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The Last Samurai: The Life and Battles of Saigo Takamori (History) [Hardcover]

Mark Ravina
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
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Book Description

19 Dec 2003 History
The dramatic arc of Saigo Takamori′s life, from his humble origins as a lowly samurai, to national leadership, to his death as a rebel leader, has captivated generations of Japanese readers and now Americans as well – his life is the inspiration for a major Hollywood film, The Last Samurai , starring Tom Cruise and Ken Watanabe. In this vibrant new biography, Mark Ravina, professor of history and Director of East Asian Studies at Emory University, explores the facts behind Hollywood storytelling and Japanese legends, and explains the passion and poignancy of Saigo′s life. Known both for his scholarly research and his appearances on The History Channel, Ravina recreates the world in which Saigo lived and died, the last days of the samurai. The Last Samurai traces Saigo′s life from his early days as a tax clerk in far southwestern Japan, through his rise to national prominence as a fierce imperial loyalist. Saigo was twice exiled for his political activities –– sent to Japan′s remote southwestern islands where he fully expected to die. But exile only increased his reputation for loyalty, and in 1864 he was brought back to the capital to help his lord fight for the restoration of the emperor. In 1868, Saigo commanded his lord′s forces in the battles which toppled the shogunate and he became and leader in the emperor Meiji′s new government. But Saigo found only anguish in national leadership. He understood the need for a modern conscript army but longed for the days of the traditional warrior. Saigo hoped to die in service to the emperor. In 1873, he sought appointment as envoy to Korea, where he planned to demand that the Korean king show deference to the Japanese emperor, drawing his sword, if necessary, top defend imperial honor. Denied this chance to show his courage and loyalty, he retreated to his homeland and spent his last years as a schoolteacher, training samurai boys in frugality, honesty, and courage. In 1876, when the government stripped samurai of their swords, Saigo′s followers rose in rebellion and Saigo became their reluctant leader. His insurrection became the bloodiest war Japan had seen in centuries, killing over 12,000 men on both sides and nearly bankrupting the new imperial government. The imperial government denounced Saigo as a rebel and a traitor, but their propaganda could not overcome his fame and in 1889, twelve years after his death, the government relented, pardoned Saigo of all crimes, and posthumously restored him to imperial court rank. In THE LAST SAMURAI , Saigo is as compelling a character as Robert E. Lee was to Americans–a great and noble warrior who followed the dictates of honor and loyalty, even though it meant civil war in a country to which he′d devoted his life. Saigo′s life is a fascinating look into Japanese feudal society and a history of a country as it struggled between its long traditions and the dictates of a modern future.

Product details

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Jossey Bass; 1 edition (19 Dec 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0471089702
  • ISBN-13: 978-0471089704
  • Product Dimensions: 24 x 16 x 2 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 891,245 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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“Ravina’s portrait of Saigo is well drawn and sympathetic…” ( Asian Affairs , November 2004) "...Reads like a thriller..." ( Good Book Guide , February 2004) "...Ravina′s writing grips with the intensity of a great adventure story and vividly portrays the upheavals caused to a nation..." ( Yorkshire Evening Post , 24 January 2004) "...a pacy narrative that reads like a thriller, complemented by maps and photographs..." ( The Good Book Guide , January 2004)


"Ravina has opened up a dimension of Saigo’s life that was closed to English readers before now." —Charles L. Yates, The Historian

