A figure from one of the most interesting periods in Japanese history, the fall of the Tokugawa shogunate and the end of the Edo era, Saigo was as close as one can come to the glorified after-image of the warrior poets we consider samurai. Born in 1828 in the Satsuma domain of Japan, his burly physique and traditional political leanings quickly saw him both well respected and banished.
The transition from the Tokugawan regime to the Meiji era, was not simply a change in leadership, but an overall shift in the form and structure of Japanese politics. Established in 1603 after a short period of internecine warfare, the Tokugawan system did much to centralize and solidify Japan as a nation, although closing it off to outside influences. By the eighteen hundreds however the impossibility of disregarding foreign powers became evident, and eventually dismantled Tokugawan control by dividing its leaders. Concessions made to open Japanese ports to foreign trade were not well received by many of the domains, most notably the Choshu han which opposed the treaties signed by the Tokugawan government with an attempted coup in 1864.
By this time Saigo had grown into a life of politics. Born in Kagoshima, a township on the island of Kyushu, he was the son of a retainer to the leader Shimazu Nariakira. A man of many talents, Saigo was also apparently of many names and one can find references to Kokichi, Kichinosuki, Takanaga, Takanari, Udo and Nanshu or Narshu as he may or may not have been called in his boyhood. It is possible that lackadaisical typists like myself are to blame. Saigo proved himself worthy of his own name even as a youth leader in his school district when his ideas on agricultural reformation caught the ear of Nariakira, who made Saigo one of his aids. Nariakira is also an interesting personality, but we will attempt to limit this biography and remark that by the time of Nariakira's death in 1858 Saigo had proven himself as a powerful and yet thoughtful statesman.
Saying his political leanings were traditional, as I have, is slightly inaccurate, since what I mean is that he sided with a return to traditional imperial rule, the rule of the Meiji Emperor, and this was a somewhat radical and certainly condemnable offense while the Tokugawa were still in power. For this he was banished at least twice. The most memorable of these exiles was a result of his trying to hide his friend Gessho, a Buddhist monk and advocate of the Emperor, from Tokugawan agents. Failing that, Saigo suggested a suicide pact. They tried to drown themselves and although Gessho managed, guards plucked Saigo out of the river before he died. Sources say he was banished to Oshima for his efforts, but since this means "big island" in Japanese, I can say little more.
Despite being unappreciated by the government he was trying to depose, Saigo was in a position after his return from exile to make high-level political decisions, and when the Choshu han attempted their coup in 1864 and failed, it was Saigo Takamori who argued for a lenient Tokugawan response. Consequently only three Choshu officials were asked to commit hara-kiri, and the rest were very thankful to Saigo. He was asked to train and lead soldiers for the Satsuma han, a domain as large as Choshu, so that when the Choshu officials did not quite take their punishment to heart and continued to act out their aggressions, it fell to Saigo to support further Tokugawan military response. Something of an oversight, it was not of Saigo's opinion that the Tokugawa should be supported, and he refused to commit his troops. Quite the opposite, he helped orchestrate an alliance between the Choshu and Satsuma domains whose joint efforts eventually completely unseated the centuries old Tokugawa shogunate.
This turn in history is often called the Meiji Restoration. Ostensibly a return to imperial rule, the new order installed a boy as Emperor (Mutsuhito) and then gathered up most of its highest ranking representatives for an extended "information gathering" mission abroad. Lead by Iwakura Tomomi and referred to as the Iwakura Mission they did leave a few people in Japan to look after things. Chief among those left behind were Itagaki Taisuke, Okuma Shigenobu, and Saigo Takamori. Since most of the leaders were traveling and the Meiji government was still young, these men were not supposed to change much in the way of policy. But Korea refused to recognize the new Japanese rulers, and the warrior hiding behind Saigo's political station got a little too heated. He decided that the only way to gain his country its deserved respect was to go over to the Koreans and smack them around a little. Luckily the Iwakura mission returned just in time, and the incursion was opposed by the newly enlightened travelers.
A conflict of ideals is often cited as the reason Saigo resigned from office. Many samurai presumed that a restoration of the Emperor would mean a restoration of the warrior class, but sadly the politicians won the important battles and started the nation on a fast track to industrialization (I say sadly, but it really was probably for the best). The disenfranchised samurai were left to search for a new identity in the aftermath of the Meiji restoration. Saigo returned home to Kagoshima and started a samurai training school, hoping to invest new students with the warrior tradition. Many students gathered around him to see his eighteen-inch thick neck and converse with dissatisfaction about how the rebellion they helped to bring about had turned on them. Eventually there were upwards of forty thousand or so supporters of another rebellion, not against the Meiji Emperor of course, but against the political forces that were ensconcing him, and they found their leader in a, some say reluctant, Saigo Takamori. Ironically, the forces were centralized in the south of Japan in the same domains as had begun the overthrow of the Tokugawa.
The Satsuma rebellion did not stand much of chance, even under the guidance of Saigo. By the time it got underway in 1877 the imperial forces had gained far too much strength, and in a classic conflict of old warriors and new technology the uprising was scattered. The last stand of Saigo Takamori is a necessarily disjointed affair, legends are never remembered with clarity. Some say he was killed on the battlefield, and when the Meiji generals arrived at his body they found his countenance as serene as if he were merely asleep. Others that Saigo, seeing he had lost the battle and the war, drew his sword and in the midst of all the fighting committed suicide. And still others say that he tried to walk back to his home in Kagoshima, was pursued and shot, and yet managed to escape to a cave in the side of Mt. Shiroyama where he knelt, prayed, and performed hara-kiri.
In any case, his memory will never be lost. The Meiji owed much of its existence to his efforts and instead of condemning his actions against them, they made an example of his personal adherence to ideals by commemorating him in thought, word and deed. A bronze statue still stands in Ueno park, erected by the Meiji government, in honor of the last samurai.
A strange bio at: http://www.teresa.co.jp/uchimura/uchimura.htm#saigoV
The Making of Modern Japan. Kenneth B. Pyle. D.C. Heath Co, Toronto. 1996.