AMONG the samurai who shaped nineteenth-century Japan Saigo Takamori remains the most loved if not the most admired. His statue, in Ueno Park, has stirred the affections of generations of Japanese and symbolises the rich ambiguities of samurai virtue. In his pioneering biography Charles Yates seeks to penetrate the myths surrounding this popular hero and creates a study which is both academic and humane,
Like many Restoration leaders Saigo was born into a samurai household of indifferent status. However, the geography of his upbringing was more important than the limitations of his social rank. In the early nineteenth century his birthplace, Satsuma, was a world unto itself. Curtained by mountains, it had changed little in three hundred years; its peasants were repressed. and its samurai divided. Reforms in the 1830s generated a surplus which financed military strengthening; nevertheless, deep inequalities remained, and rivalries between Satsuma leaders were bitter and lasting. In this unique setting Saigo received a traditional education and later worked, prosaically, in rural administration. This administrative experience aroused his concern for the peasantry which persisted throughout his later life. This concern stemmed from a profoundly Confucian conviction, that the moral conduct of administrators was crucial to the overall health of the society. In 1854 Saigo accompanied his lord, Nariakira, to the Shogun’s capital. Here he was drawn into national politics and became attracted to patriotic ideologies which emphasised Confucian virtues of duty and loyalty. Unfortunately Nariakira’s death and the hostility of the Shogun soon drove Saigo into exile. From 1859 to 1865 he lived for long periods in the Southern islands of Oshima, Tokunoshima and Okinoerabujima. In these remote communities he taught local children and reflected upon ethics and the development of Japanese politics. When he finally returned to Kagoshima he was convinced that the Shogun was no longer indispensable to Japan’s future.