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Satsuma was one of the original 68 provinces of ancient Japan, located in the extreme southeast corner of Kyushu in what is today Kagoshima prefecture. Depending on one's perspective, Satsuma was either a primitive backwater nearly 1000 miles from the center of Japanese politics, or a crucial gateway to the outside world. But in either case, none could doubt the region's importance during the late Edo Era when Satsuma Domain rose to national prominence by taking the lead in overthrowing the Tokugawa Shogunate and initiating the Meiji Restoration.

On one hand, Satsuma's position on the periphery of Japanese culture made it easy to view its people as primitive or backward. Natives of Satsuma spoke a dialect of Japanese that was virtually unintelligible to the rest of Japan, and Satsuma food, dress, and customs were influenced by its proximity to Chinese, Korean, and Ryukyuan culture. Satsuma cuisine for example, was based on the sweet potato rather than rice, and instead of imbibing sake like the rest of Japan, the people of Satsuma preferred to get drunk off a ridiculously strong concoction of fermented potatoes, known as "satsuma shochu."

On the other hand, Satsuma was the region of Japan which had the greatest contact with the rest of the world, due to its control of the thriving trade routes in the Ryukyu Islands, and thus throughout its history the domain was an entry point for new ideas, new goods, and new technologies. The Japanese word for the sweet potato, for example, is satsuma imo or "Satsuma potato", because the sweet potato first arrived in Japan from China via Satsuma (In Satsuma however, the term is kara imo, "Chinese potato"). Similarly, guns first arrived in Japan via Satsuma when a ship carrying Portuguese guns wrecked on one of its islands in 1543, and when a Korean pottery style swept across Japan in the 17th century, it quickly became known as Satsuma ware, reflecting its point of entry. In the 19th century, Japanese-English dictionaries were known as satsuma jisho, "Satsuma dictionaries," because scholars in Satsuma were the first to produce them.

Even during the Edo Era, when Japan was theoretically a "closed country" (sakoku), Satsuma was allowed to continue this exchange with the outside world through the legal fiction that the Ryukyu Islands were an independent kingdom, and any trade that went on there had nothing to do with Japan, even though everyone knew that Satsuma had conquered the Ryukyus back in 1609. Given this long history of cultural exchange, it is not surprising that following the Opening of Japan in 1853, Satsuma was one of the first domains to embrace Western ideas, and became the site of some of Japan's first shipyards, large iron foundries, and munitions factories.


Although the name "Satsuma" dates at least to the creation of Satsuma province for taxation purposes in the 7th century, the modern history of Satsuma begins in 1185 when Minamoto Yoritomo, Japan's first shogun, appointed Koremune Tadahisa as military steward (geshi) of Shimazu shoen, a large investiture in the area surrounding what is now the city of Kagoshima. In 1197, Tadahisa was promoted to shugo, or military governor, of the entire Satsuma province, and the following year he changed his family name to match the name of the original investiture, thus founding the mighty Shimazu warrior clan.

While most Japanese provinces switched hands many times in the ensuing centuries as warrior houses rose and fell, the Shimazu remained one of the strongest families in Japan, ruling over the same territory uninterruptedly for nearly 700 years. Over time, they expanded their holdings, conquering neighboring Owari province, parts of Higo and Hyuga, and eventually, all of the Ryukyus. In the great battle of Sekigahara in 1600, when Tokugawa Ieyasu cemented his control over Japan, the Shimazu had the misfortune of fighting for the losing Western Alliance, and thus were labeled tozama daimyo and were barred from participating in the new national government established by Ieyasu. This proved to be a blessing in disguise however, as it also meant that the Shimazu were not subjected to many of the rigid social structures that would eviscerate the independent power of the loyal, or "fudai" daimyo. Thus by the mid-19th century, when most of the other domains had grown soft and weak, Satsuma retained a strong military and a vibrant, independent government, almost like an independent kingdom, which would allow it to play a dominant role in the birth of modern Japan.

Today the Shimazu no longer rule a feudal domain, but the have turned themselves into a modern corporation and continue to make their presence felt in modern-day Kagoshima, where Shimazu descendants are active in tourism ventures, hotels, and running museums, such that any visitor to Kagoshima is very likely to meet an employee of the Shimazu at some point during their stay. The seal of Kagoshima City is clearly derived from the Shimazu family crest, and nowhere else in Japan are the descendants of feudal warlords so prominently visible in contemporary life.


Of all its various roles in Japanese history, Satsuma is most famous as the domain that, along with Choshu, initiated the overthrow of the Tokugawa bakufu and the Meiji Restoration which putatively restored the emperor as ruler of Japan, but in reality, created Japan's modern bureaucratic democracy.

Like so many other changes, Satsuma's rise to national prominence began with the arrival of Commodore Matthew Perry's black ships in 1853. In the wake of Perry's "opening" of Japan, the weakness of the shogunate was increasingly exposed as the Americans and other Western powers forced humiliating "unequal treaties" on Japan and the British navy brazenly shelled Japanese cities whenever they felt Japan was not obsequious enough. Satsuma itself was bombarded in 1863 when Satsuma samurai killed a British trader for failing to kowtow to the domain's ruler, Shimazu Hisamitsu (although this later proved beneficial to Satsuma when as part of his settlement with Britain, Hisamitsu agreed to purchase weapons and iron-clad warships).

