Book Review: The Last Samurai: The Life and Battles of Saigo Takamori by Mark Ravina

The Last Samurai

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Mark Ravina, Professor of History and Director of East Asian Studies at Emory University has researched the life of Saigo Takamori, a brave warrior samurai. Ravina’s research has indeed paid off, he humbly shares the credit of his book with Conrad Totman for his knowledge of Tokugawa politics and Haraguchi Izumi, Professor of Japanese History for sponsoring him. Ravina’s book coincides with recent interest in Saigo Takamori and samurai culture due to the recently released film The Last Samurai, directed by Edward Zwick, starring Tom Cruise and Ken Watanabe. I saw this fictional film first, which led me to search for the real story of Saigo Takamori. Mark Ravina’s book proved to be an exciting political and cultural journey into Japanese culture in feudal Japan.Ravina’s translation of Saigo’s letters into English is one of the great strengths of this book. This review contains some content from Ravina’s book to help guide you through Japanese historical politics and the life of Saigo Takamori.

A great introduction! It opens with the question “where was Saigo Takamori’s head?” This immediately got my attention. Admittedly, I knew little of Japanese history, or Saigo. I was intrigued and eager to read on. Surprisingly, the end chapter reverts back to that very same question about Saigo’s head, where you will find more information and revelations, which include an eyewitness report by Captain Hubbard. His account is detailed in a letter to his wife. Ironically his account of Saigo’s head is virtually unknown in Japan. It is not what the Japanese populace wanted to hear.

Ravina tells us that Saigo was born in Kagoshima. He was born into a family who had hereditary status, but were poor. Saigo’s father lived more like goshi, (self-sufficient rural warrior), than full samurai status, (shi or Jokashi). The family borrowed money to buy land for farming. Their family home was in Shitanokajiya and they later moved across the river to Uenosono, (a ramshackle home) in 1855.

Saigo’s family background was linked to the Satsuma samurai domain, who had served the Shimazu Daimyo, (lord). The Shimazu opposed the Tokugawa in 1600 and were labeled as Tozama Daimyo, “outside lords”. The samurai who did not oppose them were labeled as Fudai Daimyo, “vassal lords”. There were now two lords in daimyo politics. The Shogunate kept all daimyo in check requiring them to reside part of the year in Edo, (now Tokyo), thus forcing them into expensive, time-consuming journeys, and to surrender family hostages who lived permanently under the eyes of the authorities in Edo Castle.

In Saigo’s day the Fudai had shogunal offices reserved for them. This was perhaps one of the reasons for the deep rooted problems within the political climate. The Fudai had important posts above the Tozama, which gave them greater powers and power to push forward Imperialism in the 1850’s and 1860’s. Historically the Shimazu did not challenge the Shogunate until the 1860’s.

Saigo became interested in politics purely by chance when he was promoted in early 1854 from assistant clerk to lord’s attendant (chu gokoshu) and served the daimyo lord Shimazu Nariakira of the Shimazu house. Nariakira was exceptionally talented, strong and robust and excelled at a variety of martial arts, including archery, riding and fencing. Nariakira was the most important person in the country because of his influence on the emperor and his government. He was regarded as the reformer of Japan. Samurai such as Saigo’s were governed by an unwritten code of behaviour, which came to be known as bushido – the way of the warrior. They served their lord well while he was alive and accepted their duty and that their wives and children would be expected to die willingly to protect the life and honour of their feudal lord.

Distressed over his lords death Saigo considered committing ritual suicide (Junshi), at Nariakira’s grave, but changed his mind, as he would best serve his dead master by pushing forward his political plans. He later felt that he had fulfilled his lord’s wish when he helped with the demise of the Shogunate.

Shortly after Nariakria’s death the Shogunate issued a warrant for Saigo’s death. The Shimazu House hid him from the Imperial Government and exiled him to the Amami Islands, where he found great cultural differences to those he had been born into, although he came to love the Amami Islands and its culture.

