Isolation and The Last Samurai

Posted by on Nov 26, 2011 in Kumamoto, Travel Volunteer Journey | One Comment
Isolation and The Last Samurai

At the start of the 17th century, with the commencement of the Edo Period, Japan decided it didn’t want foreign friends any more. Citing moral decline, the arrival of alien religions and the wicked vices of the wider world, it closed its doors and entered a period of self-isolation known as Sakoku.
In the bustling port of Nagasaki, they burned alive and crucified several hundred people, foreigners and locals alike, propping them up like fleshy flags to show they were serious. Japan had effectively become the North Korea of its day, and only made one or two exceptions to its own rules.

Traders from China were officially treated the same as any other foreigners, but in reality had far greater freedom to enter the country. The only other country granted any exemption was the Netherlands, who had helped to oust the Spanish and Portuguese ships from Nagasaki port, tutting loudly about them spreading Catholicism (while secretly doling out Protestantism under the table at the same time). But the Dutch were restricted in their movements and Nagasaki was the only port open to them. Essentially Japan looked after itself for over 200 years until the American Commodore Perry arrived with his black ships and threatened to huff and puff and canon-ball the doors down.

That in turn triggered the Meiji Restoration (the return of Imperial rule) and within 50 years, Japan would find itself at the start of a series of wars that would ultimately end with the nuclear bombing of Nagasaki, the birthplace of Sakoku. Some people probably look back on it all and say: “Well we’d have been better off if we’d kept the rest of the world out – we never had any war during the Edo Period.” Which is true: under the Tokugawa Shogunate, who enacted Sakoku, Japan was almost exclusively peaceful; other than the odd suppression and assassination, it was remarkably stable. At the start of the 17th Century the country’s most impressive, impregnable castles were being erected, but the nation was so peaceful none of them were ever used.

Or almost none of them. Kumamoto Castle, which today is yet another reconstruction, was the site of the last castle siege in Japan – and as it happened in 1879, probably one of the last in world. While other examples around the country were claimed by accidental fire, or lightning, or Allied bombs, the Katō Kiyomasa-designed Kumamoto Castle was only almost destroyed in a full-on siege, during one of the most tumultuous times in Japan’s oft-fraught history.

Some background: the Edo Period, which bracketed Sakoku, wasn’t quite as Edenic as it sounds. The Shogun, the Dear Leader of his day, was able to govern a peaceful nation because he ruled it with an iron fist; until inevitable rebellion, totalitarianism does tend to have a calming effect. The shogunate succeeded by installing feudal lords around the country, then fuelling them with rice allocations, weapons, samurai warriors and land. This spread the wealth beyond the boundaries of the Imperial Palace, but not so far that the plebs got an equal share. Simultaneously, the shogun held the Lords’ wives and children hostage in Edo (now Tokyo) to ensure their fealty.

The peace couldn’t last, and within a generation of Perry landing, the entire political and social structure of the country had been reordered. Unsurprisingly, the people who had been happy with the status quo didn’t take kindly to the sweeping changes. And so, with the country in near-chaos and people from Hokkaido to Kyushu debating what should be happening in the country, the Satsuma Rebellion began.

The events were (very) approximately translated to the silver screen by Tiny Tom Cruise in the 2003 epic The Last Samurai. While his lank-haired character was an amalgamation of several gaijin from over the years (none of which had anything to do with the Satsuma Rebellion) Ken Watanabe’s rogue leader character was a much more accurate depiction of Takamori Saigo, leader of the rebellion, who is often referred to as, yup, the last samurai.

Though he looked vaguely like a Simpsons character and clearly enjoyed his tempura, Saigo was able to rouse a 6000-strong rabble of disgruntled samurai in his native Satsuma (now Kagoshima) and head north across the island of Kyushu. Their first target was to be Kumamoto’s famous castle: the rebel commander knew that if he took that, then all of Kyushu would effectively be under his domain.

He could hardly have picked a tougher target. Despite outnumbering the men inside with more experienced troops, and despite almost 300 years having passed since Kiyomasa had first build the castle, Saigo’s rebellion stuttered during the 50-day siege. In the end, reinforcements arrived from Edo before he could capture its flag.

From there, Saigo and his troops were effectively fighting a losing battle, consistently out-manned and out-gunned. Despite this, they somehow made it back to their native Kagoshima, where they were facing a force of Imperial troops sixty times greater than their own. Saigo took what he thought was the honourable way out; his followers effectively did the same, leading a 40-man charge into gatling guns and annihilation.

However, before his ritual beheading, Saigo was recorded to have lamented: “It was not the Imperial forces that defeated me, but Kiyomasa and his castle.”


17世紀 - 江戸時代の始め、日本はもう外国との付き合いはいらない。そう決めたのだ。









1 Comment

  1. Kirk Masden
    January 26, 2012

    You’ve included a lot of interesting and beautiful images in this post. Please add labels to the images. For example, I believe the first image is of the Kumamoto Castle complex in the Edo Period but it would be nice to know exactly where the image comes from. This image is also interesting because it shows how much more elaborate the original complex was than what we can see today, as impressive as that is nonetheless.