In response to the patent impotence of the shogunate to retain any of Japan's dignity in the face of increasing foreign exploitation, the daimyo began pressing for a reforms to create a stronger government which could stand up to foreigners, with the primary goal of securing revision of the reviled unequal treaties. The secondary goal was of course to increase the power of the daimyo at the expense of the shogun, as the daimyo were essentially calling for the creation of a daimyo council which would approve or block shogunal decisions.

Shimazu Hisamitsu was one of the leaders in the push for the creation of such a council, and was aided in his efforts by the able politicking of his two advisors Saigo Takamori and Okubo Toshimichi. At first the Satsuma leaders envisioned reform within the existing structure of the shogunate, and Satsuma troops under Saigo were instrumental in putting down an 1864 attempt by Choshu domain to overthrow the shogunate. But as the young shogun's regent, Hitosubashi Keiki, continued to refuse the daimyo a greater voice in the national government, the Satsuma leaders eventually decided that the shogunate had to go, and in 1868 they united with their erstwhile Choshu enemies to topple the shogunate in the Boshin War.


But if Satsuma and Choshu had brought down the shogunate to protect and increase daimyo power, they ended up with the exact opposite. The new national government, even though it was made up of Satsuma and Choshu samurai including Okubo and Saigo, quickly realized that if Japan was to compete with Western nations it would have to eliminate the feudal system, and soon began a systematic assault on samurai privilege. Starting in 1871, the domain system was abolished, daimyo were stripped of their titles, and the old provinces were reorganized into the modern prefectures.

By 1873, even Saigo had had enough, and resigned from his position on the imperial council, where he had been one of the three most powerful men in Japan. Many of the highest officers in the government resigned with him, leaving the pragmatic Okubo sole master of the Meiji state. Saigo returned home to retirement in Satsuma, while the assaults on the samurai's elite status continued, culminating in the hatorei edict of 1876, which banned samurai from wearing topknots or carrying swords.

The final straw for Satsuma came in 1877, when rumors of a government plot to assassinate Saigo began to spread across the domain. Saigo, whose disaffection with the government he helped create had only deepened in the preceding years, was roused from his retirement and declared his intention to travel to Tokyo and "question" the government about the alleged plot on his life. This might have been all well and good, if not for the fact that 40,000 armed and disgruntled Satsuma samurai decided to travel with him. Of course, the national government and the newly formed Imperial Army could not allow this.

The result was the so-called "Satsuma Rebellion" of 1877. Saigo's goals were unclear from the start, and although many disaffected samurai from other domains flocked to the banner of their nations greatest living hero, and his men were spirited and well-trained, he lacked the supply lines and the ammunition stores of the well-funded if ill-trained national army, which consisted largely of conscripted commoners. An ill-advised besiegement of Kumamoto Castle in central Kyushu wasted precious time, allowing the Imperial Army to gather reinforcements and put its munitions factories into high gear. Meanwhile Saigo's army gradually exhausted its ammunition until it was fighting only with swords and pikes.

Still, Saigo held out for a year as the Imperial army chased him around Kyushu, his army gradually reduced by attrition, until at last he and his last few hundred men were cornered at Shiroyama just outside Kagoshima. On September 23, Imperial forces under future prime minister Yamagata Aritomo began the final assault on Saigo's position. The "last samurai" was killed in the fighting, and Satsuma's days as an independent state were over.

Important Dates in Satsuma History

1185 - Koremune Tadahisa named steward of Shimazu shoen.
1197 - Koremune Tadahisa becomes governor of Satsuma.
1198 - Koremune Tadahisa changes his family name to Shimazu.
1543 - Guns arrive in Japan for the first time when a Portuguese ship wrecks on Satsuma's Tanegashima Island.
1598 - Japanese returning to Satsuma from Toyotomi Hideyoshi's Invasion of Korea introduce "Satsuma ware" pottery to Japan.
1600 - Satsuma fights on the losing side in the Battle of Sekigahara.
1603 - The Tokugawa bakufu is established. Satsuma is labeled one of the tozama domains.
1609 - Satsuma forces capture the Ryukyu capital of Naha, securing Satsuma control of the Ryukyu islands.
1828 - Saigo Takamori is born to a low-ranking Kagoshima samurai family.
1863 - Kagoshima is bombarded by British warships in retaliation for the murder of British merchant Charles Richardson
1864 - Satsuma forces under Saigo Takamori thwart an attempt by Choshu troops to seize the Imperial Palace.
1866 - Satsuma signs an alliance pact with Choshu domain for the purpose of subverting the shogunate.
1867 - A Satsuma army enters Kyoto to demand the resignation of the shogun.
1868 - Satsuma and Choshu easily defeat Tokugawa forces in the Boshin War.
1877 - Satsuma forces under Saigo Takamori are defeated in the Satsuma Rebellion.