophia University, JSTOR, 1973.
Ravina, Mark. "The Last Samurai: The Life and Battles of Saigo Takamori." Paperback, 1 edition, Wiley, February 7, 2005.
Yates, Charles L. "Saigo Takamori in the Emergence of Meiji Japan." Modern Asian Studies, Volume 28, Issue 3, Cambridge University Press, July 1994.