Former Samurai Rise in Satsuma Rebellion Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Satsuma Rebellion was the last of several uprisings against the new Meiji government by former samurai dissatisfied with state policies, the loss of former-samurai rights, and the modernization of Japan. The rebellion also marked the end of six centuries of feudalism in Japan.

Summary of Event

Japan’s 1877 Satsuma Rebellion Satsuma Rebellion (1877) Japan;Satsuma Rebellion was the last in a series of battles fought between the new Meiji government and politicians and the former samurai who were disenchanted with the new policies and reforms that had been enacted one decade earlier. The rebels were some of the most important men in Japan in the last half of the nineteenth century, including the colorful Saigō Takamori, who became immortalized in the public consciousness as one of the last of the true samurai. He had committed ritual suicide on the field of battle when faced with certain defeat by the new Meiji army. The Meiji victory secured the new government militarily and gave it the confidence and tactical ability to proceed with its program of instant modernization. Satsuma Rebellion (1877) Japan;Satsuma Rebellion Japan;samurai Samurai Saigō Takamori [kw]Former Samurai Rise in Satsuma Rebellion (Jan.-Sept. 24, 1877) [kw]Samurai Rise in Satsuma Rebellion, Former (Jan.-Sept. 24, 1877) [kw]Rise in Satsuma Rebellion, Former Samurai (Jan.-Sept. 24, 1877) [kw]Satsuma Rebellion, Former Samurai Rise in (Jan.-Sept. 24, 1877) [kw]Rebellion, Former Samurai Rise in Satsuma (Jan.-Sept. 24, 1877) Saigō Takamori Satsuma Rebellion (1877) Japan;Satsuma Rebellion Japan;samurai Samurai [g]Japan;Jan.-Sept. 24, 1877: Former Samurai Rise in Satsuma Rebellion[4930] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Jan.-Sept. 24, 1877: Former Samurai Rise in Satsuma Rebellion[4930] [c]Government and politics;Jan.-Sept. 24, 1877: Former Samurai Rise in Satsuma Rebellion[4930] Mutsuhito Aritomo Yamagata

There were two major reasons for the various rebellions in Japan in the 1870’s. First, in an attempt to resist the growing Western economic and military threats, the old Tokugawa shogunate was overthrown by principled and idealistic midlevel samurai who sought to restore the emperor to power. With the restoration of Mutsuhito Mutsuhito , the Meiji emperor, in 1867, Japan changed almost overnight; the new imperial government decided that to save the country it must immediately industrialize and discard all vestiges of the old social order. The samurai warrior class was abolished, and samurai lost their privileges, their stipends, and eventually even their swords. They were replaced by a new European-style army that the former samurai regarded as a group of mere “conscripted Conscription;Japanese farmers.” Ironically, some of the most important instigators of the Meiji revolution, such as Saigō Takamori, developed second thoughts about the new government and society they helped create.

The second factor behind the rebellions was the Seikanron debate (1873) over Japan’s expansion Korea;Japanese occupation of Japan;occupation of Korea Korea;and Japan[Japan] Japan;and Korea[Korea] into Korea by force. The new Meiji state tried to alter its formal relations with Korea, believing that Korea was a country located naturally within its growing sphere of influence. The Koreans spurned these advances, seeing Japan as attempting to usurp traditional Chinese influence in the peninsula. The Koreans would not, for example, allow a Japanese consulate to be established in Pusan.

Young Samurai rebels in training.

(Francis R. Niglutsch)

In 1873 members of the Japanese government had become divided over whether or not to punish Korea for these insults. Many permanent government officials were traveling to the United States and Europe on a goodwill mission at the request of the emperor, and more ambitious politicians, eager for military action, were in charge. These figures included Saigō Takamori, who offered to travel to Korea and provoke a violent incident there, perhaps even at the expense of his own life. Upon the return of those with cooler heads, Saigō’s offer was dismissed, and he was sent away in disgrace to his home in Satsuma (modern-day Kagoshima prefecture) on the southern Japanese island of Kyūshū in October, 1873.

The 1870’s saw several uprisings, mostly in Kyūshū. In the Saga Rebellion of 1874, three thousand former samurai in Saga prefecture had attacked a bank. Most wanted war with Korea, but probably one-third also were angry about the loss of samurai rights. Imperial troops quelled the disturbance within two weeks.

The Jimpūrun Rebellion of 1876 Jimpūrun Rebellion (1876)[Jimpurun Rebellion (1876)] Japan;Jimpūrun Rebellion[Jimpurun Rebellion] in Kumamoto prefecture concerned the samurai’s right to wear swords. About 170 former samurai attacked the Kumamoto garrison on October 24, but they were subdued the next day. The Hagi Rebellion of October 26, 1876, occurred in Yamaguchi prefecture (across from Kyūshū). Several hundred former samurai had planned to attack the prefecture office over the loss of samurai privileges and over disagreements with the government’s modernization policies. This rebellion was quickly repressed when the government uncovered the plot.

