Monday, April 10, 2006

The Last Samurai

This is a post about Saigo Takamori, the man who was the model and inspiration for the character in the movie, The Last Samurai, starring Tom Cruise

The Satsuma Rebellion started in 1877 and Saigo (apparently reluctantly) agreed to lead it. Essentially a clash between old and new, it pitched disaffected samurai against a new modernist state. In addition, the war was a last protest against central control by Tokyo and as such there were parallels with the state's rights movement in the Southern U.S. that was a factor leading to the Civil War.

Saigo led the rebel army halfway up Kyushu until it was defeated by the much larger and better equipped imperial force in pitched battle in Kumamoto. Then, months later, after smaller battles, skirmishes and retreats, Saigo’s remaining loyal troops and supporters made a last noble and doomed stand in the hills above Kagoshima city. His 300 men were surrounded by over 50,000 government troops, and on the morning of the last onslaught he committed ritual suicide.

When I arrived in Japan, I had high hopes for what I could do...but it is not an exaggeration to say that my first few months in Japan were terrible. I felt confused and alienated. Placed in a small town, I was at a complete loss. I would wake up in the morning and ask myself questions that seemingly had no answer: What am I doing here? Who are these people? What do they really want from me? And as a trained teacher of English as a Second Language, I was dreadfully disappointed at what I saw in the classroom: They call this teaching?, I would ask myself. Going home, I would gaze at the seashore and at hillsides: What’s with all this concrete? Since coming to Kagoshima I have been somewhat unwilling to put down in words what must be apparent to any ALT living here for any period of time- the pettiness and closemindedness of the people in the education system, and the ugliness of the countryside- a land covered in a patchwork of concrete, power lines, waste dumps, concrete apartment blocks and more concrete.

In this context the movie The Last Samurai and Saigo Takamori himself holds a peculiar fascination for me. The movie portrays a traditional Japan, a land of striking physical beauty and a culture of pride and discipline. A place where samurai meditate under falling leaves in ancient temples, where craftsman make things of beauty by hand and community leaders compose haiku. A place, in other words, seemingly far removed from my town.

Of course I was not completely na├»ve when I boarded the plane to Tokyo. I didn’t expect to be greeted on my arrival in Japan by horses and samurai swords, palanquins and a sea of kimonos.

And yet...and yet...I fully admit to being attracted to the famous icons of Japan: geisha, samurai, bushido. After all, who would want to come to Japan for pachinko, Hello Kitty and that JTE who won’t speak to you?
One scene in The Last Samurai resonated strongly with me. Saigo Takamori’s character, played by Ken Watanabe, is faced with the abolition of the samurai class. He indicates he will take his own life in shame.
Nathan Algren says, “A life of service...discipline... compassion...”
Watanabe replies, “The way of the samurai is not necessary anymore.”
To which Tom Cruise says, “Necessary? What could be more necessary?”

I was greatly impressed when I learned that the real Saigo would have been
familiar with these sentiments. Near the end of his life he lamented that the things he held most dear in the world, as embodied in the ideal of the samurai, no longer held a place in Japanese society. The paradox of course is that the changes he resisted were the product of political trends he himself was instrumental in affecting. It was Saigo Takamori who, with determination, courage and charisma, fought unceasingly for a change in Japanese government in the 1850’s and 1860’s and it was Saigo who led the armies that deposed the shogunate, opening Japan to the outside and making a modern Japanese state possible. Unfortunately the new political and economic programs were incompatible with Saigo’s vision of rule by a highly moral samurai elite. The movie captures accurately the tragedy of the clash between the old and new Japan, a clash that is still occurring every day, and even expresses itself as a feeling of ambivalence towards Japan in the minds of foreign residents.

