Who was the last samurai? In the movie the Last Samurai an american soldier portrayed by Tom Cruise learns of the samurai ways and ends up fighting alongside them, against a modern Japanese army that seeks to erradicate the traditional and pure lifestyle of the samurais. Is there any truth in that? Let’s find out.

#1 The historical Samurai

The samurai were a warrior class in Feudal Japan, whom 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, which had peasants working them, pretty much like feudal knights in Europe. In turn, the samurais served a daimyō (a feudal noble lord), who also belonged to the samurai class, pledging their loyalty in exchange for 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 possessed a strict code of honour and loyalty known as Bushidō (the way of warriors). In addition to, they were the only class in Japan allowed to carry weapons, usually in the form of their two characteristic swords.

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

The golden age for the samurai ended 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, since the Emperor was seen as a divine figure, too pure to be concerned with the wordly events outside his palace, in Kyoto.

Named after the city of Edo (modern Tokyo), in 1603 the Edo Period was inaugurated, 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, acting as public officers who collected taxes and kept local order. Many others saw these jobs unbecoming and sat idle, but still remained overall 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 the public order.

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

#2 The arrival of the Black Ships

Since the 17th century Japan had remained isolated, bar a small trade exchange with Dutch merchants, Korea, or the Ryukyu Islands. Dealings with the Christian countries was seen as harmful, due to their attempts to convert the Japanese peasants, and thus the Tokugawa shogunate developed a feeling of aversion towards the so-called barbarians from the west.

In 1853 American naval officer, Commodore Mathew Perry, appeared in Edo Bay at the head of a squadron, and threatened to fire his guns if Japan didn’t open its ports to trade with them. Lacking the capacity to oppose the modern guns, the Tokugawa authorities saw the futility of opposing and acquiesced to the demands. Soon enough other Western powers followed suit and blackmailed Japan into signing similar trade agreements.

Perry’s ships in 1853 and 1854. Ever since Portuguese ships had landed in Japan for the first time in 1543, foreign ships had been dubbed ‘black ships’, probably because of the black tar used on their hulls. Unknown author. Source

These agreements were extremely profitable to the western powers but not so much for Japan, who had to endure 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 law. This concept is known as extraterritoriality.  Many Japanese blamed the Shōgun for their weakness and rallied around the figure of the Emperor against the foreigners. After 250 years of more-or-less peaceful idleness, samurais in both sides, shogunate and pro-emperor, found themselves dusting-off their rusty blades, often using violent action and political assassination to further their goals.

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. A brief civil war followed, the Boshin War (War of the Year of the Yang Earth Dragon) ending with the abdication of Yoshinobu Tokugawa, the last Shōgun.

Thousands of Tokugawa loyalists fled to the northern island of Hokkaido were they established the Ezo Republic. The new Meiji government would have none of it, and after defeating them in the battle of Hakodate, the war finally ended. The Meiji Restoration and the twilight of the samurai, had begun.

#3 How long did the samurais last?

The Meiji government begun their rule by turning their back on the promises of kicking the foreigners out of the country. Japan was already up to knees in modernisation and it made no sense to turn away from it, notwithstanding the need for foreign gunpower to fight off the foreigners. The feudal kingdom was gradually turned into a nation, with the domains re-structured into prefectures and daimyōs compensated by their loss of status and lands with lucrative positions in the new administration.

With the country now adopting a professional, modern army and police force, it no longer had a need for a traditional and inefficient warrior class like the Samurai, whose stipends moreover, consumed half of Japan’s yearly revenue. As a result they were stripped of ancient privileges such as the right to wear the katana and their hairstyle, the Chonmage, and their stipends were severely reduced. Consequently many poor samurai lost their rank and resented the Meji government.

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.

The Chonmage became an important symbol of status for the samurai during the Edo period. Author: unknown. Source

#4 The last samurai

Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer

Sun Tzu

It’s perhaps ironic that the biggest threat to the 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, and returned to his native Kagoshima, in Kyushu (former Satsuma domain).

Saigō Takamori. Sketch by Edoardo Chiossone. Source

Discontentment with the new government was strong in Kagoshima, which blocked Meiji attempts to collect taxes and openly defied its authority. Saigō and many other samurais believed the emperor was ill-advised by greedy and weak advisors, and claimed to fight against them, and not the emperor himself. They disapproved of the modernisation of the country and the role of the foreigners but they still knew of the importance of a modern army, and as such a military school was founded to provide trainiong with modern arms.

#5 The last charge of the samurai

Quick to sniff a rebellion, the Meiji government sent a warship to confiscate Kagoshima’s arsenal on 30th January 1877, but the students of the military academy stormed the arsenal before and took the weapons away. Tension escalated quickly on Kyushu, and Saigō Takamori decided he would pay a nostalgic visit to his former government colleagues, and what better diplomacy than to bring along 15.000 seething and unemployed samurai.

They marched north of Kyushu, planning on overthrowing the government, cleanse the Imperial court of nefarious advisors to the emperor, and to restore the samurai privileges. However, his army, now bolstered to 40.000, failed to capture the key castle of Kumamoto, and Imperial forces rushing to reinforce the besieged garrison, repulsed Saigō’s army.

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

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

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

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

#6 Movie vs reality

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 dog (or a cat?) in his spare time, whenever not fighting abusive foreigners or corrupt imperial advisors.

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 also exist 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’ fellow countryman, Eugène Collache, who took to wear the traditional samurai attire and swords. Nowadays he’d probably be accused of cultural appropriation.

The samurai have been romanticised as paragons of traditional virtues, like patience, discipline, skill, and honour. But they were, but samurai were also a privileged class with outrageous public incomes that crippled the country’s economy, while providing little in return and often acting abusively towards peasants. The new Imperial Army, conscripted mostly from these peasants, proved the samurai way was outdated after their victory at 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. And much of this inspiration is owed to the example of Saigō Takamori, the real last samurai.

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