Battle of Shiroyama: Rebellious Samurai Defeated by Modernized Japanese Army

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Battle of Shiroyama: Rebellious Samurai Defeated by Modernized Japanese Army

Battle of Shiroyama (all images courtesy of Wikipedia)

Today in Military History: September 24, 1877

For today's history lesson, we go to Japan in the late nineteenth century. The last embers of traditional society were about to be extinguished in a blaze of machine gunfire…


When Japan was opened to Western commerce, diplomacy and ideas in 1853, it began a radical change in Japanese society. In less than 25 years, Japan's industry, military, and government were upgraded. One major change involved the office of the Emperor. Until 1867, executive power in Japan was exercised by a shogun. The shogun was a military dictator – nominally appointed by the emperor – who exercised nearly all authority in the Japanese empire. The emperor was basically a figurehead.

However, reforms began swiftly after first contact with the West. In 1868, the last Tokugawa shogun formally resigned his position and transferred all his authority to the Emperor Meiji. The new ruler was born in 1852, and was described by some historians as a delicate, somewhat sickly young man. He was an indifferent student, writing later in life that he regretted not applying himself more to his writing classes. Meiji was crowned emperor in 1867 after the mysterious death of his father the Emperor Komei (thought to have been poisoned).

Emperor Meiji, in military uniform, 1873
Emperor Meiji, in military uniform, 1873

During the shogunate, Japan was ruled by nearly 300 regional daimyo. In 1871, these local rulers were summoned before the emperor, and told that their lands were now forfeit to the imperial government. In their place, 78 local prefectures (provinces) ruled by Imperial court-appointed governors were created. Feudalism was also abolished, and a national army was also created. All Japanese men of age 21 and older were conscripted into the Imperial Army for four years, in addition to Reserve duty for three more. This act was also a part of the government's attempt to abolish the privileged samurai class.

At this time in Japan, the samurai class numbered about 1.9 million. [By contrast, this number represented ten times the size of the privileged class in France at the start of the 1789 French Revolution.] The samurai functioned as the rulers and military class of the old Japanese society. With the reforms of the Meiji dynasty, the samurai objected strenuously to their new, lower positions. Their daimyo were responsible for their stipends, and the government soon ordered that the samurai's stipends be converted into government bonds. However, the final insult to these warriors came when they were no longer allowed to walk about town bearing a sword or weapon to show their status as in former times (see below).

Westernized Samurai 1866
Westernized Samurai 1866

This final governmental edict caused samurai riots all over the country. Over the next decade, a series of rebellions rocked the country, the most serious was the Boshin War (1868-1869). Despite being outnumbered by shogunal forces, the newly-emerging Imperial Army and Navy won out. A number of European military advisors (mainly French, but also including British, German, Dutch and others) came to Japan. They trained the new Imperial Army conscripts, helped build the defenses, and the like. [Japanese Imperial Army uniforms were closely based on French Army uniforms.] One of the best Imperial commanders was the samurai Saigō Takamori.

Saigō Takamori, the "Last Samurai"

Saigō Takamori (1828-1877)
Saigō Takamori (1828-1877)

Saigō Takamori ("Saigō" is the family name) was born in January of 1828. He was a low-ranking samurai official who became involved in the reforms of the Meiji Restoration. After leading troops during the Boshin War, he became an Imperial government bureaucrat. Saigō opposed the widespread modernization of Japan, especially opposing the construction of a railway. He also proposed that Japan invade Korea, but his idea was rejected. As a result, in 1873 Saigō resigned from his government positions and returned to his hometown of Kagoshima in the prefecture of Satsuma, as did many other Satsuma ex-samurai in the military and police forces.

Prelude to Battle

After his "retirement," in 1874 Saigō founded a private military academy in Kagoshima, mainly to employ the many ex-samurai who followed him back to Satsuma. Soon, his academy had nearly 132 branches. The training given was not purely academic. Besides Chinese classical training, it included training in weapons and tactics, artillery lessons, and classes in bushido, the "way of the warrior" followed by all samurai. The local governor approved of Saigō's academy; in fact, the governor appointed many ex-samurai to provincial offices. By 1876, Satsuma province had essentially seceded from the central government.

In December of 1876, the central Meiji government sent a force of 58 police officers to Satsuma, to investigate reports of unrest and subversion. They were captured and tortured, finally admitting they were sent to assassinate Saigō. This act provoked the Satsuma rebellion, now thrusting Saigō into the reluctant role of rebel against the central government. Though he initially could boast of 40,000 men under his command in early 1877, by late August of that year – as a result of battles, desertions, or suicide (known as seppuku) – his force dwindled to a mere 500 men. On September 1 they retreated to their home province, occupied Mount Shiroyama, a mountain overlooking the city of Kagoshima, and awaited their fate.

