Ueno Koen: The Last Samurai

12Mar06


One nice thing about lugging around heavy cameras while you’re sightseeing is that, at least in Japan, people actually ask you to take their pictures. So here’s a picture of two friendly Japanese tourists visiting the Saigo Takamori statue. He certainly looks unimposing here — just another samurai out for a walk with his dog and his sword — but in fact he was the key strategist of the Satsuma Rebellion, and the figure after which the leader of the anti-Meiji forces in the The Last Samurai is modeled. Wounded in battle, he either committed seppuku and was then beheaded by a retainer, or he just simply passed out and was then beheaded by a retainer so he could keep his status as a ‘true’ samurai who kills himself rather than be shamed by defeat in battle.

In fact, Takamori’s story is even more interesting than this. He was originally the leader of the imperial army during the Boshin War, but later opposed modernization and resigned from the Meiji government when they wouldn’t invade Korea (because Korea refused to recognize the legitimacy of the new imperial leader of Japan). Later, when his feudal rights to rice stipends were discontinued (in addition to the humiliation of new anti-sword legislation), he realized that his class privilege was about to be annulled and he led the Satsuma Rebellion. In a final irony, the Meiji soldiers who defeated the samurai at the Battle of Ueno were formerly dirt-poor rice growers who had been subjected to the Shogunate’s unbearably harsh caste strictures before they joined the Meiji army.

Now his statue is a popular meeting place, primarily because of the cuteness of the dog, which gazes admiringly up at his master.



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