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Saigo was born in Kagoshima, a castle town and the capital of Satsuma domain. Read the first page
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The creation of modern Japan 27 July 2007
This book chronicles the life of Saigô Takamori the so-called `Last Samurai' and one of the creators of the modern Japanese state. This book details his life from humble beginnings through exile twice to his position as one of the three most powerful men in Japan and his eventual fall fighting against the government he helped create. As well as this because Saigô was so involved in Japanese political reform this book is also a great source of information on Japanese politics and culture during the period. Mark Ravina does a good job in bringing the life of this remarkable man to the page, clearly explaining things that would be unfamiliar to a Western audience, although he would benefit from some better proofreading in places. This book is a must read for anyone interested in Japanese history.
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5.0 out of 5 stars recommendet 24 Feb 2014
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
the book is fully what i exspected of it.It gives a good idea off what is was to live in that kind of world,of samurai.
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5.0 out of 5 stars A reluctant leader. 8 Dec 2013
Excellent account of who is undoubtedly a man of honour and integrity.
Disgruntled by the pace at which his society moved to embrace a Western Society that is failing in so many ways. He became a leader of note. It is curious that those who never seek power wear the mantle well whereas others are seen for who they really are.
I found the book inspiring. Well written and genuinely a book worthy of learning from.
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars japanese warriors 9 Nov 2010
This is the story of Saigo Takamori (1829-1877) who was ne of the most influential samurai in Japanese history livingo in the Edo period of the Meiji era.
Born in poverty he rapidly gaine promtion as a samurai but was exiled, promoted and exiled aagain but when the samurai were stripped of power by the modernist Japanese government he formed an army to attack Tokyo however the Satsuma rebellion (as it was called ) was heavily defeated and he comitted suicide.
Well written and researched with good notes and biblography but the illustrations are poor and give no credit to the book.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.4 out of 5 stars  31 reviews
67 of 69 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Real Story of the Last Samurai 21 Dec 2003
By Nick Jamilla - Published on
Ravina's The Last Samurai is an excellent study high on specifics in an academic subject which is often superficial and generalized. It's not a book about generals, tactics, and weapons, but a look at an idealistic and passionate man who also happened to be a samurai.
Casual readers should know right from the start that this book is an academic text with extensive annotations and a large bibliography. It is not a difficult book to read, but a fuller knowledge of Japanese history would give the book a richer historical context in which Saigo Takamori lived. With that said, I only wish Ravina had included a substantive biographical glossary of the people with whom Saigo lived and communicated. The importance of people like Okubo, Kido, and Itagaki are far understated in the text. A minor peeve are the date notations which can be confusing at times, but it reflects Ravina's conscious decision to put accuracy at the forefront of his research. Historical method is certainly the defining characteristic which makes The Last Samurai a definitive text in English (as well as in Japanese, when and if it ever gets translated).
One would have wished for a more complete examination of the alleged assassination attempt on Saigo's life for it is offered as a critical pretext for his revolt against the Meiji government. If the conspiracy to take his life were conclusively true, then Saigo could be seen as reacting in self-defense to preserve not only the independence of the Satsuma fief, but also his personal honor. If untrue, Saigo could just as easily be accused of supporting an opportunistic rebellion.
But in a book about as romanticized a figure as Saigo Takamori is in Japanese culture, my biggest worry from the onset was that Ravina would have been just as drawn as past biographers to perpetuate the standard myths about Takamori's life. But Ravina challenges the legend and brings Takamori down from the heavens and places him profanely on the battlefield where he perishes in ignominious defeat. Like Matsumoto from Zwick's film (same name, but not based on Ravina's book), much is made of Takamori's pull between tradition and modernity. Ravina's book is encouraging in that the author is not afraid to tell us what we, as a sympathetic reader, would be afraid to hear. What that is can be found quite appropriately in the book's last paragraph.
For those who have seen The Last Samurai (the movie) but want to know the REAL story of the last samurai, read this book.
Nick Jamilla, author of Shimmering Sword: Samurai, Western, and Star Wars Sword Fighting.
16 of 17 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Conflicted hero that endures today 20 Oct 2004
By C. Middleton - Published on
"Where is Saigo Takamori's head?"

Thus begins Mark Ravina's intriguing and amazingly detailed historical narrative of Japan's enduring hero of its traditional cultural ways, the way of the Samurai. As Ravina ponders, why did finding Takamori's head matter: because it represented one of the oldest traditions of the warrior class. At the final battle between the rebel forces against the Meiji state on the morning of September 24, 1877, in which the rebel forces were defeated, by presenting the severed head of this legendary defeated warrior, it displayed honour, and offering the head to the lord as tribute, this showed great respect for the Samurai class as a whole. (This was a contradiction, as the Meniji state had been suppressing the Samurai tradition for some time) It was highly symbolic that Takamori's head could not be found, which the author exams with great erudition and depth.