Battle of Shiroyama

The Imperial government was determined to make a final end for the rebellious samurai. Japanese soldiers began arriving outside Shiroyama shortly after the samurai. By mid-September, a force of approximately 20,000 to 30,000 soldiers under the command of General Yamagata Aritomo surrounded the mountain. In addition, five naval vessels under Admiral Kawamura Sumiyoshi also anchored offshore of the town, contributing several thousand marines to the land effort. To insure that the samurai did not escape, the military constructed a line of ditches, walls, and obstacles around the mountain.

Members of Imperial Japanese Army, photo taken during Satsuma Rebellion
Members of Imperial Japanese Army, photo taken during Satsuma Rebellion

The army began bombarding the rebels almost daily, with the naval flotilla adding their guns to the mix. During the course of the run-up to the final confrontation, the artillery and naval guns fired nearly 7000 shells. In addition, a small number of Imperial Army units made probing attacks, testing the rebels' defenses. Saigō's samurai did have a number of muskets to defend themselves. But they soon were running low on ammo, and began appropriating bronze statutes from nearby Buddhist shrines, melting them down to cast bullets.

Gen. Yamagata's battle plan was to assault Saigo's position from all sides at once. Units were forbidden to assist one another without express permission. If a unit retreated with enemy troops in pursuit, the neighboring units were to fire into the area indiscriminately, killing their own men if necessary to prevent Saigō from escaping.

At some point between September 1 and 23, Gen. Yamagata sent a letter to Saigō, asking him to surrender without bloodshed. Most likely because of his strong belief in bushido – which defined surrender as cowardly and dishonorable – Saigō did not respond to the request.

Beginning on the evening of the September 2, an intensive artillery barrage was unleashed on the rebel samurai. At 3:00 am on the morning of September 24, Gen. Yamagata ordered an attack on the rebel samurai's positions on Shiroyama. The samurai, under heavy fire, charged the lines of the imperial army, which had not been trained for close-quarter sword fighting. In just a few minutes the once organized line turned into discord. The samurai's highly skilled swordsmanship prevailed against an army of conscripts with very little traditional training. For a short time Saigō's lines held, but was forced back due to weight of numbers. By 6 a.m., only 40 rebels were still alive.

By this time, Saigō was dying; he had suffered a wound to his leg – which had pierced the femoral artery – and in the stomach. One of his loyal followers, Beppu Shinsuke, carried him down the hill to a secluded spot. According to one report, Saigō committed seppuku, with Beppu standing as his second. Another story said that Saigō died before completing his part of the ritual, but Beppu beheaded him to satisfy honor.

By 6:00 am, all but 40 of the rebel samurai were dead. The last holdouts, including Beppu, then decided to give their lives in battle, drew their swords, and charged the Imperial Army lines. Rather than waste the lives of more conscripted soldiers, a battery of American-made Gatling guns (likely 10-barrelled, .50 caliber versions similar to the one below) were ordered into action. In a blaze of rapid-fire bullets, the last samurai were gunned down, ending the battle and the Satsuma Rebellion.

Gatling gun, Fort Laramie National Historic Site, Wyoming
Gatling gun, Fort Laramie National Historic Site, Wyoming


Several thousand Imperial Army troops were killed in the battle, while all of the remaining samurai perished. The modernization of Japan continued uninterrupted.

Footnote #1: Despite the ignominious defeat of the samurai, Saigō acquired a near mythic following among the Japanese people. In February of 1889, Emperor Meiji posthumously pardoned Saigo.

Footnote #2: The final battle scenes in the 2003 film "The Last Samurai" were inspired by the battle of Shiroyama. Tom Cruise's character in the film is an amalgam of various European "volunteers" who served with and against the Imperial Army. The samurai character Katsumoto, portrayed by Ken Watanabe, was modeled on Saigō Takamori.

Footnote #3: For the record, hara-kiri and seppuku are the same act. But, when speaking of the act, it was called hara-kiri; when referring to it in writing, it is called seppuku.

Staged seppuku ceremony
Staged seppuku ceremony

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hey, i was wondering if I could get your name because I need to cite your article, which has been a great help to me, for a project. Can you please help me

ok ok, yeah mines the same as the last guy but yeah this site was actually a great help for my modern history essay... hopefully we shall learn the name of the great historian who made this :)

Just wanted to say this post is fantastic and very informative about the battle of Shiroyama.IF you would like to learn more about Samurai and the weapons they used please feel free to read more on our site Thanks

Such a great article, sadly I want some Chi to drink or smoke

Its tragic how all those samurais got slaughtered by those gattling guns, but did they smoke their Chi before the battles?

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