As I read more about Saigo he came to represent to me many things that were good about Japan, and I began to identify with him, even drawing a parallel between his problems and mine. I read with interest of his personal beliefs. The Chinese philosophers he had studied led him to believe in an innate sense of good and evil that could guide someone with a pure heart, someone who practiced modesty and frugality. He believed in intuition and experience; his beliefs emphasised action rather than discussion and scholarship. This idea had radical implications for the practical politics of his time, but also happens to resonate strongly with my ideas of teaching English! I think of this when I try unsuccessfully to convince my JTE to agree to a teaching activity that involves the students talking. I muse on Saigo’s famous dislike of bureaucracy while waiting to fill out endless dreary forms in banks, post offices and town halls. I even found out that, like me, he didn’t particularly care for cameras. There are no surviving photos of him, and he is conspicuously absent from pictures of gatherings that he would have been expected to attend, such as formal cabinet meetings.


The Kagoshima of Saigo’s era (at that time called Satsuma) was very different to the Kagoshima of today. Nearly a separate state, it had thousands of samurai, rivalling Tokyo in power and prestige. Saigo and Satsuma were instrumental in toppling the shogunate, and in the process Saigo became the country’s recognised epitome of samurai valour. It was only after the rebellion that Satsuma became reduced to the level of other provinces in Japan.

Once I was talking about Saigo to a JET in another prefecture.
“He was a Japanese general and statesman,” I said. ‘He led the rebel armies in the civil war. He’s Japan’s Robert E. Lee. He’s famous.”
My friend, an American, hesitated.
“I think Robert E. Lee is more infamous, “ she said eventually.
“Not in the South,” I replied.

And while it is true that Saigo is widely respected all over Japan (he is not associated with any distasteful practices such as slavery) in Kagoshima he is iconic, he is revered, he is a mixture of Robin Hood and Abraham Lincoln. The longer I live in my town the more evidence I find of his popularity. There are posters in classrooms, books in school libraries. The kids pretend to be Saigo when they play games, and adults have entertaining anecdotes. There is a man in my office who shares Saigo’s distinctive appearance: a big, bull-necked guy with bushy eyebrows and bulgy eyes. A startling resemblance that cries out for explanation. When I suggested to my colleague he might be a descendant of Saigo Takamori he was immensely pleased and we became friends! And indeed, according to rumour, Saigo left many descendants.

And while many of his compatriots were fighting to expel foreigners, Saigo recognised the value of foreign ideas, at one stage meeting with the British to discuss joint action against the shogunate. And in later years he told his students that the study of foreign customs would help Japan as long as it was combined with a reverence for Japanese tradition. After his retirement from active politics, before the rebellion, he founded military-style schools in Kagoshima, where, among things, he encouraged the teaching of foreign languages. He was active in the recruitment of teachers and design of curriculum, and while researching Saigo I noted with interest there is no mention of foreign teachers being assistants.

I had been staying in Nejime for ten months before anybody thought to tell me that Saigo had a house there, and some time after that before I could convince someone to show me. It occurred to me that here was a valuable tourist site worthy of development. But sometimes Japanese people don’t value things the way you expect: the advertised tourist spots in town included a hilltop “Panoramic Park” consisting of a concrete carpark and a picnic bench, and a 50-metre strip of trucked-in sand backed by a concrete wall labelled “Gold Beach” Yet here was the hunting lodge of Kagoshima’s most famous citizen completely unknown to tourists...presumably because you have to live in my town for ten months before somebody lets you know of its existence.