Saigo Takamori continues to be revered in Japan because he has come to represent the true Japan, medieval Japan, before the fall of the Tokugawa shogunate and the rise of the Meiji state, which ironically, Saigo Takamori played a major role that contributed to their rise and fall, respectively. Takamori was at once a great traditionalist and reformer. He practiced the old ways and believed passionately in the basic virtues of the Samurai, though at the same time realised the great need for his country to reform. In the end, he knew that Japan had to retain its cultural heritage, all that was good and positive, but he also realized the need to move with the west. He believed the west was advanced in many ways, politically, yet cultural anomalies such as ballroom dancing, he utterly appalled. In effect, he desired everything good from both cultures.

In fact this entire story is a paradox. It is because the desire for reform and the desire to retain the traditional are equal in importance and strength. Interestingly, after Saigo's death, a slogan appeared in the popular press at the time: "Shinsei kotoku" (A New Government, Rich and Value), in other words, a new governing body that retains traditional values. As the author points out -

" looks forward to a new government but harkens back to the notion that the state should be benevolent rather than bureaucratic. Implicit in the slogan was the contradictory but compelling desire for the vitality of a free society combined with the security of a Confucian patriarchy." (P.206)

The last Samurai, Sagio Takamori, is a mixture of legend and historical fact. Japan has created him as a symbol of modern Japan, that contradiction of modernity and deep-seated tradition that endures today. This is an excellent work on a fascinating individual.

Highly recommended.
35 of 42 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Paradoxical Life of a Paragon of Virtue 29 Jun 2004
By George R Dekle - Published on
The Tom Cruise movie, "The Last Samurai" depicts Saigo Takamori as a reactionary who rejected everything Western and died valiantly waving a samurai sword as he rode into the murderous fire of gatling guns. Well, he did die valiantly (or quixotically) as a medieval samurai charging on horseback into gunfire, but he wasn't a reactionary. He was a little bit more complicated than that.

Instead of being the movie's staunch defender of the status quo, Takamori was instrumental in dismantling Japanese feudalism and bringing Japan into the 19th Century. He embraced Western technology and admired some aspects of Western government. Fierce in battle, compassionate in victory, loyal to a fault, tortured by his perception of himself as a failure, eager to embrace death before dishonor, this was a man who commanded such respect that he endangered the Meijin government by simply refusing to participate in it.

How could one of the greatest supporters of the Meijin emperor rebel against his sovereign? How could one of the main architects of the moderinzation of Japan wind up charging on horseback into the murderous gunfire of the modern Japanese army? How could he in death be transformed into a hero of mythic proportions? Read the book and find out.
28 of 34 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars if you've seen the movie, you must read this book 4 Dec 2003
By A Customer - Published on
Ken Watanabe's character, Katsumoto, the real soul of Tom Cruise's movie "The Last Samurai," is based on Saigo, and the movie's screenwriter has admitted that Saigo's story is what inspired the movie in the first place. This book shows why he was so inspired and why Katsumoto has such depth. Saigo was a complex, brilliant man, a hero in ways that the standard good v. evil model simply cannot account for. And his Japan was a marvelous place where history and the future were in dramatic and dangerous collision. If you love the movie--and, really, it is tough not to love it--you will also love this book.
13 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Timely and insightful 20 April 2004
By "steveintexasusa" - Published on
As someone who has strong personal connections to Japan, I was drawn to this title as a means of understanding the real story behind the movie. I was rewarded with a readable, apparently accurate review of one of the great men of the Meiji Restoration period of Japan. Saigo was a man of the era, first arriving in Edo at the same time as Perry's Black Ships, and fulminating what could arguably be the final resistance to the cataclysmic changes of that era in Japan.
One's understanding of the book would be enhanced, however, with some better understanding of the political institutions of the period, and broader knowledge of the part that various people played in the same historical context. Especially difficult are references to now-archaic regions in feudal Japan, regions which were expressly deconstructed by the new Meiji Government to cause their loss of significance in political affairs. For example, Saigo was from Satsuma, which is Southern Kyushu. But Tosa is a major player in the book, and I am still unsure of where that domain was.
What impressed me was Mr. Ravina's insight into the ambivalence and moral contradictions of the social, political, technological, and economic changes forced on Japan after 250 years of isolation. Only once does the author allude to the parallels to the modern-day situation in the Middle East, but the comparison is apt. I think this is an excellent book to gain some understanding of why the Islamic world has trouble with the West, and in doing so, the book could help the West formulate more appropriate responses to the Middle East's problems.
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