C. A. Pollock
Mark Ravina. The Last Samurai: The Life and Battles of Saigo Takamori. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2003. 265 pages. Hardcover $32.50; softcover $16.95.
During the fall of the Tokugawa shogunate and the succession of a modernizing Meiji government, the so-called Satsuma Rebellion of 1877 became the definitive last stand of Japanese feudalistic resistance towards modernization. The life of Saigo Takamori, the books subtitle and the samurai whom led the rebellion, is romantically portrayed by Ravina as a man from humble origins that rises to the top of the political realm just to realize the loss progress brings. The author leads the reader through Saigo’s life, the historical events surrounding his life, and the events which lead to the rebellion. Ravina, along with historians Morris and Yates all agree that Saigo, posthumously, became the representation of all that is good in the people of what was once Tokugawa Japan's southernmost domain, Satsuma. Ravina gives much engaging detail about the existence of this samurai from Satsuma: his origins, family life, and education under the Satsuma gojū system, a largely self-regulating institution for social control and the schooling of samurai youth. Ravina reveals some of the fascinating aspects of this tradition, which include the custom of hiemontori, a competition created for young samurai to be rewarded with the right to practice their swordsmanship on human cadavers; and a homoerotice atmosphere between student and teacher. Due to a serious injury to his right arm, Saigō concentrated his energies more towards the scholastic side of education than the martial, and he eventually became a teacher held in high regard. Ravina describes the sensations of great joy that Saigo experienced during his exile due to the children he taught on his tiny island. During the Tokugawa period, it was a requirement for all men serving a domain