The true story that inspired the 2003 Tom Cruise film The Last Samurai, the Satsuma Rebellion (seinan sensō, or "Southwestern War" in Japanese) was an 1877 rebellion of disaffected ex-samurai from Satsuma domain against the newly constituted Meiji government of Japan. Led by an erstwhile member of the government's highest circle, the legendary samurai Saigo Takamori, the rebellion was the last and most significant challenge to the new regime, but was ultimately crushed by a modern conscript army led by future prime minister of Japan Yamagata Aritomo.
The feudal domain of Satsuma had been one of the key players in overthrowing the Tokugawa Shogunate and launching the Meiji Restoration. The Satsuma samurai Saigo Takamori had been one of the main leaders of this endeavor, and was rewarded for his efforts by becoming one of the three ruling oligarchs of early Meiji Japan, along with Okubo Toshimichi and Kido Koin.
One among the many reasons why Satsuma played such a major role in bringing down the Tokugawa was that Satsuma had huge amounts of extraneous samurai sitting around, who could be utilized for overthrowing the Edo government. Whereas most domains in Edo-period Japan had between 5 and 10 percent of the population as samurai, by some methods of counting over 40 percent of the population of Satsuma was samurai, most of whom were goshi, or peasant-samurai, who depended on meager government stipends, lived on the borderline of destitution, and were constantly discontent.
One of the ways Satsuma had dealt with this discontentment was by directing the activities of these samurai toward overthrowing the Tokugawa, but once that succeeded, their discontentment returned and became a festering problem for the new national government.
Not that the government helped matters by abolishing the samurai class as part of its drive to modernize Japan, depriving the Satsuma samurai not only of their stipends but also their pride, and telling them that they were now completely on their own. Having played such a key role in establishing the Meiji government, these (now former) samurai were not entirely unjustified in their outrage at losing their livelihood and status.
By now one of the most powerful men in Japan, Saigo Takamori, no luddite, was sympathetic to the idea that Japan needed to modernize, but he could also not forget the plight of the Satsuma samurai who had loyally fought under him in the battle to overthrow the Shogun, and whom he was one of to begin with. Thus Saigo resisted the policy of eliminating samurai priviledge and instead proposed that Japan make use of its excess samurai population to invade and conquer Korea. Saigo almost succeeded in pulling this off, by putting the motion to invade Korea on the table while Kido and Okubo were overseas on the Iwakura Mission, but Okubo quickly came rushing back to Japan as soon as he heard the news and quashed the idea.
Unwilling to any longer be part of a government which was going to dismantle the samurai class, but resigned to the fact that he had done all that he could, Saigo tendered his resignation and returned home to Satsuma to what he thought would be a peaceful retirement.
Unwilling to let samurai traditions die out entirely, however, and looking for some way to employ and support the impoverished former samurai, Saigo decided they should become teachers, and established a network of quasi-military academies, where young men could acquire knowledge of the Confucian classics, but also received training in weapons and military tactics. Beginning with the first academy in Kagoshima, Saigo's school system soon had 132 academies all over the prefecture.
While Saigo may have seen these academies as merely a useful jobs-program for former samurai, the national government not surprisingly viewed the academies with fear and alarm. Having already dealt with several small rebellions by former samurai in other provinces, the government could not help but wonder at the purpose of training a whole new generation of Satsuma youth in the samurai tradition.
Thus in 1876, the government sent a police constable, Nakahara Hisao, and 57 other police officers to Satsuma to "investigate" Saigo's activities. Hot-headed young academy students promptly seized the police officers and extracted under torture a confession from Nakahara that he had actually been sent to assassinate their beloved Saigo. Although Nakahara later repudiated his confession, the outraged students began fomenting a rebellion in the name of protecting Saigo from harm. Over the next few weeks they raided government arsenals, sabotaged shipyards, and began amassing weapons and supplies.
Presented with the fait accompli that his followers were already in open rebellion in his name, Saigo reluctantly came out of his retirement and announced that he would travel to Tokyo to "question" the government about its alleged attempt to assassinate him.
