The dramatic arc of Saigo Takamori's life, from his humble originsas a lowly samurai, to national leadership, to his death as a rebelleader, has captivated generations of Japanese readers and nowAmericans as well - his life is the inspiration for a majorHollywood film, The Last Samurai
, starring Tom Cruise andKen Watanabe. In this vibrant new biography, Mark Ravina, professorof history and Director of East Asian Studies at Emory University,explores the facts behind Hollywood storytelling and Japaneselegends, and explains the passion and poignancy of Saigo's life.Known both for his scholarly research and his appearances on TheHistory Channel, Ravina recreates the world in which Saigo livedand died, the last days of the samurai.
The Last Samurai traces Saigo's life from his early daysas a tax clerk in far southwestern Japan, through his rise tonational prominence as a fierce imperial loyalist. Saigo was twiceexiled for his political activities -- sent to Japan's remotesouthwestern islands where he fully expected to die. But exile onlyincreased his reputation for loyalty, and in 1864 he was broughtback to the capital to help his lord fight for the restoration ofthe emperor. In 1868, Saigo commanded his lord's forces in thebattles which toppled the shogunate and he became and leader in theemperor Meiji's new government. But Saigo found only anguish innational leadership. He understood the need for a modern conscriptarmy but longed for the days of the traditional warrior.
Saigo hoped to die in service to the emperor. In 1873, he soughtappointment as envoy to Korea, where he planned to demand that theKorean king show deference to the Japanese emperor, drawing hissword, if necessary, top defend imperial honor. Denied this chanceto show his courage and loyalty, he retreated to his homeland andspent his last years as a schoolteacher, training samurai boys infrugality, honesty, and courage. In 1876, when the governmentstripped samurai of their swords, Saigo's followers rose inrebellion and Saigo became their reluctant leader. His insurrectionbecame the bloodiest war Japan had seen in centuries, killing over12,000 men on both sides and nearly bankrupting the new imperialgovernment. The imperial government denounced Saigo as a rebel anda traitor, but their propaganda could not overcome his fame and in1889, twelve years after his death, the government relented,pardoned Saigo of all crimes, and posthumously restored him toimperial court rank.
In THE LAST SAMURAI, Saigo is as compelling a characteras Robert E. Lee was to Americans-a great and noble warrior whofollowed the dictates of honor and loyalty, even though it meantcivil war in a country to which he'd devoted his life. Saigo's lifeis a fascinating look into Japanese feudal society and a history ofa country as it struggled between its long traditions and thedictates of a modern future.