Saigo had a second exile to another Amami Island, Okinoerabujima. It would seem that the Imperial Government wanted him out of the way, but not dead. They called on him to serve them when the political climate had changed. The Island of Okinoerabukima was a bleak, unpleasant place with strong winds. He was held there for two years and suffered bouts of bad health. At first he had been kept in an “enclosure”, a ships brig likened to a cage for two months and later moved to confinement and house arrest. Whilst in exile in Okinoerabujima he studied and practiced calligraphy and became a teacher to children. He read extensively in Chinese and Japanese philosophy, as well as Chinese classics and poetry. At this time in his life he became an avid poet and one of his best poems was “reflections whilst in prison”.

Although disgruntled with being in exile Ravina shows how Saigo enjoyed the quieter life. This helped reduce the strain placed on his health by his involvement in almost constant political conflict.

Saigo had been exiled against his will, but it strengthened his character, as he had time to develop his cultural interests and reflect on his life and politics. He learned to enjoy the simplest pleasures, similar, perhaps, to when a priest goes on retreat.

He eventually withdrew from politics from 1874 to 1876. Saigo found peace, walking his dogs, fishing, reading books, writing poetry and learning calligraphy. He found solace in relaxing with Zen meditation. When he could, he enjoyed making straw sandals.

I thought that the book was a bit too heavy and detailed on feudal politics at times. This was a period of vast change and disruption of established methods and traditions.

This being said, I did find the rise and fall of the Tokugawa Shogunate Edo era 1600 – 1868 extremely interesting. This is half way through the book. The samurai creed reached full bloom in the early Tokugawa era, when class distinctions were most prominent. The samurai were deemed “the masters of the four classes” – above farmers, artisans and merchants. They were the only ones permitted to carry swords. They had the right to kill any member of the lower classes for disrespectful behaviour, a privilege known as kirisute- gomen, (cut, throw away, and pardon).

The Tokugawa Shogunate was established at Edo, (modern-day Tokyo) where it remained in power for the next 250 years. These were years of peace and stability in Japan, marked by isolation from the outside world, the growth of cities, economic development and social mobility.

However, during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, which were more peaceful, many samurai found themselves out of work as their lords were dispossessed and fiefdoms redistributed. Many became ronin, or masterless samurai. Their fighting skills were no longer considered important and the samurai grew impoverished and demoralised. Some samurai studied and sought posts as officials in the post 1868 Meiji administration.

With the fall of the Tokugawa Shogunate and the Meiji era 1868 – 1912 vast changes were taking place in Japan. The new Japanese Imperial Government were introducing radical reforms such as a policy of modernisation: railways were built; compulsory education and military service introduced; the solar calendar adopted and the feudal fiefs and the class system abolished.

Many out of work disgruntled traditional samurai held traditional values and feared “Westernisation”. They thought that foreigners would “pollute” Japan, while others argued conversely that technology and trade would enrich the country, and strengthen the military. Japan’s investment as a powerful State came at a price. Saigo’s was sympathetic to the traditional samurai and at times he was faced with a conflict of two loyalties, one to the Imperial Army and the other to Satsuma samurai.

Saigo let it be known that he agreed that Japan needed to modernise and accept Western ideas and their technology, and that Japan should open its ports. He supported the Imperial Government politically with its reform at first, but through time he came to realise that he naively underestimated the levels of corruption within the Imperial Government. This had been demonstrated within the Imperial Army’s financial budget to reform their Military.

Saigo became disillusioned with politics at this time, but it was the decision made by the Imperial Government to go to war with Korea which made Saigo hand in his resignation. This was against his virtuous values as a samurai and he was angry that Japan did not resolve their conflict with Korea peacefully.

Did the Imperial Government put politics before culture? The samurai were loyal to their Emperor, but he took their hereditary privilege and stipends away from them.

Was this a harsh, foolish decision made by the Imperial Government? How far did it wipe out an entire culture? In fairness, Japan was pressured into modernising to keep up with Western Nations and America. At that time Nations such as Britain and American were keen to expand their empire and had vested trade interests in Japan. This put pressure on Japan to open up its ports for trading. Mark Ravina puts the changes clearly into this context.