As Saigo began making his way up the island of Kyushu, he soon found himself being followed by a rag-tag army of more than 40,000 former samurai and fanatical academy students. Saigo was adamant that he was not actually rebelling, and actually sent several thousand volunteers back home. As he travelled, he furiously wrote letter after letter to his old friends in the government and the Imperial court, protesting that he was not a traitor and that he merely wanted to ask some questions of the government in person. The government was taking no chances, however, and despatched the entire Imperial Japanese Army, over 100,000 strong, with orders to destroy Saigo and his troops.
However, the newly established army was made up of poorly trained peasant conscripts, and took months to mobilize. Meanwhile Saigo was already halfway up Kyushu and had reached Kumamoto. When the small force of 3,200 conscript soldiers garrisoned at Kumamoto Castle opened fire on Saigo's men with cannons, Saigo accepted his fate and ordered his men to retaliate. Convinced that conscripts would be no match for his highly-trained samurai, Saigo decided to reduce the castle by siege, which he thought could be accomplished quickly and would avoid leaving enemy troops at his rear.
This proved to be a fatal blunder. The conscripts proved tougher than Saigo expected and refused to surrender, and the siege dragged on through the winter of 1877 and into the spring. This gave the government army crucial time to mobilize and get all of its soliders deployed in Kyushu. It also gave the government an opportunity to deploy the Navy to Kagoshima and cut off Saigo's supply lines.
By March, the bulk of the Imperial Army had arrived at Kumamoto, and General Yamagata Aritomo ordered a full frontal assault, shattering the siege. At the height of the battle, Saigo wrote one last letter to his friend, Imperial Prince Arisugawa, pleading that he was not a traitor and requesting negotiation. The government was unmoved however, and refused to negotiate.
Saigo now led a desperate retreat, with the entire Imperial Army in hot pursuit. He ordered several units of his men to break off and flee, hoping they would be spared if they returned home, and then zig-zagged his way south back toward Kagoshima with his most loyal and fanatical troops. Using several forced marches and doubling back on his path several times through trackless forests, he was able to avoid a pitched battle with the vastly larger Imperial Army, but casualties from several skirmishes and dissertions due to low morale, along with the fact that Saigo kept telling his troops to go home, left him with only 3000 men. He had also lost, left behind, or used up all of his modern artilery and most of the ammunition for his troops' modern guns, meaning any further fighting by his men would be done mostly with swords.
Finally, in mid August, the Imperial Army caught up with the rebels at Mount Enodake, north of Kagoshima. The bulk of Saigo's remaining force made a heroic last stand in the face of a furious frontal assault in order to cover for Saigo while he and his last 300 men slipped quietly away back to Kagoshima.
Preparing to make a final stand, Saigo and his men occupied the commanding heights of Shiroyama, a large hill overlooking the city. Having burned his papers and his army uniform, the great Saigo lived his last days in a cave on a near-starvation diet.
The Imperial Army, now swollen to nearly 300,000 men, arrived shortly thereafter, and completely surrounded Shiroyama. Determined not to let Saigo escape again, General Yamagata had the army spend several days constructing elaborate earthen siegeworks all around the hill, to prevent a breakout. He then ordered the army and the naval vessels in Kagoshima bay to begin heavily shelling the hill. Finally, on the night of September 24, after a letter from Saigo arrived rejecting a demand to surrender, he ordered an all-out assault by 30,000 heavily armed troops, against Saigo's half-starved 300 samurai armed only with swords and pikes.
By 6 am, only about 40 of Saigo's men were left alive, and Saigo, heavily wounded, committed seppuku. Well, either that, or else he had actually been killed by bullets and his men made it appear as if he had committed seppuku by slitting his belly and cutting off his head. Led by his loyal lieutenant Beppu Shunsuke, the last 40 men, almost all of them already heavily wounded, drew their swords and charged down the hill into the very center of the Imperial positions, and were mowed down by gatling guns.
The Satsuma Rebellion was over. As was, once and for all time, the samurai way of life.