Saigo: A man of his time
By Chris Halverson
The mid to late 1800’s was a time of rapid change in Japan. The most obvious example of this change was the “restoration” of the Emperor in 1867-68, but the entire period was turbulent; a whirl of change. The period was described by Basil Hall Chamberlain, a British scholar who lived in Japan during this transitional period, as being in modern times, yet, “distinctly remember(ing) the Middle Ages.” Another Brit described the rapid transition of Japan as, “out of poetry into plain useful prose.” In some ways the life of Saigo, and the ways in which he related to transitional Japan, was a microcosm of the pressures of his time period. All of Japan lived through some very weird and fast paced events; Saigo was directly involved with them. All of Japan was confronted by the West and its ideas; Saigo personally wrestled with, and came to a conclusion about, a definition of what Japan was in relation to the West.
Saigo lived the great events and archetypes of Japan; his vast amount of experiences throughout his life points to a much wider pattern of experience throughout Japan. One thing we often forget about Saigo, as he is remembered often for his death in battle, is that he was not a warrior first, but a scholar (34) By the early 1600’s, “most samurai turned in swords for calligraphy brushes,” so by the 1800’s, Saigo’s time, the Samurai had become more bureaucrat than fighter. Like most samurai, save Ronin, Saigo considered himself a vassal loyal to his lord, Nariakira(66). It seems Saigo was a true believer in the Confucian idea of Filial Piety. He was of course loyal to the Shogun (and later the Emperor) but only through his lord. That is, loyalty flowed through a chain of command, from samurai vassal to his daimyo, from daimyo vassal to Shogun. That said, Saigo, like many Japanese of the time period, eventually became loyal to a larger Japan.
Like most vassals of daimyo, as well as the family of the daimyo themselves, Saigo took the 900 mile journey from Kagoshima, the capital of Satsuma, to Edo, the capital of the Shogun, so the Shogun could hold Nariakira’s family in sankin kotai(52). Sankin kotai, also known as alternate attendance, was a system in which daimyo’s would be in Edo half of the time and in their own domain for half the time. It was also a system of hostage taking, as the family of the daimyo had to stay in the capital, so if the daimyo revolted, he would lose his family. While in Edo Saigo had the privilege, if you will, of seeing Commodore Matthew Perry’s fleet enter Edo’s harbor (57). Perry was using (and possibly coining the term) gunboat diplomacy to force Japan to not only resupply American ships, which was the kind of treaty the Shogun had been willing to agree to, but get trade concessions for the United States (56). This action by Perry was a huge event, one that shook Japan, and brought the problem of the West into focus, and Saigo was there to witness it.
Later on, when Saigo was rebelling against the Emperor he was still manifesting many of the general trends of Japan. He, like most of those who joined his rebellion, really did not know why they were rebelling. “The ambiguity of Saigo’s mission was, paradoxically, an asset: villagers could impute to Saigo their own agendas.”(205) In fact the movement came up with a rather ambiguous slogan, “Shinsei kotoku (A New Government, Rick in Virtue).”(206) Saigo also fit into the demographics of the samurai that rebelled against the Emperor as he supported the 1868 restoration, which was one of the trends of samurai resistance.
Saigo dealt with the problem of the west, which became undeniable with the coming of Perry’s fleet, for his whole life. He struggled “to integrate his respect for Japanese tradition” with “his appreciation for Western society and technology.”(42) There were so many things he admired about the West, and yet he also saw it as very dangerous.
While Saigo disliked the more frivolous accouterments and trappings of the west, he was unwilling to throw the baby out with the bathwater. In 1800’s Japan it was a common practice to exile criminals. Two separate times Saigo ended up being exiled to small backwater islands, Kagoshima and Tokunoshima. Both times he made the best of it, teaching children, and even marrying an island wife in Kagoshima. Still, he found the practice of exile to be inhumane, and found the western idea of prison as a place to reform people instead of punish them to be “enlightened and benevolent.”(100)
He saw playing the West’s diplomatic and economic games, and modernization, as the best way to keep the foreigners at bay. Eventually Saigo ran a private school, which Gordon’s book calls, “a private military academy,” though, from the way Ravina describes it, a Liberal Arts University sounds more apt. Saigo handles the study of foreign, including western, traditions in an interesting light. He sees the basis of Confucianism as universal, so exploring the values of other countries can be done as long as Confucian ideals are kept in mind (194). He wanted his students to, “learn courage from the Prussians rather than indolence from the French.”(195)
There was of course another side to the problem of the west. Saigo was still deeply suspicious of the motives of westerners. People like Perry were rather menacing, and made it obvious that joi, that is “expelling the barbarians” was a long term project (111), but necessary to keep Japan independent. He also realized foreigners saw the Japan of the Shogun as sort of a joke, and felt Japan needed a new government, a more national government, to gain credibility with the West and in the long term expel them.
This, of course, is not the whole story of Saigo, it is only Saigo as a generalization. He was definitely a microcosm of the tension between old and new, east and west, that was going on during his lifetime, and that is interesting, up to a point. What is more interesting though is how these tensions resolved themselves in Saigo’s life, and in the life of the nation of Japan. For Saigo there seems to have been two competing pulls on how to serve Japan best. On one hand there was a real-politik edge to him, intending to do the best for Japan, even if it meant using Western ideas. On the other there is something hard to define, something hard to categorize about his vision of Japan. It is something having to do with culture, and honor, tradition and philosophy. It is something almost ineffable, it is The Idea; it is almost mystical. It is as if the prose poetry dichotomy of that anonymous British man holds true for Saigo as well as Japan.
Saigo, as shown above, can be rather rational, recognizing the usefulness of western ideas. He respects their intellectual and legal traditions, sees their weapons as the only way Japan can keep free, and is pretty much willing to play ball with them by creating a government they respect. Still, it is quite apparent that to him the Meiji State was simply the lesser of two evils (171). He supported the Emperor only for Japan’s sake; he only supported him for the greater good. During the Shogun’s rule he did not support a second war against Choshu, not because he was fond of Choshu, but because he realized it was bad for Japan (129). In many ways Saigo was prefiguring the later nationalism of Japan, where the constitution was created not for the people’s sake, but to create, “basic laws (that) would contain and mobilize the energies of the populace on behalf of a great national mission to build wealth and power.” This Saigo was Prose.
Saigo would do things that were not particularly in his value system for a larger cause. That was the rational, compromising side of Saigo, but there was another side to him. The other half of Saigo harkens back to ancient history, (116 and 185) and Confucian philosophy (167 and 194). The duality of duty and passion of living as the ideal Samurai touched this Saigo.(165) This Saigo, “showed no interest in either the popular rights movement or government office.”(192) Gunboat diplomacy was anathema to this Saigo (187). This Saigo served honor not strategy (96) and saw no higher good than dying for principle (208). This Saigo was Poetry.
In the end Saigo’s vision of Japan, a unique mixture of east and west, past and future, prose, and poetry, was not the Japan that won the day. None the less he so perfectly embodied the spirit and turbulence of his generation that he resonated with those around him. His, perhaps like poetry, was an idealization of Japan open for interpretation. His, like the aborted revolution he spawned, was a Japan filled with contradictions, never resolved.