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Saigo Takamori

Saigo Takamori (西郷 隆盛) was one of the most influential samurai in Japanese history. He was recruited to travel to Edo, modern day Tokyo to assist the Lord Nariakira. He was later put in command of over fifty thousand samurai, a large part of the imperial army.

As a leader of the Imperial forces in the Boshin War, Saigo was one of the key figures in the Meiji Restoration. In spite of his humble background, he became the state councilor and army general of the new state.

Saigo disagreed with the modernization of Japan and the opening of commerce with the West. He did insist, however, that Japan should try to annex Korea before the West realized that country's potential. Because the other leaders of the restoration strongly opposed these plans, Saigo resigned and returned to his hometown of Kagoshima.

Shortly thereafter, he established a private academy in Kagoshima for the faithful samurai that had also resigned their posts in order follow him from Tokyo. In 1876, led by Saigo, they revolted against the central government, which had just eliminated their rice stipends. The imperial palace had recruited new guards who were nothing more than glorified rice peasants and armed them with modern weapons. The samurai's swords were no match for the soldiers' guns and the samurai were forced to retreat. Badly injured in hip during the fierce battle, instead of being killed or captured by the enemy, Saigo asked for his head to be cut off by a comrade to preserve his honor. Legend and art show that Saigo committed seppuku a traditional form of suicide before this, though autopsy and the original historical records deny this.

Many legends sprung up concerning Saigo, many of which denied his death. Many people in Japan expected him to return from India or China or to sail back with Russia's crown prince to overthrow injustice. Unable to overcome the affection that that the people had for this hero of tradition, the Meiji govenment recognized his bravery and pardoned him posthumously on February 22, 1889.

A famous statue of Saigo walking his dog stands in Ueno Park, Tokyo. Saigo's last stand against the Meiji government was the historical basis for the 2003 film The Last Samurai.