That day was hot and I could feel the sweat dripping as I walked. Saigo’s house was marked by a single block of stone engraved with kanji; as I passed by it into the garden dragonflies swarmed overhead and cicadas drowned out the sound of my footsteps. The house was not extraordinary; it was like many on the street, a little bigger than most perhaps. I could see that the roof had been redone, though the walls and interior remained original. Inside, only a little remained to indicate it had been the residence of a civil war general: a single samurai sword on a stand, a bullet hole in the roof that, I was told, was made by Saigo accidentally discharging his gun. Outside, a stone bath where the inhabitants had bathed in the morning, still filled with water. There was a soft buzzing in the air nearby.
“Be careful of mosquitoes”, said my guide. I looked up and saw two, fat and happy, feasting on his ear.
Outside, the surrounding area bears little resemblance to the beautiful countryside of The Last Samurai. Actually, that’s not surprising- the movie was filmed in New Zealand. It is clear that Japan’s environment has changed a lot since Saigo’s day.
I decided to take the pilgrimage to Kagoshima city to see the major Saigo sites. One reason why pilgrimmage is an appropriate word is that Saigo is officially a god; there is a shrine to him near where the last battle was fought. I walked by the huge walls of Kagoshima castle, pockmarked by bullet holes from the civil war. I climbed the hill of Shiroyama, Saigo’s last redoubt, to the summit. The view from the top was expansive: the city lay spread out like a grey carpet, a sea of concrete vastly different to what it would have been like 135 years ago. And across the bay, the active volcano Sakurajima belched ash into the bright blue sky. So then, Saigo’s last days were spent in the shadow of that huge elemental force. After gazing at the volcano for a while, I visited the dozen stalls on top of the hill that sold kitschy souvenirs-Saigo Takamori plaques, ashtrays, posters, chopsticks, plates. But I couldn’t decide if Saigo would hate or love this stuff. Maybe he would think it was ludicrous. On the other hand, maybe he would be happy to be remembered at all. Who can tell? I eventually bought a Saigo Takamori T-shirt for 1,200 yen only to have an obasan at another stall complain to me in thick Kagoshima accent that hers were cheaper: only 1,000 yen.
I walked to the cave where he spent his last days under constant bombardment. The way twisted and turned and I got lost once. I was walking alone and I wondered where all the people were until I was passed by a bus full of tourists who had a good gawp at me as they went by. A guided bus trip of Saigo’s final days. I wondered how he would feel about that.
Near the small cave was a series of water colour paintings telling the story of the rebellion, and I gazed at the last one for some time. Painted in severe, sharp style, it was very beautiful. It was a scene of the final morning: Saigo, shot through the body, is bloody yet proud, kneeling patiently waiting to die; a faithful retainer is about to cut off his head in the climax to the ritual of seppuku, while others stand nearby in sorrow and resignation. One man’s hand covers his face, but whether he is wiping tears away or covering his eyes in horror you cannot tell. The faces in the painting are sombre, almost too simple but very eloquent. I wondered what Saigo was thinking at that time: Regret? Peace? Hope? What did he think the future of Japan would be, as he knelt there waiting for the blade?

If the rebellion had succeeded, who knows how Japan’s history could have been changed? It is tempting to fantasize, for example, that a government influenced by Saigo’s sense of respect, his sense that morality transcended narrow political or economic ends, would have steered clear of the fascist militarism that led to the disaster of the Pacific War.

Walking down the hill, I was presented with face-to-face evidence that the custom of service, at least, remains unchanged. I passed a small construction site, where cars were waiting in line to pass up the narrow street. As each car passed, a construction worker apologised and bowed so low that his helmet nearly hit the ground. Such a scene would be ridiculous in Australia, yet here it put me in a mood of deep reflection as I walked. It occurred to me that more of the samurai spirit, the paradigm of service, discipline and compassion, was becoming apparent to me every day in Japan. Maybe I just hadn’t seen it before. The tea lady in the office performing her duties of service with a selflessness I hadn’t understood. Students and staff at school who displayed a mutual respect that would be impossible in Australia. Work practices that I had initially dismissed as foolish, but in fact evidence of a level of discipline I could barely imagine. A social web of obligation and politeness that was a reflection of deep respect and a profound sense of right and wrong. Even the way Japanese care for children and the elderly seemed to me to be the result of a compassion for others that was missing in my home country.

I thought about all this as I walked to the bottom of the hill. Then I gazed back up from where I had come. The sun was bright in the sky. It was a beautiful day.

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