Saigo Takamori and the Meiji Restoration

During the Meiji Restoration, an era of great transformation, the Satsuma domain (present day Kagoshima) played a vital role in the movement and produced many influential historical figures including Saigo Takamori. Satsuma had their own distinctive education system, regional governance system and networks. From early on, Satsuma was exposed to the pressure from Western powers due to its domain being positioned at the southwestern tip of Japan. To protect Japan’s independence, Satsuma endeavored to modernize its industry by pursuing western-style steelmaking, artillery manufacture, shipbuilding and textile spinning.

The domain’s objective for these actions was not to topple the shogunate (the government of Tokugawa shogun, a military dictator at the time), but rather to unite Japan with the cooperation of imperial court and shogunate. With their cooperation, Satsuma aimed to first establish a renewed nation that can compete against the West. The Meiji government implemented reforms in areas including politics, economy, and society, establishing a base foundation of modern Japan. During this process, many influential figures from Satsuma including Saigo played a significant role in various areas.

Satsuma Culture which Nurtured Saigo Takamori

With a high level of education, the domain’s philosophy was to hold high aspirations and devote oneself to the public.

Within Satsuma, its own unique education system known as goju (samurai elementary school) was provided to juveniles. Divided among districts, the juveniles studied in groups with the eldest student playing a central role. Saigo’s leadership skills were also developed in this goju educational system.
During mid-Edo period, hanko (public school established and administered by feudal clans) called Zoshikan was established in Satsuma, where children of samurai warriors studied Confucianism focusing on Neo-Confucianism. The unique characteristic of Satsuma education was to value actual practice more than theory. In this school was where samurai warriors learned the philosophy of holding high aspirations and devoting oneself to the public.

Satsuma promoted superior talents regardless of one’s hereditary ranks and established a system enabling the domain to act in unison.

During the Edo period, occupation positions were decided by one’s hereditary ranks. However in Satsuma during the last days of the Edo period, talented people were assigned to major positions regardless of what family the person was from. Saigo was no exception. He was a lower-ranked samurai warrior but was promoted by Shimadzu Nariakira (lord of Satsuma).
This continued even after the death of Nariakira. After Shimadzu Hisamitsu took power, he promoted men from Seichu-gumi (a group formed mostly by lower-ranked samurai warriors) including Saigo and Okubo Toshimichi. From this group, the men that played a central role in the Meiji Restoration rose to their positions.

From the information on foreign countries obtained through Ryukyu Islands, Satsuma sensed the danger the West presented at an early stage.

Satsuma was aware of the movements of Western power and realized the apparent superiority of their military and technology compared to Japan. The domain acquired this information through the Ryukyu Islands, which they had an indirect control over, as well as from the domain’s information network in Nagasaki and Yokohama.
Before the Boshin War, Saigo declined military aid offered by Great Britain. This was because the leaders of Satsuma knew from their acquired information that the West often started their colonization by offering military aid.

Satsuma’s mission was not to overthrow the shogunate, but rather to unite Japan as one to create a new nation.

In order to protect Japan’s independence, Satsuma viewed it was necessary to unite Japan and pursue modernization. The domain knew from their obtained knowledge, how difficult it was for the government to maintain an isolation policy by driving out the foreign powers.
As the commander of the imperial army during the Boshin War, Saigo met with Katsu Kaishu, a Tokugawa retainer before the army launched a full-scale attack to the Edo castle. Under a peaceful agreement reached between Saigo and Katsu Kaishu, Edo surrendered without resistance. As the city escaped damages from war, the city was renamed Tokyo after the Meiji Restoration and became the center of the modern nation’s establishment.