Sunday 2 July 2017

The Last "Real" Samurai? Saigo Takamori

Bronze statue of Saigo Takamori dressed in Yukata with his trusty hunting dog by his side
Statue of Saigo Takamori, with trusty hunting dog, on Ueno Hill
Just a stone's throw from Ueno Station is a statue of Saigo Takamori (right) sometimes called the last  "real " or "true" samurai and the model for the protagonist in the semi-factual film The Last Samurai starring Tom Cruise (also the name of a serious academic book). Saigo was a key figure in the upheaval at the end of the Edo era and the start of the Meiji period which saw the Tokugawa Shogun resign and the return to power of the emperor in 1868 in what is known as the Meiji Restoration (Meiji Ishin=明治維新). He laid the foundations for the return of the emperor, led the imperial forces in crushing the rebels, and then finally became a rebel himself against the central government in the Satsuma Rebellion (1877) - the climax of the film. Interestingly, the statue shows Saigo wearing a traditional Japanese yukata despite portraits from the time invariably showing him in Western, especially French-style, military uniform. This re-creation of Saigo as the epitome of the Japanese male mirrors the way the samurai image itself was appropriated and re-constructed to support the period of rapid modernisation following the Meiji Restoration.

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The success of this "samuraisation" of Japanese society can be seen today by the fact that so-called samurai values - such as courage, loyalty, virtue, nobility, humility, and perseverance - dominate surveys on the qualities which best represent the characteristics of the Japanese. This is an incredible achievement given that the samurai were a spent force of perhaps some 5% of the population by the end of the nineteenth century, an elite and (for two centuries) militarily idle class who drank, gambled, and worked as bureaucrats or teachers. The fact that the samurai image has come to personify the Japanese spirit reflects how bushidō (武士道) was used as an ideology to unite the country during the process of nation-building in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: an idealised image of a few pushed onto the nation as a whole, what academics call an "invented tradition." Nitobe Inazo's 1899 Bushido (pictured left), written in English as a form of cultural PR to explain Japan to the Western world, was a key text in the bushidō boom of 1898-1914 which formed the cornerstone of modern Japanese identity.

The altar of the Tomb of Shogitai Warriors, front, with offerings, and the actual tomb behind
Tomb of Shogi-tai Warriors, Ueno Hill
Returning to the statue, a few hundred meters away from the figure of Saigo is another monument, the tomb or graveyard of the Shogi-tai (彰義隊) warriors who fought to the last for the Tokugawa Shogunate, the very samurai rebels that Saigo tried to put down after the Meiji Emperor's restoration. Indeed, Saigo led what is known as the Battle of Ueno (上野戦争) on July 4th (May 15th in the old calendar) 1868 and his statue stands on the spot where the battle started (the Black Gate or Kuromon of Kan'ei-ji Temple). Although the sides were almost evenly matched, the imperial troops were victorious thanks to the use of Western cannons and guns which decimated the Shogi-tai ranks. As the picture right shows the altar at the front of the tomb is still tended and has flowers, water, sake, and a small jizō (note the kanji on the gates at the top of the stairs, the same gi = 義 as in Shogi-tai which means righteousness, justice, morality, honour, or loyalty). Thinking of the death and devastation that was the Battle of Ueno makes walking around the Hill at night quite an unnerving experience.