The Battle of Shiroyama: Last Stand of the Samurai

Among the great last stands of determined military forces against overwhelming odds throughout the history of warfare, the Battle of Shiroyama in 1877 does not top many lists as the most well-known. However, it could easily rank high among a list of the most tragic. The battle pitted an estimated 30,000 troops of the Imperial Japanese Army -- backed by heavy artillery and warships -- against the last 500 remaining members of Saigō Takamori's contingent of samurai warriors, armed only with muskets and melee weapons. Hopelessly outmatched and presented with an opportunity to surrender, Saigō's men nonetheless adhered to the bushido code of honor until the very end, and marked the formal departure of the samurai class from Japanese society in grand fashion.

Despite restoring power to the emperor and the aristocracy in the 1860s, the samurai's role in Japan was greatly diminished during the period of modernization.
Despite restoring power to the emperor and the aristocracy in the 1860s, the samurai's role in Japan was greatly diminished during the period of modernization.

Background

The "opening" of Japan to foreign powers in the mid-to-late-19th Century brought with it a protracted period of difficult transformative change in the traditionally isolationist nation. Gold and silver exchange rates that were different than that of the rest of the world brought massive instability to the currency and, as a result, the economy. Subsequent political conflicts between the ruling shogunate and the imperial military further destabilized the country, and resulted in the restoration of the emperor to the ultimate seat of political power.

With the young Emperor Meiji and the advanced and organized samurai class of imperial warriors in control of the government, Japan continued along its path to modernization uninterrupted. Unfortunately for the samurai class, a modern society and economic development of the country brought about an end to their centuries-old status of supreme privilege in the country's social structure. Within a decade, edicts were passed codifying the profound changes in Japanese culture, language, and dress that took place during the modernization, and movements were made to abolish the samurai's privileges in society. Disgusted, many of the samurai, led by the influential Saigō Takamori, resigned their posts in government and took up residence in the province of Satsuma, where they opened paramilitary academies and rose to dominate the provincial government. By late 1876, they had become a nation-state unto themselves, and an attempt by the Meiji government to crack down on their activities sparked an open rebellion.

Despite numbers that eventually swelled to over 40,000 men and superior military training, Saigō was fighting a proverbial uphill battle from the beginning. The Imperial Japanese Army's conscripts greatly outnumbered his own, and had a distinct advantage in terms of equipment. Saigō pitted a limited number of muskets and swords up against the Army's artillery cannons and modern warships. The samurai lost key battles at Kumamoto Castle, Tabaruzaka, and Mount Enodake that decimated his forces. By the summer of 1877, the samurai's numbers had been reduced to fewer than 3,000, and they had almost all of their modern firearms. Saigō took his remaining 500 able-bodied and equipped men to the city of Kagoshima on September 1 and seized the mount known as Shiroyama to dig in his heels and prepare for the final battle.

The Imperial Army surrounded the samurai and built many fortifications designed to keep them from escaping.
The Imperial Army surrounded the samurai and built many fortifications designed to keep them from escaping.
Mount Shiroyama today
Mount Shiroyama today

The Battle

The Imperial Army under the command of General Yamagata Aritomo was determined not to let Saigō evade capture again. Their men surrounded the mount of Shiroyama and dug an elaborate series of trenches all around the position to keep the samurai from escaping while bombardment from the Army's artillery and the supporting warships kept them pinned down. Saigō's men fired bullets melted down from gold Buddhist statues with their limited remaining muskets to try to open any hole in the Army's lines that they could, but wound up inflicting only minimal casualties.

After Yamagata's trench structure was complete, he sent a letter to Saigō entreating him to surrender. However, Saigō, along with the rest of the samurai, favored the bushido code of honor's prescription of death in battle rather than being taken alive, and refused the offer. Yamagata, determined to end the rebellion then and there, responded by moving in his men from all directions on the morning of September 25, with orders to fire indiscriminately at any advancement of samurai through the Army's lines, even if it meant killing their own men.

Under heavy bombardment, Saigō ordered a charge of the imperial lines. Despite losing many of his men to the firefight and being outnumbered 60-1, Saigō eventually reached the lines, and the samurai began to pick apart the conscripts with their famed swords and close-quarter combat skills. The Army's lines began to buckle until Saigō himself was wounded in the femoral artery by a bullet, and was carried off of the field to die of his wound, commit ritual seppuku, or have one of his trusted comrades perform the killing strike for him. The historical record is unclear as to exactly how the samurai leader met his end.

Despite their early successes, the samurai were eventually overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of soldiers bearing down on them. Before the morning was over, they were dead to the last man.

A statue of Saigō stands in Kagoshima
A statue of Saigō stands in Kagoshima

The Aftermath

Yamagata's army of conscripts, in putting down the samurai rebellion, proved themselves worthy of serving the emperor. In doing so, they effectively ended the feudal class system which constituted the military, and which had elevated the samurai to a class just beneath the emperor throughout the history of feudal Japan. The samurai class was formally abolished, and the remaining samurai in Japan were merged with the existing class known as the shizoku. While this new class retained much of the holdings and assets they enjoyed previously, they lost their right to execute commoners who offended them.

The bushido code of the samurai made integration into Japan's rapidly modernizing society a difficult task.
The bushido code of the samurai made integration into Japan's rapidly modernizing society a difficult task.

The Lessons

Saigō's rebellion was, ultimately, an inevitable product of the collision between the rigid code of honor and the centuries of tradition adhered to by the samurai class in feudal Japan and the end of Japanese isolationism in global affairs. The necessary changes in class structures that naturally occur when an economy moves from agrarian to industrial production required certain aspects of the code to be suspended in order to ensure law and order in a more open society. Tragically, many of the samurai, spurred by lives in which they had known no other way of operating, could not make this transition. If Japan was to continue on its evolutionary journey, the impasse that came about could only be solved with a war that would mean the elimination of the samurai.

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