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。
モラルの衰退や海外からの宗教の影響などを恐れるあまり、日本は全ての扉を閉じ、いわゆる『鎖国』と呼ばれる時代に突入するのだ。当時栄えていた長崎の港は、まさに今の北朝鮮のように、1-2の例外を除いて、強制的にその政策に従わされることになった。

当時中国は正式な取引国として認められていたが、それでも他国に比べると自由なやり取りをする環境には置かれていなかった。中国の他に取引を許されていたのは、キリスト教の広めようとしていたスペインとポルトガルの船を排除するのに力を貸したオランダだけだった。とは言え、オランダは中国とは違い、取引は長崎港に限定されていた。それから約200年、ペリーが黒船に乗ってアメリカからやってくるまでの間、日本は閉ざされた世界にいたのだ。

その事が明治維新のきっかけになり、そして50年と経たずして、日本は戦争を続ける道を歩み始めた。その状況はご存知の通りここ長崎-鎖国発祥の地、への原爆投下で幕を閉じることになるのだ。もしかしたらこんな意見もあるかもしれない。『鎖国をし続けていたほうが私達はずっと平和な環境にいることができた。それを証拠に江戸時代には大きな“戦争”は無かった』確かにそうだろう。鎖国を始めた徳川幕府のもと、反乱や暗殺を除いては、日本は本当に平和な時代を送っており、それはやはり特筆すべきものだ。そんな17世紀のはじめに、多くの美しく、そして不落の城達が建てられたが、国があまりにも安定していたので、城が“活躍”する事はなかった。

いや“ほとんどの城が”と言うほうが正しいかもしれない。
現に、“改築されている城”熊本城は日本で最後に、いやおそらく世界で最後に包囲攻撃を受けた城だろう。他の城が火災や戦火によって失われていった中、加藤清正が改修した熊本城は、日本の混乱期に戦いによって失われたのだ。

鎖国で守られていた江戸時代も、実際のところはそれほど“安泰”だったわけではなかった。将軍は反抗勢力を抑え込むため、力による統治をおこなった。そう、国家統制主義は平穏な状況を生み出すものなのだ。幕府は日本全国に大名を配置し、米の収穫量、武器、武士、そして土地などを徹底的に管理した。これにより皇室の富を越えるだけのものを手にしていた。もちろん庶民がこの恩恵にあずかれたわけではない。また幕府は大名の妻や子供を江戸(現在の東京)に住まわせ、彼らの忠誠を誓わせたのだ。

平穏な日々はそれほど長くは続かず、ペリー来航と共に、政治と社会の仕組みが変えられる事になった。予想通り今までずっと幸せに暮らしていた人々は変化を望まなかったが、混乱の起こっていた北海道から九州の人々が国のあるべき姿を訴え出し、そして西南戦争が始まったのだ。

それは(詳細は大きく違うものの)2003年にトム・クルーズの主演映画『ラスト・サムライ』でも取り上げられた。トム・クルーズが演じたのはこの時代に登場する数人に実在の人物を合わせたと思われる“架空”の設定だが(西南戦争とは何の関連もない)、渡辺謙が演じた強いリーダーは、西南戦争の中心者で、最後のサムライと言われる西郷隆盛を思わせるものがある。

西郷隆盛は、地元薩摩(今の鹿児島)にいた6000人の不満をもつサムライを奮起させ、九州を北上した。最初のターゲットは熊本城だった。彼は、熊本城を落とせば、九州全土を落としたも同然だという事を知っていたのだ。彼にとって熊本城よりも難しいターゲットはなかった。経験豊富な兵士たちがいたにも関わらず、そして加藤清正の改修から約300年以上経っていたにも関わらず、西郷隆盛の作戦は上手くいかず、そうこうするうちに江戸からの援護軍に追いつかれてしまった。

その後西郷と彼の兵士たちは、勝てる見込みのない戦いを強いられることになった。彼らは何とか彼らの本拠地である鹿児島まで戻ったにも関わらず、彼らの60倍もの規模の官軍に直面する事になり、西郷はじめ40名の将士は自らの命を絶つことで終止符を打つことにした。西郷は切腹する前に“敵は官軍でなく、清正とその城だった”と嘆いたと言われている。

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.