The Akizuki Rebellion Akizuki Rebellion (1876) Japan;Akizuki Rebellion had taken place in Fukuoka prefecture on October 27, 1876, concerning the ban on wearing swords and the cutting of samurai stipends. Several hundred people attacked the prefectural office and garrison, but the government learned of the plan and the rebels were soon captured.

The Satsuma Rebellion was the last, and largest, of the uprisings. Tensions between Satsuma and the central government had been rising throughout the fall of 1876. Satsuma still had not adopted many of the reforms ordered by the government in Tokyo, and it continued to retain its own armed forces under the guise of private military schools that Saigō Takamori had established to provide employment for the many jobless former samurai. The rebellion technically began on January 30, 1877, when one thousand students from these private military academies seized some Meiji government arsenals and a shipyard in Kagoshima City and Iso. The imperial government, suspecting trouble, had wanted to secretly move these munitions to safer quarters at the main arsenal in Osaka, but they were detected by Satsuma antigovernment forces, who immediately attacked them.

Saigō was sympathetic to the complaints of the former samurai and to the cause of the rebels in Satsuma and other prefectures. He also was concerned about the plight of the farmers who were suffering greatly under the Meiji government’s new draconian land-tax system. Still, Saigō did not want another revolution. Although exiled from the national government several years earlier, his popularity remained strong both nationally and locally, and many believed that with his support the central government could still be brought down. Thus, when rebellions broke out, he deliberately kept himself in seclusion for fear that his appearance would be taken as a call to arms.

When his students and fellow Satsuma leaders, however, attacked the government powderhouse in Kagoshima, Saigō felt obligated to support them. The capture of several Meiji government spies thought to have come to Satsuma to assassinate Saigō likely also changed his mind. In February, he decided to raise an army, go to Tokyo Tokyo to see the emperor, and confront the “enemies of the emperor,” the new central government. He raised an army of some thirty thousand troops.

Although well trained and with high morale, the rebel army was limited by shortages of ammunition, artillery, food supplies, and money. In contrast, Aritomo Yamagata’s new modern imperial army enjoyed better logistics, interior lines, control of the seas, and limitless supplies. Although initial advances were quick, the rebels became bogged down in a siege of the imperial garrison at Kumamoto, which lasted fifty days. This gave the government time to fully mobilize and force Saigō’s retreat to the mountains. By September, all that was left of the Satsuma army was three hundred men. All perished in a final charge to their deaths on September 24.

Significance

The suppression of the Satsuma Rebellion marked the true end of more than six centuries of feudalism in Japan. After suppressing the various rebellions of the 1870’s, the new central government no longer had to face organized military resistance from the domains or clans. The new Meiji central government became legitimized internationally and gained strong national support. The loyalty of the people was no longer in doubt, and the samurai era had ended.

The new conscript army eventually proved itself a disciplined and well-trained force, pledging total allegiance to the emperor. The early criticisms made by the former samurai—that an army of commoners could not defend the nation—proved unfounded. This same army would lead Japan to victory against China in 1894 and Russia in 1905.

In its wisdom, the Meiji government held no special resentments toward the rebel provinces, which speeded healing and unification. Even many of the participants were pardoned, though most leaders and instigators were harshly punished. The government, did, however, posthumously pardon Saigō in 1891. He is still venerated as a hero—considered an upholder of traditional values rather than a rebel—and his statue stands in Ueno Park in Tokyo.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Buck, James. “The Satsuma Rebellion of 1877: From Kagoshima through the Siege of Kumamoto Castle.” Monumenta Nipponica 28, no. 4 (1973): 427-446. The classic, and most detailed, account in English of the actual battle of the Satsuma Rebellion.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hacket, Roger. Yamagata Aritomo in the Rise of Modern Japan, 1838-1922. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1971. The standard biography of one of the founders of the Meiji state and the architect of the modern army.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ikegami, Eiko. The Taming of the Samurai: Honorific Individualism and the Making of Modern Japan. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1995. Covers the one-thousand-year history of the samurai, their particular world view of loyalty and honor, and attempts to domesticate them (ending with the Satsuma Rebellion).
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ravina, Mark. The Last Samurai: The Life and Battles of Saigō Takamori. Hoboken, N.J.: John Wiley & Sons, 2004. The second biography of Saigō to appear in English (and the basis for Tom Cruise’s movie of the same name) by a noted historian.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Yates, Charles. Saigō Takamori: The Man Behind the Myth. London: Kegan Paul, 1995. The first biography in English of Saigō, giving a good examination of his motivations in rebelling against the state he helped create.

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