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The end of the samurai

Posted by Alberto Bertolazzi on
La fine dei samurai

In 1877 the samurai met their inevitable end. Under Emperor Mutsuhito, the modernization of Japan no longer gave space to superheroes with katanas. But theirs was not a silent end. Here are some short stories that tell of the decline of an era.

Saigō Takamori's academies

He is the dramatic hero of the chronicles of 1877. Senior leader of the government of Satsuma, one of the most powerful fiefdoms in Japan, Saigō does not tolerate the modernization of his country. The entry of the West, with new ways of dress and increasingly active trade with America, is the betrayal of the principle that has preserved the country for centuries: Expel the barbarians . Therefore he founded a private academy in Kagoshima, from which 132 other schools sprouted throughout the prefecture. More than education, here we are talking about training: anyone who leaves the academy is a samurai.

For a handful of rice

It is known that the samurai never got rich. Their salary was often a handful of rice. But in those years the emperor's government decided to also eliminate rice salaries. It is the straw that breaks the camel's back: abandonment of traditions, betrayal of bushidō, rampant corruption and now the final disfigurement. What is missing? A leader who leads the revolt. No, there's that too: Saigō Takamori. To whom rebellion is served on a silver platter.

The end of feudalism

Behind the crisis of those years there was the end of feudalism and the emperor's strong intention to centralize power in his hands. The reduction of the rank of the great nobles passes through the elimination of the samurai, their armed wing. The emperor organizes a real regular, conscript army, completely under central control. The baptism of fire took place precisely in those years: the soldiers against the samurai, the regular forces against the rebels.

In the fourteenth century, as at Thermopylae

The rebellion of the Satsuma fiefdom consumes the lives of thousands of samurai. Saigō's army is exhausted by the firepower of the regular army. The weapons that come from America make the difference. In particular, the Gatlin self-propelled machine gun, which prevents samurai from hand-to-hand and melee combat. In the end, at the top of Shiroyama where they took refuge, 300 – according to some chronicles 500 – Saigō faithful remain. Like the Spartans at Thermopylae . Almost 20,000 men besiege the mountain, until the last heroic samurai come out and throw themselves against the enemy, armed with katanas. To be mowed down by the Gatlins.

Suicide or not?

What happens to the leader of the revolt, Saigō? Here we enter the myth: his head is found separated from the neck, as happens to those who have practiced seppuku, ritual suicide. It is said that he did it as an extreme act of pride, so as not to end up in the dirty hands of the emperor's soldiers; and after getting on his knees and pushing the wakizashi sword into his navel, finding the strength to make a precise L-shaped cut, he died in front of his faithful follower Beppu Shinsuke. Who, as the ritual prescribes, severed his head. But the story is usually told by the winners: therefore, the emperor receives news that a well-aimed bullet killed the leader of the revolt, and that Beppu cut off the head only to preserve the dignity of his commander.

Films, songs and video games

These stories, heroic and distant, are now daily bread for us Westerners too, especially thanks to a film, a song and a video game. The film became famous with the title The Last Samurai , and was seen by half the world thanks to the resonance of the protagonist's name: Tom Cruise. The lesser-known song is Shiroyama , by the Swedish heavy metal band Sabaton . The text retraces the salient moments of the final battle, represented as the clash between the ancient world and the modern world. Finally, the video game: this is the PlayStation game Way of the Samurai , in which the action takes place during the Satsuma rebellion.

The illustrations accompanying this article are taken from the book Samurai, from ukiyoe to pop culture by Gavin Blair. You can see a presentation of the book on YouTube at this address .

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