My wife and I are planning a trip to Japan for August 2017. It is a celebratory occasion because that month will mark my wife’s completion of her doctoral program to be a Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner. Christina is working her butt off to finish this degree and I personally feel a lot of the stress that emanates from her little body. School by itself is terrible, but to make matters worse she is studying, working, and interning at the same time. I thought that I wanted to go back to school to study History or Religion but I have come to my senses and just want to keep writing my blog posts. To prepare for my trip, I wanted to read more about Japanese History-leading me to read The Last Samurai: The Life and Battles of Saigō Takamori.
Saigō Takamori was born in 1828 to a Japan that was on the cusp of national change. Japan was divided into classes of status that essentially preordained a person’s role in life. One of those classes included samurai, which in Japanese translates to, “those who serve in close attendance to the nobility.” Samurai only made up about 10% of the Japanese population and were trained in military skills for the protection of their clan or lord. Many samurai lived on menial stipends and practiced farming to make ends meet. Think of Samurai as the Army Reserves-loyal fighters who could be called to service at anytime. During most of Saigō’s lifetime, Japan was divided between domains that were somewhat autonomous-samurai did not fight for the “nation” of Japan but rather the lord of their domain. A similar situation can be seen in the US during the Civil War-Robert E Lee fought for his “domain” of Virginia over that of the “nation” of the United States. Samurai were taught to have the utmost virtue in obeying their lord and it was common practice to use ritual suicide if they were wounded/defeated in battle or if they were disobedient in their service.
Saigō, during his adult life, was used by his Lord to ascertain political information in the modern day city of Tokyo. This job led Saigō to make many important connections and would subsequently get him exiled two times because of political fallout related to his Lord. While in exile, Saigō’s popularity in Japan soared and on his return he was one of the most well known individual’s in the country due to his resiliency, virtue in service, and overall strength. Saigō was influential in helping Japan convert a divided island of domains into a united modernized country. Japan had to change their political system because western countries, like America, were much stronger militarily and Japan felt threatened by the tides of modernization crashing upon its shores. The Meiji Restoration in 1868 brought back imperial rule and drastically changed Japan’s feudal system to a modern-western system. Saigō, inadvertently, helped promote the eventually death of the samurai class and all classes for that matter. After the Meiji Restoration, all people were citizens of a “united” Japan and could move up the ranks of society based on their personal successes. In 1877, Saigō led a rebellion against the central government because of oppressive military policies against his domain. This was one of the last stands of a samurai class that was “technically” no more. In the end, Saigō was killed but was turned into a national hero because of his moral acumen against corruption, his unfaltering leadership, and his status as Japan’s “Last Samurai.”