Synopses & Reviews
On September 24, 1877, Saigõ Takamori, one of Japan's most loyal and honored samurai, died in the bloodiest conflict Japan had seen in over two hundred years, a battle led by Saigõ and his band of loyal students. Now, more than 125 years after his death, Saigõ still remains a legendary yet enigmatic figure in Japan. Why would Japan's greatest warrior, whose sole purpose was to serve his country, set in motion a civil war and lead a group of rebel soldiers to overthrow the government that he had personally helped to restore? The Last Samurai sets forth to demystify Saigõ's life, his machinations, and the dramatic historical events that shaped the life and death of Japan's favorite samurai.
Exiled for misconduct, Saigõ was pardoned in 1864 and called back to the mainland to train a group of Satsuma warriors. Their mission was to seize control of the imperial palace and restore the imperial house to its former glory. Saigõ's coup was successful, and in 1867 he led the drive to destroy the shogunate and to create a powerful new state. But with Saigõ's victory came a crushing defeat: in his drive to modernize Japan, the Meiji emperor, whom Saigõ had helped bring to power, abolished all samurai privileges, including their ancient right to carry swords.
Now an acting member of a modernizing Meiji government, Saigõ was given command of the new Imperial Guard, Japan's first national army in nearly a millennium. Saigõ supported many of the government's Western-style reforms, but he was torn by the sense that he was betraying his most stalwart supporters. Deeply ambivalent about the government he had helped create, Saigõ sought to end his career with a final dramatic gesture: he sought to go as imperial envoy to Korea, where he would insist that the Korean king recognize the Meiji emperor. When his plan was denounced as reckless, Saigõ resigned from government, returned to his native Satsuma, and opened a military academy for former samurai warriors. His group of disgruntled students resented the rapid modernization of Japan even more than did Saigõ. They set forth to slow the hand of change with their swords, making Saigõ the reluctant leader of their uprising. Old Japan and New Japan met in battle-blades against artillery-and old Japan lost. Saigõ died in battle from a bullet wound, but legend still has it that he died by his own sword, upholding samurai honor to the end.
In life, Saigõ had represented all that was commendable in the samurai estate. In death, Saigõ's legend grew even greater. The Last Samurai deftly traces the rise, fall, and rise again of Saigõ's life, his legend, and his dedication to all he believed in: tradition, honor, and glory. This compelling book provides a fascinating glimpse into the final days of Japanese feudal society, the blood-swept path of Saigõ's career, and his lasting impact on the nation to which he gave his life.
“In a pacy narrative that reads like a thriller, Ravina follows Takamori through his last battle…” (Good Book Guide, April 2005)
"Ravina has opened up a dimension of Saigo’s life that was closed to English readers before now."
—Charles L. Yates, The Historian
A brilliant warrior, reluctant rebel, and tragic figure caught between tradition and a changing world
0n September 24, 1877, Saigo-Takamori, one of Japan's most loyal and honored samurai, died in the bloodiest conflict Japan had seen in over two hundred yearsa battle led by Saigo- and his band of loyal students. Now, more than 125 years after his death, Saigo- still remains a legendary yet enigmatic figure in Japan. Why would Japan's greatest warrior, whose sole purpose was to serve his country, set in motion a civil war and lead a group of rebel soldiers to overthrow the government that he had personally helped to restore?
Against the colorful and turbulent backdrop of Japanese feudal society, The Last Samurai chronicles Saigo's life, from the childhood events that shaped his courage and passionate sense of justice to Saigo's demise by his own hand on the battlefield of the Satsuma Rebellion. The Last Samurai offers a riveting account of the making of Japan's most honored samurai, details the tragic clash between his samurai ideals and Japan's transformation into a modern nation, and illustrates why this consummate soldier and reluctant rebel is still as revered today as he was in his time.
"Ravina's writing grips with the intensity of a great adventure story and vividly portrays the upheavals caused to a nation."
Yorkshire Evening Post (UK)
The dramatic arc of Saigo Takamori's life, from his humble origins as a lowly samurai, to national leadership, to his death as a rebel leader, has captivated generations of Japanese readers and now Americans as well - his life is the inspiration for a major Hollywood film, The Last Samurai
, starring Tom Cruise and Ken Watanabe. In this vibrant new biography, Mark Ravina, professor of history and Director of East Asian Studies at Emory University, explores the facts behind Hollywood storytelling and Japanese legends, and explains the passion and poignancy of Saigo's life. Known both for his scholarly research and his appearances on The History Channel, Ravina recreates the world in which Saigo lived and died, the last days of the samurai.
The Last Samurai traces Saigo's life from his early days as a tax clerk in far southwestern Japan, through his rise to national prominence as a fierce imperial loyalist. Saigo was twice exiled for his political activities -- sent to Japan's remote southwestern islands where he fully expected to die. But exile only increased his reputation for loyalty, and in 1864 he was brought back to the capital to help his lord fight for the restoration of the emperor. In 1868, Saigo commanded his lord's forces in the battles which toppled the shogunate and he became and leader in the emperor Meiji's new government. But Saigo found only anguish in national leadership. He understood the need for a modern conscript army but longed for the days of the traditional warrior.
Saigo hoped to die in service to the emperor. In 1873, he sought appointment as envoy to Korea, where he planned to demand that the Korean king show deference to the Japanese emperor, drawing his sword, if necessary, top defend imperial honor. Denied this chance to show his courage and loyalty, he retreated to his homeland and spent his last years as a schoolteacher, training samurai boys in frugality, honesty, and courage. In 1876, when the government stripped samurai of their swords, Saigo's followers rose in rebellion and Saigo became their reluctant leader. His insurrection became the bloodiest war Japan had seen in centuries, killing over 12,000 men on both sides and nearly bankrupting the new imperial government. The imperial government denounced Saigo as a rebel and a traitor, but their propaganda could not overcome his fame and in 1889, twelve years after his death, the government relented, pardoned Saigo of all crimes, and posthumously restored him to imperial court rank.
In THE LAST SAMURAI, Saigo is as compelling a character as Robert E. Lee was to Americans-a great and noble warrior who followed the dictates of honor and loyalty, even though it meant civil war in a country to which he'd devoted his life. Saigo's life is a fascinating look into Japanese feudal society and a history of a country as it struggled between its long traditions and the dictates of a modern future.
About the Author
MARK RAVINA is an associate professor of Japanese history at Emory University and Director of the East Asian Studies Program. He lives in Atlanta, Georgia.
Table of Contents
Note To The Reader.
1. "Powerfully Sentimental".
Siago's Early Years in Satsuma.
2. "A Man Of Exceptional Fidelity."
Siago and National Politics.
3. "Bones In The Earth."
Exile and Ignominy.
4. "To Shoulder The Burdens Of The Realm."
The Destruction of the Shogunate.
5. "To Tear Asunder The Clouds."
Saigo and the Meiji State.
6. "The Burden of Death Is Light."
Saigo and the War of the Southwest.