Born in 1827, Saigō Takamori made his name as one of the leading figures in the Meiji Restoration. Though aware of the need for Japan to modernize, he grew increasingly alarmed at the loss of traditional values and eventually left the government to set up a military academy in Kagoshima. He soon became a focus for opposition forces – mainly disaffected samurai but also peasants protesting at punitive taxes. Things came to a head in January 1877 when Saigō led an army of 40,000 against the government stronghold in Kumamoto, in what came to be known as the Satsuma Rebellion. After besieging the castle for nearly two months, the rebels were forced to withdraw before the 60,000-strong Imperial Army. They retreated to Kagoshima where they were gradually pinned down on Shiroyama. On September 24, the imperial forces closed in and Saigō, severely wounded, asked one of his comrades to kill him. His courage, idealism and heroic death earned Saigō enormous popular support – so much so that he was officially pardoned by imperial decree in 1891.

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