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What was the Satsuma Rebellion? | History & Facts

Instructor: Jennifer Tatomir

Jennifer is a graduate of the MBA program at the University of Michigan and has other graduate degrees in Southeast Asian Studies, Library and Information Science, and Social Work.

Explore the Satsuma Rebellion. Study the dispute between the samurai and the imperial government, and review the Battle of Shiroyama and other events in the revolt. Updated: 05/22/2023

What was the Satsuma Rebellion?

The Satsuma Rebellion represented a rebellion carried out by samurai who were opposed to the government of the Meiji Era. Also known as the Southwest War or the Seinan War, the Satsuma Rebellion marked the end of the samurai era in Japan and the rise of the Empire of Japan. Lasting from January to September 1877, the Satsuma Rebellion started with sporadic skirmishes between the Empire of Japan and samurai commanders in 1868. The rebellion ended on September 24, 1877, with the defeat of the leader of the rebellion by the imperial forces of Japan.

Background of the Satsuma Rebellion

For centuries prior to the push for modernization in Japan, the shoguns and the samurai constituted the primary administrative, political, economic, and military rulers of feudal Japan. After a period of conflict ending in 1868, the last Tokugawa shogun was defeated, and an emperor named Meiji took his place. This led to the start of the Meiji Restoration.

Under the shoguns and samurai, Japan was a pre-industrial country that relied primarily upon agriculture for its economy. The Meiji Restoration ushered in an era of modernization that aimed to develop a modern infrastructure within the country, as well as:

  • Create a strong military
  • Increase the number of educated people in Japan
  • Form a centralized government
  • Develop industries to bolster the economy

To facilitate this transition from a feudal to a modern state, the Empire of Japan forced the shoguns to relinquish control of their domains, geographic areas defended by a local army, to the central government. One of these domains, the Satsuma Domain, would become key to the rebellion instigated by the samurai.

Starting in the 1860s, many samurai forced into retirement moved to Satsuma Domain. In the Satsuma Domain, the samurai worked together with other local leaders to plant the seeds for the Satsuma Rebellion in 1877.

Causes of the 1877 Rebellion

There were numerous causes of the Southwest War in 1877. One of the main catalysts for the conflict was the elimination of the samurai class under the Meiji Restoration. This led to insurrections against the imperial government starting in the 1860s due to dissatisfaction with the emperor and the government.

When Japan tried to take over the Korean Peninsula with less than successful results, former samurai commanders pushed for a restoration of their class. To press for this restoration, samurai living in Satsuma Domain joined forces with the governor of the prefecture—Oyama Tsunayoshi. Together, they attempted to pressure the imperial government into conceding to their demands by setting up a series of private academies that employed former samurai.

Worried by the establishment of these academies, the imperial government led a raid to confiscate armaments held at these private academies. Along with this raid, the government sent spies to report on the activities of the samurai. While the retired samurai class was originally provided with a monthly stipend to compensate for their unemployment, the imperial government also responded by reducing the monthly stipend to a much smaller annual payment.

The samurai responded by calling upon Saigo Takamori, a member of the imperial government who expressed concerns over the political actions taken by the Emperor, to address the concerns of the samurai.

The Samurai at War

In response to the samurai at war, the Imperial government sent officials to assess the situation in Satsuma Domain. When rebel forces harassed these officials, the Imperial government sent the Imperial Japanese Army to Satsuma Domain on February 12, 1877, in an effort to prevent the rebellion from spreading. At the same time, Saigo Takamori also left for Tokyo to demand explanations for the government's actions.

On February 22, 1877, the Satsuma forces laid siege to Kumamoto Castle under the command of Major General Tani Tateki. Despite numerous surges undertaken by the Satsuma army, they were unable to take the castle and decided to prevent the forces inside the castle from acquiring food and ammunition.

Illustration of Saigo attacking Imperial forces during the Satsuma Rebellion

An illustration showing Saigo attacking the Imperial forces during the Satsuma Rebellion

Retreat of the Samurai

The Siege of Kumamoto Castle lasted through March 1877, with Saigo and his army forced to retreat to Hitoyoshi. Saigo's forces carried out a series of guerilla attacks on the Imperial Army. Throughout July 1877, the Imperial Army continued to force the retreat of the samurai, depleting their forces to only 500 soldiers. In September 1877, Saigo and his forces took control of Shiroyama, ultimately leading to the final skirmish of the Satsuma Rebellion, the Battle of Shiroyama. This caused some rebels to carry out seppuku, a form of ritual sacrifice designed to save the honor of the soldier.

Battle of Shiroyama

At the Battle of Shiroyama, Saigo's forces were outnumbered 60 to one by the Imperial Army. General Yamagata Aritomo of the Imperial Army ordered his troops to build a series of elaborate trenches to prevent Saigo's forces from escaping. When Saigo rejected Yamagata's request for his immediate surrender, Yamagata conducted a full-scale raid of the Shiroyama.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What was the primary reason for the Satsuma Rebellion?

The primary reason for the Satsuma Rebellion was the elimination of the samurai class under the Meiji Restoration. Afterwards, many samurai expressed distrust in the new Imperial government, leading to the Satsuma Rebellion.

How many samurai died in the Satsuma Rebellion?

Several thousand samurai died in the Satsuma Rebellion. By the time of Saigo's seppuku at the end of the Batlle of Shiroyama, only 40 rebels remained alive.

What happened in the Satsuma Rebellion?

In the Satsuma Rebellion, members of the samurai class rebelled against the Imperial government. By the end of the rebellion, the samurai were defeated and the samurai class was effectively eliminated from Japanese society.

Who won the Satsuma Rebellion?

The Imperial government of Japan won the Satsuma Rebellion. This led to the end of the samurai class in Japan and the start of modernization within the country.

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