Saigô Takamori (Takanaga) (西郷隆盛 (隆永), Jan. 23, 1828 – Sept. 24, 1877) was born Saigô Kokichi (西郷小吉) in the Satsuma domain (薩摩藩). He received the given name Takamori in adulthood. He also wrote poetry under the name Saigô Nanshû (西郷南洲). The Saigô clan's official status was jôkashi (full samurai), but they lived as gôshi (rural samurai), part-peasant and part-warrior, with substantial debts that Saigô needed 25 years to repay.
When the Meiji Ishin (Meiji Restoration: 明治維新) effectively restored imperial rule to Japan in 1868 under Emperor Meiji, Saigô objected vehemently to the negotiated settlement that would allow the Tokugawa shogunate to retain substantial political power. The dispute led to the Boshin Sensô (Boshin War: 戊辰戦争), a civil conflict fought in 1868-69 between the Tokugawa and those seeking to return political power to the Imperial Court. Saigô demanded abolishing the title of shôgun, the confiscation of the last shôgun Tokugawa Yoshinobu's (徳川慶喜 1837-1913) lands, and elimination of the special status of Tokugawa samurai. In January 1868, Yoshinobu attacked the Satsuma and Chôshû forces hiding in the palatial Edo residence of the Satsuma daimyô (feudal lord: 大名) under Saigô's command, burning down the residence and killing or executing many opponents of the shogunate. Ultimately, however, Yoshinobu was defeated by Saigô's imperial forces at the Battle of Kôshû-Katsunuma (Kôshû-Katsunuma no tatakai: 甲州勝沼の戦い). Saigô then surrounded Edo in May 1868, resulting in its unconditional defeat. Some Tokugawa loyalists continued to resist, but were defeated in the Ueno Sensô (Battle of Ueno: 上野戦争) on July 4, 1868. More battles followed, both on land and sea, but imperial troops eventually consolidated their control of mainland Japan. On October 26, 1868, Edo was renamed Tokyo, and the Meiji period officially began. Further naval battles ensued, but again the imperial navy triumphed.
Saigô, meanwhile, maintained an important role in governing, but ran afoul of the majority when he insisted that Japan should go to war with Korea in 1873 due to Korea's refusal to recognize the legitimacy of the Emperor Meiji as head of state of the Empire of Japan. Saigô resigned from all of his government positions in protest and returned to his hometown of Kagoshima. A private military academy was established in Kagoshima for the faithful samurai who had also resigned their posts to follow Saigô from Tokyo. These samurai came to dominate the Kagoshima government, and fearing a rebellion, the Imperial government sent warships to Kagoshima to remove weapons from its arsenal. This conflict, called the Satsuma Rebellion (Seinan Sensô or Southwestern War: 西南戦争), pitted disenfranchised samurai against the recently established imperial government. With the restoration of the emperor in 1868, the dissolution of daimyô domains in 1871, and the ban against the wearing of swords in public in 1876, many samurai became disillusioned with the reforms and were willing to fight for a return to the shôgunate as a viable alternative. Although dismayed by the revolt, Saigô was reluctantly persuaded to lead the rebels against the central government. Early battles resulted in heavy casualties on both sides, but government forces numbering around 300,000 overwhelmed their adversaries (by some estimates, at a ratio of sixty-to-one) and were far better equipped with modern weaponry. By their last stand during the Battle of Shiroyama (Shiroyama no tatakai: 城山の戦い), the Satsuma rebels numbered a mere 400 men. During the battle, Saigô was badly injured. His death came either from seppuku (ritual suicide: 切腹) or through decapitation by his men who wanted to grant their fallen leader an honorable death rather than see him surrender or be captured. With Saigô's death the Satsuma Rebellion came to an end. For his exploits, Saigô has been dubbed the "last true samurai."
The print title Shika Kagoshima Saigô-ki (Chronicle of Saigô at Kagoshima: 鹿兒嶋西郷記) is inscribed in large characters inside the red cartouche at the upper right, which also includes the year 1877 (Meiji jû-nen, 明治十年). The white banner at the middle left reads Seito (pupil: 生徒), which apprently refers to the kneeling former samurai and other fighters who were members of the private military academy set up in Kagoshima (where Saigô had returned after his break from the central government).
Given the circular date seal at the lower right, this print was issued only 10 weeks before Saigô's death in the face of the onslaught by government forces during the Battle of Shiroyama. The timeliness and graphic style of this design brings to mind the illustrations found in nishiki-e shinbun ("color-picture news": 錦絵新聞), also called nyuusu nishiki-e ("newspaper color prints": 新聞錦絵). When the dismantled shôgunate's ban on reporting current events was lifted in the early Meiji period, ukiyo-e publishers obtained permission to rewrite and illustrate newspaper stories or report recent political or military developments. The resulting prints sprouted up around 1872 in Tokyo and 1874 in Osaka, with a focus on regional events, featuring color illustrations accompanied by extensive texts.
For another portrait of Saigô, see YMN02.