Born in the feudal domain of Satsuma (now Kagoshima prefecture), Saigo was one of the "three pillars" of the Meiji Restoration, the event that brought down the Tokugawa Bakufu (together with Kido Takayoshi and Okubo Toshimichi).After the mediation of Sakamoto Ryoma and Nakaoka Shintaro, Satsuma and Choshu had forged an alliance against the Tokugawa and triggered the collapse of the Bakufu after a short civil war in 1867/68.

Saigo became one of the most charismatic leaders of the new government, but decided to quit the government after he lost a power struggle in 1873 over the question whether or not to attack Korea (seikan-ronso). He went back to his native Kagoshima, where his charismatic leadership gave him de facto control of the prefecture, which existed almost indepently for several years, ignoring the modernization of the central government and in Tokyo and the according laws (such as the introduction of the Western calender).

The discontent former samurai of the prefecture, however, rose in rebellion in 1877, and Saigo, urged by Kiriino Toshiaki, took the leadership of the rebellion, which soon spread to the whole of Kyushu (Satsuma rebellion or Southwest war/seinan senso). However, the outdated samurai troops fought a losing battle and were eventually defeated by the new conscript armies of the central government. Saigo retreated to Kagoshima and committed suicide, only few of his originally 35,000 men survived.

Saigo until today is one of the most popular figures in modern Japanese history. He was pardoned two decades after the rebellion, and a statue was raised for him in the capital, Tokyo (see below), acknowledging his contributions to the Meiji Restoration.

Statue of Saigo Takamori in Ueno Park, Tokyo (built in 1897)

Saigo Takamori, 1827-1877