The Battle of Shiroyama enrolled in the annals of history as a battle, where the last 500 samurai in the history of Japan heroically fought 30 000 Japan’s goverment soldiers, and died in defense of their fading values and traditions.. Like presented in the film “The Last Samurai”, in the last battle the samurai charged enemies armed with only swords, while the Emperor’s men were equipped with modern weapons, including rifles and artillery.

A short history of Japan

The history of Japan is interwoven with each other times of war and peace. For centuries there  were periods of stability punctuated by conflicts between clans scattered throughout Japan. According to legend, Japan was founded in the seventh century BC when the country was integrated by the Emperor Jimmu. However, over time, his power was decreased by the wealthy and ambitious Japanese families, which detracted from the role of successive emperors. At the time,  a caste of warriors called samurai was developed. They were representatives of a higher social class, often landowners, who devoted their life to learning the art of war. The most powerful of them – called the Shoguns, began to reach for the real power in Japan. The first was Yoshinaka Minamoto, who established the Kamakura shogunate and began a period of bakufu, which is the rule of the military commanders based on the feudal system.



At the beginning of the seventeenth century, the Tokugawa family took power in Japan and established their shogunate. They gained virtually unlimited power, bringing the Emperor to the role of a puppet. Tokugawa introduced a policy of isolationism and rejected any western influence. At that period, bearing the name of Edo, Japan saw a rapid development of culture and religion, but the country was weakened economically and militarily. Japan slowly began to attract the attention of world powers, equipped with modern technology, including weapons.

At the same time in the society, especially among middle-class samurai was growing opposition against the Shogun. The pro-imperial faction saw the risk they carried behind the Tokugawa policy. Most of them hated foreigners, but they were well aware of the need for radical changes in the Land of the Rising Sun to catch up technologically with Europeans and Americans.

Samurai warriors from Satsuma Discrict, Chosyu Clan during the Boshin War 
Photo: Felix Beato, Source: Wikimedia Commons

So at the end of 1867  the last shogun – Yoshinobu Tokugawa – resigned, and in 1869 the Tokugawa clan was defeated by the pro-imperial forces during the war for supremacy in Japan (Boshin War). After many centuries, power fell into the hands of the emperor, the young Emperor Mutsuhito. There was a period of radical changes in politics, the economy, and in society, named after years the Meiji Restoration. Reforms of the Emperor industrialized the country, and reformed the administration, the monetary system, and the judiciary. The military service became obligatory for every man in a certain age and heath condition. The army itself was modernized in the shape of Western armies (especially British and Prussian), both in terms of weapons, as well as the organization. Furthermore, Japanese society began to apply a new class division and the lower class was the one who gained the rights previously reserved for the ruling class.

As you can see, these reforms marked the end of an era in the history of Japan and the end of the reign of the samurai – both within the country and on the battlefield. Suddenly these proud warriors who have dedicated their lives to learning the art of war, found themselves in a new, modern Japan where the samurai code of Bushido was to be forgotten and marginalized. Many of them fell into poverty and were removed from their farms. In 1876, the samurai were forbidden to wear two swords, what was for them an absolute humiliation. This caste of warriors, though they often saw the need to modernize the country, would not allow the collapse of values characterizing their recent reality. They watched the disappearance of the Japanese tradition, culture and religion as well as the code of the warrior which was a guidance in their life.

In 1877, rebel samurai from Satsuma began the uprising against the new rulers of Japan. Their leader was Saigo Takamori – one of the most important figures in the Meiji Restoration and the recent trusted emperor. Saigo was for years a trusted advisor to Emperor Meiji; however, he did not mindlessly give up western lifestyle. He respected western technological achievements and believed that Japan should use them. On the other hand, he wanted to remain faithful to Japanese traditions and culture, and feared that Japanese society will slowly take over improper influence of Western culture. Takamori wanted to co-create a strong Japan; however, he was not a supporter of centralization of power and increasing bureaucracy. He was forced to leave the environment of the Emperor and return to the family of Satsuma, where he headed the rebellion.

The movie “The Last Samurai” refers precisely to the uprising in Satsuma. Although the culture and customs of the samurai there are shown beautifully, their arms during the Rebellion were not limited to melee weapons and melee combat. The Takamori army numbered about 12 000 people and had modern guns and cannons. The problem was that deciding to start the uprising, the samurai of the Satsuma had only approx. 100 rounds of ammo per head, the money only for a month of fighting and zero logistical support. At the end of the uprising, the Takamori worriors actually threw themselves into battle with swords against the forces of Emperor armed with firearms. The Emperor, against the insurgent army, issued 90 000 well-equipped regular troops with 100 cannons.

The Battle of Shiroyama
Painting from 1880, source: Wikimedia Commons, public domain

Description of armor and weapons of the Samurai

Take a moment to describe the traditional weapons of the Samurai, ignoring firearms for a moment. The main attribute of these Japanese warriors was obviously their swords – a long (katana) and shorter (wakizashi). Katana was used in battle, and wakizashi to cut off the heads of defeated enemies and ritual suicide, called seppuku. The sword symbolized the honor of the samurai, and it was treated with reverence and respect. The process of producing it was almost a religious ceremony, and each sword was marked with a symbolic figure given by the master who created it. On the battlefield they were used as a spear and bow. Interestingly, every samurai had in his quiver one arrow signed  with the name and surname of the holder. It facilitated the subsequent identification of the body and served as a trophy. Samurai armor changed over the centuries, but by the end it accepted a form of armor from the combined tiles. This was so practical that it was neutral body temperature and allowed to move freely during the fight. The weapon was surrounded by a high honor, and it was passed down from father to son.  The helmet (kabuto) worn was made of metal covered with sheets of ceramics, with a movable cover for the neck and helmet or face mask to protect a warrior.

