Who Was Saigo Takamori, the Last Samurai?

The stuff of legends and Hollywood movies, Japan's samurai are known for tradition and swordsmanship. But their last defender came to symbolize a conflict over modernization.

A leader of Japan’s 19th-century drive to modernize, and at the same time a defender of its ancient samurai values, Saigo Takamori's dramatic last stand embodied his nation’s identity crisis.

Samurai were a caste of warriors prevalent in Japanese society from the 12th to the 19th century. Respected for their military prowess, swordsmanship, and discipline, they valued honor, courage, and loyalty above all. Political change brought about the end of their era, but the samurai did not go down without a fight. They were led by Saigo Takamori, who both embraced and fought the forces of modernism and became one of Japan’s great national heroes in the process.

In 1852 Commodore Matthew Perry of the U.S. Navy embarked on a mission to open Japan to the United States and the rest of the world. In an effort to keep out foreign influences and protect its culture, Japan had been under self-imposed isolation. Faced with Perry’s warships, the Japanese saw they had no choice and opened their ports to the U.S. ships. Japan eventually signed the Treaty of Kanagawa, the first between the two nations.

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