Who was the last samurai? Is there any truth, in the Last Samurai movie? Was there a real Tom Cruise wielding a katana, and fighting for a group of traditional samurai, against the tyranny of modernisation and industrialisation of the late 19th century? Let’s find out the truth, about the last samurai.

#1 The historical Samurai

The samurai were a warrior class in Feudal Japan. They had rose to prominence in the civil wars that desolated the Japanese islands during the Sengoku Period (“Age of warring states”), lasting from 1467 till 1600. The samurai owned small portions of land, called fiefs, and had peasants working them. In turn, the samurais served a daimyō (a feudal noble lord), pledging their loyalty to them, in exchange of payment and protection.

Pyramid of social classes in feudal Japan. Top to bottom: emperor, shogun, daimyos, samurai, ronin, peasants, artisans and merchants.
The social structure of feudal Japan. Author: unknown. Source

The samurai were specialists in the art of war, and had a strict code of honour and loyalty, called Bushidō (the way of warriors). In addition to, they were the only class in Japan allowed to carry weapons, usually their two characteristic swords.

Illustration of a Samurai. They were proficent in many martial arts, including swordsmanship, marksmanship, and hand to hand combat. Author: unknown. Source

Everything changed for the samurai in 1600, when the daimyō Ieyasu Tokugawa seized the pinnacle of military strength in Japan, and was appointed Shōgun by the Emperor. Shōgun was the equivalent of Generalissimo, a sort of a military dictator running the country, as the Emperor was seen as a divine figure, too pure to be concerned with the wordly events outside his palace in Kyoto.

In 1603 the Edo Period was inaugurated, named after the city of Edo (modern day Tokyo), and which saw the samurai recycled into bureaucrats. Around 6-7% of Japan’s population during the Edo period, were samurai, and many served in towns and castles, as officers collecting taxes and keeping local order. Many others sat idle scratching their b**** but still wealthy. Japan was at peace, but their code of honour begun to be discouraged by the Tokugawa authorities, who saw in their duels and brawls, a challenge to their order.

Emblem of the Tokugawa clan. Author: Lemon-s. Source

#2 Guns and westerners

Since the 17th century, Japan had been isolated, apart from a small trade exchange with Dutch merchants, Korea, and the Ryukyu Islands. Dealings with Christian countries had been seen as harmful, due to their attempts to convert the Japanese, and thus developed a feeling of aversion towards the barbarians. That’s how they called us (reasonably enough).

In 1853, American Naval officer Commodore Mathew Perry, appeared in Edo Bay, and threatened to fire his ship guns if Japan didn’t open its ports to trade with them. And he fulfilled his promise of aggressive trade, oh yes he did. Lacking the deadly western guns, the Tokugawa authorities saw the futility of opposing, and acquiesced to the US bullies. Soon, other Western powers blackmailed Japan into signing trade agreements too.

Perry’s ships in 1853 and 1854. Since Portuguese ships landed in Japan for the first time in 1543, foreign ships were called ‘black ships’, because of the black tar on the hulls. Unknown author. Source

These agreements were extremely profitable to the western Imperialists, but not that much for Japan, who had to endure some humiliating impositions. One that sparked much resentment, was that foreigners trading in Japan were above the Shōgun’s law, and could only be trialled by foreign judges, under foreign laws. A concept known as extraterritoriality.  Many Japanese blamed the Shōgun, and rallied around the figure of the Emperor against the foreigners, and the servile Tokugawa. Many samurais among their ranks, soon found themselves dusting-off their blades after 250 years of inactivity, often using violent action and political assassination to promote change.

Some samurai are wearing traditional attires whereas others wear western uniforms. All have katanas and are checking a map
Samurai from the Satsuma domain. Circa 1868. Picture by Felice Beato. Source

The rebels, mostly focused in the domains of the southern islands of Kyushu and Chōshū, marched to Kyoto on December 1867, prompting the Emperor Meiji to announce a restoration. Not that you’d refuse a guy with a sword telling you to do things at your door. A brief civil war followed, called the Boshin War “War of the Year of the Yang Earth Dragon” (Disclaimer: doesn’t feature any dragon), and Yoshinobu Tokugawa, the last Shōgun, resigned.

Thousands of Tokugawa loyalists fled to the northern island of Hokkaido, and established the Ezo Republic, which recalls a banana republic, right? The Meiji Government was of the same mind, and after wiping them in the battle of Hakodate, the war ended. The Meiji Restoration, and the twilight of the samurai, had begun.

#3 How long did the samurais last?

The Meiji government begun their spectacular and successful political career, by forsaking their promise of kicking the foreigners out of Japan. The country was already snowballing into modernisation, and there was no way back from it. A feudal kingdom was to be turned into a nation. The domains were re-structured into prefectures, and daimyōs were compensated by their loss of status and lands, with lucrative positions in the new administration.

