Tuesday, 23 November 2010

The Death of Saigo

A degree of doubt also surrounds the death of Saigo Takamori, a one-time confederate of Ryoma's, but arguably more important in historical terms. The questions are of quite a different kind - though his death was hardly less dramatic. He died leading an ill-fated rebellion, out-numbered, out-gunned, wounded, he took his own life , dignified and true to his principles until the last. At least, that is the story. Sounds just like Last Samurai, doesn't it...hardly surprising as that is who Watanabe Ken's character was based on. However, the facts point to a slightly different truth.

Mark Ravina, who wrote Saigo's biography (the only one in English, I believe) 'The Last Samurai', which despite the title is a well-researched volume, has recently published a scholarly article investigating the historiography of Saigo's death - that is to say, the way in which it has been depicted in art and writing, and how those depictions have gradually altered over time.

It is an interesting study, which shows how Saigo's death was written about and gradually embroidered for the various writers' own ends. This tendency was particularly strong during the first decades of the twentieth century. In the process, these fabrications became accepted as fact, and are often included unquestioningly in historical works (both Japanese and foreign).

Without going into detail here (Ravina does) although there are no eye-witness accounts to his death itself, there are reliable reports of those who saw his body after death, and it seems that a wound he sustained to the upper thigh/hip area made the dignified beheading (which later became a dignified seppuku) extremely unlikely - the lack of wounds denoting seppuku rule that out. As it says in the abstract, "Remarkably, historians have treated Saigo's suicide as an unproblematic account of his death, rather as a legend codified some four decades later." In fact Ravina feels that these stories should be viewed as another fiction, to rank along the stories of Saigo sailing to Russia or the illustrated accounts, such as the one here, that I just had to put in, as it was my first introduction to Saigo in any form.

The article, for those interested, is 'The Apocryphal Suicide of Saigo Takamori: Samurai, Seppuku, and the Politics of Legend', in The Journal of Asian Studies 69(3), August 2010.

It is scholarly and well-researched - an interesting read and a useful addition to Ravina's biography.


  1. I read Ravina's biography of Saigo (excellent book) and I thought he mentioned it in there that Saigo most likely did not commit seppuku due to his injuries. He was most likely wounded in such a way as he was unable to perform the seppuku. But I may have read it elsewhere also (samurai Archives?)

    In any ase, thank you for providing this interesting information.

  2. Yes, I think you're probably right. His recent article doesn't contradict anything he wrote previously (as far as I know), it just expands on it.


  3. Why exactly is it even important whether or not Saigo committed seppuku? Essentially he died in battle and samurai felt it honourable to die by his own hand rather than be beheaded. If Saigo was badly wounded and in agony and those loyal to him felt it better to behead him and put him out of his misery Japan wishes to allow him to keep his honour. To me it does not matter, nor diminish, anything that Saigo did not commit seppuku .... why Ravina felt the need to write a scholarly paper on such a trivial semantic topic, I do not understand

  4. What do you mean despite the title. He was the last official samurai. After his death samurai traditions and ranks were completely gone.

    1. 'Despite the title' referred to the fact that the book's title was the same as the movie's, which might suggest that it was a poorly researched spin-off, which it most certainly wasn't. It wasn't a comment on Saigo being called 'The Last Samurai'.