Samuraj in full armor
Source: Terry Bennett, via Wikimedia Commons

Samurai were guided by the Bushido Code, which was a set of rules according to which the warrior had to deal both in life and in combat. Its principles are righteousness and justice, courage and perseverance, kindness and compassion, truthfulness, self-control and self-improvement, loyalty, honor and respect for ancestors and tradition. Bushido also meant a sense of understanding of the nature of death and surrender to it without fear at the right time.

The Seinan War

On February 15, 1877, Satsuma’s army set off in the direction of Tokyo to “ask” the government of his recent moves. The Seinan War began, and the first stop was the fortress of Kumamoto, which was in the hands of forces loyal to the Emperor. Thanks to its position and fortification, Kumamoto was one of the most powerful Japanese fortresses. The fortress was defended by approx. 4400 (3800 conscripted soldiers and 600 policemen) men under the command of General Taneki. Takamori Kumamoto got going quickly and moved on towards Tokyo, but his plan failed. The exchange of fire between the besieged and the besiegers began on February 19, and on February 22 insurgents stormed the castle. After a day-long battle, there remained an impregnable fortress, but the defenders suffered heavy losses. Takamori decided to close the ring of siege and wait for a suicide getaway, or the surrender of the defenders. Unfortunately, he lost so much time already and on 9 March, government troops launched an assault on Kagoshima, a port city south of the positions of the insurgents, thus overlapping them from behind. After gaining a foothold, part of the imperial army under the command of General Yamagata Aritomo reached Kumamoto and broke the siege of the fortress. Saigo Takamori also divided his army and sent several thousand troops to the north to take over the communication routes.

These troops encountered the enemy and fought the crucial battle of Tabaruzaka, which was the most important battle of the war. The clash was extremely bloody and ended in the deaths of a total of about 8,000 men, or 1/3 of the total manpower of both armies. The Imperial Army had a huge advantage in firepower during the battle, and in addition, the falling rain drenched many of the Enfield rifles used by the insurgents. However, the morale of the Satsuma samurai was high and even sinking in the mud successfully fought using their swords. Finally, after 11 days of the battle, imperial forces occurred in a defensive flank and the remnants of the insurgents were forced to retreat. Since that time, the forces of  Saigo Takamori war turned into a continual retreat on all fronts. Some samurai were trying to save the situation and led a guerrilla war against the forces of the Emperor. Saigo knew that winning the war was no longer possible, but wanted to fight to the end. In June 1877, most of its army was sent to the Osumi Peninsula (shortly after the men were overtaken and defeated by the imperial forces), and the same with the rest of the forces broke through to Miyazaki over the Pacific Ocean. Soon after, his troops  numbered about 3,000 people, when there were six times more of the enemy’s soldiers. During this difficult time of continual retreat Saigo Takamori, broke back in the region of Kagoshima.

Saigo Takamori with his officers
Source: Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

The Battle of Shiroyama

The last battle of the War Seinan and the battle of the last samurai in history took place on the slopes of the Shiroyama Mountain. 500 remaining Satsuma warriors fortified themselves on the mountain, but they lacked practically everything – food, drugs, ammunition. They were quickly surrounded by government forces in the strength of 30, 000, and their commander, the aforementioned General Yamagata Aritomo wrote a letter to Saigo Takamori, in which he asked for an armistice. The letter spoke of Saigo as a man of honor and he wrote that he understands the motives of the old samurai, when he decided to take up the fight for the future of Japan. The letter remained unanswered.

The next day, September 24, 1877 over the morning, imperial troops launched a final assault on Shiroyama. Saigo’s samurai fought with inhuman courage, dying in battle with six times more numerous and better equipped enemy, while bearing mostly only their swords. After more than an hour of fighting, only 40 of them lived, including the leader Saigo Takamori around which has focused some of his best friends and his best warriors, the once great army. As befits a true samurai, they decided at the last attack down the slopes where they wanted to meet dignity with death. During the charge Takamori was shot in the thigh, but he managed to sit down and with the help of a friend Beppu Shinsuke prepared for ritual Seppuku. Saigo looked calmly to the east, and then stabbed himself in the stomach with his wakizashi sword. Shinsuke in one movement cut off the head of his friend and leader, ending the life of the last great samurai in the history of Japan. The Seinan war came to an end then.

After all, of great Saigo Takamori was rehabilitated by the emperor in 1889 and named a national hero. He and his men paid the ultimate sacrifice while defending the values that they considered right and good for future generations. Saigo is now recognized as the symbol of honor, courage and commitment, and with his death the old, romantic samurai Japan’s spirit died as well.

Samurai training, with fictional character Ujio in front
“Last Samurai” movie directed by Edward Zwick

Write A Comment