Samurai stipends consumed half of Japan’s yearly revenue, and the country, now counting on a professional modern army, had no need for the old warrior class. They were slowly stripped of privileges, such as the right to wear the katana, their hairstyle, the Chonmage, was banned, and their stipends were severely reduced. Many poor samurai lost their rank.

The Chonmage was a symbol of status during the Edo period. Author: unknown. Source

Some decided to co-opt and find a new place in the Meiji Japan, but others, inseparable from their traditions, chose the way of the sword one last time.

#4 Who was the last samurai?

Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer

Sun Tzu

It is ironic that the biggest threat to the brand-new Meiji government came from the figure of one of its most staunch defenders, the samurai Saigō Takamori. Saigō, who belonged to the Satsuma domain, had been one of the key military leaders of new Imperial Army during the Boshin War but had resigned in 1873, after Japan had decided to decline his proposal to invade Korea. After Saigō was told he was a bad boy for wanting to hurt other boys, he got back to his native Kagoshima, in Kyushu (former Satsuma domain).

Saigō Takamori. Sketch by Edoardo Chiossone. Source

Discontentment with the new government was strong, especially in Kagoshima, who blocked Meiji attempts to collect taxes, and rebuked their authority. Many samurais, who had been doing nothing during 250 years, realised now they were still doing nothing, but now weren’t getting a penny for it, like before. Saigō rallied many of them, and founded a military school. He personally disagreed with the modernisation of Japan and the role of the foreigners, but he still knew of the importance of a modern army.

#5 The last charge of the samurai

Sniffing rebellion, the government sent a warship to confiscate Kagoshima’s arsenal on 30th January 1877 but students of the military academy stormed the arsenal before, and took the weapons. Tension escalated quickly on Kyushu, and Saigō Takamori decided he was left with no choice but to pay a nostalgic visit to his fellow government colleagues. Accompanied by 15.000 outraged and unemployed samurai.

He marched north of Kyushu, planning on overthrowing the government, cleansing the Imperial court of bad influences, and restore the samurai privileges. However, his army, now bolstered to 40.000 men, failed to capture the key castle of Kumamoto, and Imperial forces reinforcing the besieged garrison, repelled Saigō.

Kumamoto castle. Imperial reinforcements ultimately prevented the rebel samurais from taking it. Author: 663highland. Source

After several months of slipping through the Meiji fingers, Saigō and his last 500 samurai, were finally cornered in the hill of Shiroyama, immediately to Kagoshima. Surrounded by 30.000 Imperial soldiers, by ditches and under heavy fire, the Satsuma rebels ferociously fought back. They used all of their ammunition (yes samurai used guns too) and had to resort to swords, managing to keep the Imperialist troops at bay.

Artistic representation of Saigō and his men. He is dressing western clothes and sits in the middle. Published by  Le Monde Illustré . Source

But in the heat of the battle, Saigō received a fatal gunshot in his femoral artery, and was carried uphill by Beppu Shinsuke. According to the legend, Saigō asked Beppu to decapitate him, so he could preserve his honour by purging the shame of the defeat with his life. A true samurai. Beppu complied, and afterwards, he and the 40 surviving samurai, raised theirs swords and charged downhill to meet their end, the end of the samurais.

#6 The Last Samurai movie. Based on a true history

Saigō became an example of the virtues of the former warrior-class that once ruled Japan, and the government pardoned him posthumously in 1889. They even commissioned a statue of him walking his tiny dog in his spare time, whenever not fighting abusive foreigners, or the enemies of the samurai.

Statue of Saigō Takamori in Ueno Park. Tokyo. Author: BradBeattie. Source

The movie The Last Samurai, featuring Tom Cruise and Ken Watanabe, which portrayed fictional events inspired in the Meiji Restoration and the Satsuma Rebellion, took Saigō’s last stand as their main inspiration. There exist also several true accounts of westerners who became samurais, like Jules Brunet, a French military advisor of the Shogunate who took an active role in the defense of the pro-shogun Ezo Republic. Or Jules’ countryman, Eugène Collache, who was noticed to wear, sometimes, the samurai traditional attire and the swords, and who nowadays would get roasted in social media for cultural appropriation.

The samurai have been romanticised as paragons of traditional virtues, like patience, discipline, skill, and honour. But real samurai were a privileged class, with outrageous public incomes that crippled the country’s economy, while giving little in return. The new Imperial Army, conscripted mostly from peasants, had smashed the samurai in the battle of Shiroyama, and snuffed out their era for good.

But those values of discipline, bravery and honour, whether always upholstered by the samurai or not, are still very alive in Japan, and give its people a role model to look forward to. Thanks to the example of Saigō Takamori, the last samurai.

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