Who was the last true samurai?


The movie The Last Samurai tells the story of American Civil War veteran Nathan Algren, played by Tom Cruise, who meets Japanese traditionalist Katsumoto, but the real last samurai who stood against the emperor’s quest for modernisation was Takamori Saigo. Saigo was born in 1832, long after the last real samurai wars, a time when samurai were landowners rather than warriors. He ruffled feathers from a young age and was banished from politics by the age of 26. Undeterred, he led a revolution in 1867, helping Emperor Meiji take control of Japan from the shoguns in an event known as the Meiji Restoration.

Saigo was a traditionalist in all senses of the word, and it was the emperor’s reluctance to use the might of the samurai to invade Korea that prompted him to leave the cabinet he had helped create. He gathered like-minded samurai together and led a series of conflicts against the Imperial Army in the Satsuma Rebellion in 1877. But the samurai forces were defeated and killed as they attempted to retreat home in September of that year. The fate of Saigo is a matter of some debate, as while his comrades claim he committed the ancient act of seppuku (Japanese ritual suicide), some historians believe he was wounded and his comrades assisted him in committing suicide. Either way, his death ended not only the Satsuma Rebellion, but also the age of the samurai.

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