The origin of the Satsuma Rebellion in Japan lay in the voyage to Japan of U.S. Commodore Matthew C. Perry to Japan in July 1853. Perry carried with him instructions from President Millard Fillmore for the government of Japan to move away from isolationism.
If the government did not do so voluntarily, according to the president’s instructions, Perry was given the freedom to turn his guns on the Japanese. Several years earlier, Commodore James Biddle had been given a similar mission, but because he lacked the authority to use force, he had been compelled to turn away by Japanese officials. Fillmore was determined that Perry’s mission would not have a similar outcome.
On July 10, Perry sailed into Edo (Tokyo) Bay, with the warships Susquehanna, Mississippi, Saratoga, and Plymouth. For four days, the American warships carried out firing exercises in Edo Bay. On July 14 an emissary came from the Japanese emperor Komei, promising to take a message from Perry to the emperor. With his mission accomplished, Perry promised to return in spring 1854.
Perry’s mission to Japan provoked an immediate crisis for the Tokugawa shogun, Iesada. The appearance of a foreign naval squadron underscored his inability to protect Japan. The sole rationale of the shogunate (military regime) was its ability to use force to preserve domestic peace and prevent foreign invasion.
Having seen what the British had done to China when they inflicted a humiliating defeat in the Opium War in 1839–42, a group of military leaders were infuriated by the “loss of face” that Tokugawa Iesada had caused the Japanese to suffer.
When Perry returned to Uraga Harbor on February 15, 1854, he was met by five officials of the imperial court. After six weeks of cordial ceremonies, the Japanese signed the Treaty of Kanagawa on March 31, 1854.
Opposition began to grow again toward the Tokugawa Shogunate in the west of the country. Two clans began to assert themselves against the Shogunate: the Satsuma Clan in southern Kyushu, and the Choshu in western Honshu. Ironically, because they were “outsiders” in the Tokugawa social and political order, meaning that they were not originally supporters of the founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate, they tended to have kept the samurai warrior virtues that the Tokugawa supporters had gradually lost.
In response to the declining figure of the shogun, the rebellious lords began to champion the emperor, although he had largely been powerless since the first shogunate in the 12th century. The Satsuma and Choshu clans had strong resources to back them. Politically, the Choshu and Satsuma samurai became known as the Imperial Loyalists, feeling that the Emperor Komei was the legitimate leader of Japan.
Both the Choshu and Satsuma clans vied for leadership in what became open opposition to the shogunate. In December 1862 the Choshu samurai forced the shogun to agree to expel all foreigners by July 1863, something which the Choshu leaders knew the Tokugawa were now powerless to do. Thus, they achieved their goal of making the Tokugawa appear even more politically irrelevant than before.
In September 1863 a Satsuma force marching on Kyoto forced the Choshu samurai to abandon the court. However, the political cause of both clans, to restore the emperor, remained the same. The decisive event, the Shimonoseki Affair, took place in 1864.
The Shimonoseki Strait was an important maritime trade route controlled by the Choshu samurai, who attempted to block it to foreign trade. Its position between Honshu and Kyushu made its opening imperative to foreign commerce.
To the nationalistic samurai of Choshu and Satsuma, the Tokugawa capitulation at Shimonoseki proved the final insult. On March 7, 1866, Choshu and Satsuma drew up a secret alliance to restore the emperor. In 1867 Emperor Komei died, to be succeeded by Mutsohito, who took the reign name of Meiji.
Emperor Meiji was determined to rule Japan, and he welcomed the secret support of Choshu and Satsuma against the new shogun, Tokugawa Yoshinobu. Civil war erupted in 1867, and the Choshu and Satsuma clans openly rose up for the emperor.
Yoshinobu surrendered his powers to Meiji, who became restored to a powerful imperial throne in December 1867. In January 1868 Yoshinobu decided to attempt a final stand at Fushimi, where his forces were crushed. He surrendered to the imperial forces, and formally opened Edo to the imperial troops.
As when Western monarchies modernized, Japan’s modernization was done at the expense of the feudal classes. In August 1871 the new imperial government suddenly abolished all the domains of the feudal daimyo and established governmental prefectures in their place.
In 1873 the imperial government announced the formation of a new peasant conscript army to support the emperor, and this was rapidly followed by the permanent eclipse of the samurai class. Always proud of their status in society, they were now no longer to carry the daisho, the great sword and the small sword, in public.
The humbling of the samurai class distressed the new government, which not only had owed its creation to the samurai of Choshu and Satsuma but was composed itself of members of the warrior class. In 1873 a possible invasion of Korea was announced as a way to help the samurai regain their sense of military honor and at the same time diffuse what was beginning to become a threat to the new imperial regime.
Throughout this period, Saigo Takamori, a Satsuma samurai, had loyally supported the Meiji Restoration and had worked closely with Kido and Okubo in the modernization of Japan. When the new national army was created, Saigo had been made a field marshal in recognition of his services to the emperor.
Yet Saigo saw also in the decline of the samurai the ending of the class system of the ancient Japan to which he had dedicated his life. In the summer of 1873 Emperor Meiji called off plans for the invasion.
Saigo Takamori resigned from the government and returned to the Satsuma lands. Others felt as he did, especially when the wearing of the swords of the samurai was officially abolished by law in 1876. Rebellions broke out in Satsuma, Hizen, and Tosa. Whether intentionally or not, Saigo was forging the nucleus for a rebellion.
The flashpoint for what became known as the Satsuma Rebellion came when imperial troops seized the military supplies from the arsenal at Kagoshima, to prevent them falling into the hands of any rebels. To the Meiji government, this was an example of its policy of fukoku-kyohei (rich country, strong army) in a country in which all were now servants of the emperor.
To Takamori and his supporters, it was a call to revolt to defend traditional values. Although late to join active opposition to the emperor, Saigo nevertheless found himself in command of some 25,000 samurai.
His original strategy was to march directly on the imperial capital at Edo. There is some reason to think he may have been able to capitalize on the discontent of the peasant class as well if he had done so. To the peasants, the conscription of their sons was just another form of taxation, to be paid in blood rather than kind. However, Saigo deviated from his plans by besieging Kumamoto Castle, being held by a garrison of imperial conscripts.
The attack on the castle began on February 21, 1877. Finally, the Meiji government, showing a lack of military preparedness, was able to send a relief force to Kumamoto Castle on April 14. Faced with this new threat, Saigo was forced to abandon the siege. There followed months of a long pursuit in Kyushu, where government forces were compelled to fight on Saigo’s own terms.
Saigo, with only a few hundred followers, was confronted by an imperial force of some 30,000 men. However, in true samurai spirit, he refused to surrender to the government soldiers. On September 24, 1877, he led a final charge down Shiroyama into the guns of the imperial conscripts. He was mortally wounded.
His closest follower, Beppu Shinsuke, picked up the dying Takamori and carried him further down the hill to a place suitable for ritual suicide. Shinsuke then charged into the guns of the imperial troops. The Satsuma Rebellion was over, but the legend of Saigo Takamori had just begun.