The Imperial Government had been seduced by Western culture. An example of seduction was that the Tokyo Government were eager to disband their own cultural traditions in favour of ballroom dancing, (frivolities), as Saigo called them, and at the same time the Government loathed to emulate the probity of Western Government officials.

However modernisation had its consequences and reform opened the door opened to opposing extremist radical groups to form, such as the Shigakko. Guerilla bands formed such as Shogitai or League to Demonstrate Righteousness, (a newly formed brigade of former shougunal soldiers). On reflection perhaps the Imperial Government should have taken a longer term strategy of reform and built bridges with the samurai, this may have at least reduced conflict and war.

There was great conflict, which resulted in a battle with the Imperial Army and the samurai rebels and their leader Saigo Takamori. This great battle was The War of the Southwest and happened on 24th September 1877. After two weeks of battles with the Imperial Army the samurai rebels along with Saigo were reduced from 30,000 to a few hundred brave warriors. The rebels had been defeated within hours.

Despite being heavy on feudal politics, Ravina’s book has inspired me to find out more about Japanese history and culture. My only criticism is that I would have liked to have had more information on Japanese feudal culture, heritage, community and artforms of their time.

To be fair though, Ravina does make many accounts of Saigo’s interest in culture throughout the book. Saigo was an inspiration of culture and employed others to learn from his wisdom. He enjoyed being a scholar, as well as an academic improving his knowledge. He encouraged the communities within Satsuma to be culturally self-sufficient at a time of depression, during the reform of the Meiji era 1868 – 1912 Imperial Government. Saigo got involved with the Yoshino Land Reclamation Society School, (based in a small village near Kagoshima City). Students did farm work, growing rice, millet and yams during the day.

Saigo’s political ideology was both romantic and practical. He was not antiwestern, but he detested the trappings of western culture. Ravina puts Saigo’s thoughts of that era into perspective, “Japan, he believed, had sacrificed its traditions for second-rate facsimiles of Western “individualism” and “liberty”.

As Ravina puts it “Saigo’s death was an antidote to Japan’s cultural malaise”. “He feared that Japan would learn from the West, but that Japan could learn the wrong things from the West and import the façade of Western culture rather than the underlying virtues that had led to Western strength”.

Even in death the Imperial Government feared his spirit. They had no understanding of how the tide of Japanese public opinion had turned. Saigo was their hero! Out of fear of further conflict and rebellion the Imperial Government pardoned Saigo of all his crimes against the state and restored him in death to Imperial Court Rank on 22nd February 1889.

Although the samurai culture may be part of our past, today they have left behind a legacy of culture, heritage and art. In reflection, I feel sad that many samurai descendents now work in the hotel and tourism industry, or as taxi-drivers. A culture such as the samurai should have been preserved not destroyed! What are we left with today? There are just a few remaining temples, castles and gardens. Yet we have the art and culture and Saigo’s story which still speaks to us today.

Reviewed by Jacqueline Sharp



  1. I was doing some research on my father and found the last paragraph most compelling. He had a friend or relative who was a taxi driver at Miyako hotel in Kyoto. we are from the Shimazu Tadamitsu lineage and I was trying to determine where my grandfather was in 1889. My father was born in 1896 and immigrated to America about 1918. I have a photo album but am unable to connect the dots to obtain relevant information of his early life. I was born and raised with all the values and samurai training after regular school in Los Angeles. Of course WW2 and the incarceration of American Japanese, this rich culture was taken from me at age 10. Now at age 81 my curiosity and commitment to create an appropriate bio of my father to accompany some of his art would enshrine his legacy to my children and grandchlldren. My name is Franklin (president inaugurated the year I was born) Tadakuni (samurai) Sata. Any direction you can point me to would be greatly appreciated. I cannot seem to print your review and would like a copy of it. Can you send it to me via e-mail to Thank you.


  2. fieldsbane said

    Reblogged this on Feildsbane.


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