Posted by: B Gourley | December 2, 2011

Saigō Takamori: The Last Samurai’s Obligation

Statue in Ueno Park, Tokyo

I’ve been reading Mark Ravina’s The Last Samurai: The Life and Battles of Saigō Takamori, which tells the tale of the last samurai general to lead warriors into battle. This is not to be confused with the film The Last Samurai, which, while the life of its fictitious Katsumoto somewhat mirrors that of Saigō, is pure Hollywood.

What makes Saigō‘s story so interesting is that it is positioned amid a struggle between modernity and tradition. It is easy to be conflicted about what happened at the time. Japan’s feudal Era was an ugly time and place to be alive unless you were among the very few on the top tier of society (the Imperial family, the Shogun, daimyo, etc.), and its end is an event to be applauded. [FYI- Even a samurai like Saigō had to walk 900 miles at an average rate of 20 miles a day to get from his home district of Satsuma to Edo (present-day Tokyo).] Yet, as I mentioned in a previous post about Emerson, each societal advance is matched with the loss of something valuable. There is no free progress. In the case of the end of the era of samurai, these losses include the start of a process of decay and demise of old style martial arts. While we may think ourselves good stewards of those arts that have survived, I can’t help but suspect that many of the deepest lessons learned from the Warring States period have perished in the yo-yo-ing in which these arts went from life-savingly relevant to despised. These losses presumably not only involve physical technique, but also lessons of the mind, strategy, and of how to comport oneself.

It seems that reality might be more nuanced than my impression of events. I suspected that this was simply a tale of a warrior class trying to maintain power in a world that had left them behind in order to grow into a more mature form of governance.  However, this simple line becomes muddled in reality. Western powers were at the time using force and intimidation to open up markets throughout Asia. This, in itself, is an example of a perversion of principles inherent in real world events. While they sometimes get a bad wrap, markets are fundamentally peaceful entities. What is a market, after all, other than a voluntary system of exchange which acknowledges ownership of property and an owner’s right to set the price for that which they own – be it their labor or goods. Forcing another country or individual to trade with one is at odds with the core nature of a market.

I found Saigō to be a much more sympathetic character than I had expected I would. In contrast to the idea of an individual who was power-hungry, Saigō is portrayed as a supremely humble individual. He was on occasion confused for one not of the samurai class because he eschewed the finery that normally accompanied such a post. [This simple clothing can be seen in the statue that appears prominently in Ueno Park in Tokyo – a picture of which I took in 2008 appears above.]  He didn’t just pay lip-service to the highest ideals of Confucianism, but he actually lived them. That is, the responsibilities that come with leadership were at the forefront of his mind, not just the perqs, and he was cognizant that no one was free of obligation to behave in a proper manner. He was also a reluctant warrior, and not a blood-thirsty tyrant. Instead, he seems to have taken on the role that he did because he thought it was his obligation in accordance with the way of heaven (a fancy way of saying the way one properly behaves.)

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