April 24th 2004

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Articles from this issue:

FOREIGN AFFAIRS: Islamic militants threaten to derail Iraq hand-over

NATIONAL AFFAIRS: Defence reserves crisis looms

FAMILY: AFA report shoots hole in lower fertility theory

National superannuation (letter)

Whither farming? (letter)

True samurais (letter)

UNITED NATIONS: Kofi Annan and the Rwanda genocide

FAMILY: The solution to today's fatherhood crisis

FEEDING TUBES: Pope condemns 'euthanasia by omission'

BOOKS: The Long Truce: How Toleration Made the World Safe for Power and Profit, by A.J. Conyers

COVER STORY: Federal inquiry puts brakes on river flow plans

COVER STORY 2: Report vindicates farmers over Murray-Darling Basin

EDITORIAL: Family Congress confronts new challenges

CANBERRA OBSERVED: Budget - next test for Federal Government

STRAWS IN THE WIND: Pumpernickel politics / Latham's folly / George Carey

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True samurais (letter)

by Victor Sirl

News Weekly, April 24, 2004

R.J. Stove, a normally astute and brilliant writer, has got it wrong in his review of The Last Samurai (NW, April 10) when he describes it as a reasonably accurate and inspiring depiction of the rebellion led by Saigo Takamori.

It is worth noting that in 1876, in one of the many revolts occurring in this period, a league of 200 samurai was formed at Kumamoto calling themselves kami-kaze. Spurning modern weapons, and as suicidal as the pilots of WWII fame, they threw themselves at garrisons of the Japanese Imperial Army. Most were mown down and survivors committed ritual suicide. Katsumoto and his band do seem to resemble samurai groups such as this but he is certainly not an accurate depiction of Saigo Takamori, despite the reference at the films official website.

In "The Satsuma Rebellion" of 1877 Saigo did not lead a small band of rebels but an army. He had refused to take part in earlier uprisings and never shunned the use of guns. Indeed his army had an arsenal of Enfield and Snider rifles and two units of artillery. Saigo was himself a moderniser of the Japanese military but remained attached to the old privileged samurai classes. Social reforms removing the samurai privileges would place him at odds with former friends such Okubo Toshimichi.

The villainous, cowardly, character of Omura is said to be modelled on Okubo, but actor Masata Harada has stated he is a composite character. One source for his character might be Omura Masajiro who was placed in charge of the Department of War and given the task of building a Japanese army. He was assassinated in 1869.

Okubo was one of the brilliant minds, if not the supreme intellect, who guided the successful modernisation of Japan as a free and prosperous country. Sadly, Japanese dramas often paint him in a poor light but he receives deservedly favourable treatment in a chapter of Mark Weston's Giants of Japan. It should be mentioned that he wisely vetoed the invasion of Korea when Saigo was insanely attempting to bring it about.

The Last Samurai simplistically depicts rebel samurai as noble, just and honourable while their modernising opponents are cowardly, inept traitors.

The story of this period is far more complex, far less black and white and frankly far more interesting than this pale and jaundiced Hollywood version shows it.

But Saigo, a later hero of the kami-kaze pilots, is sometimes referred to as "the last of the samurai". Wounded in battle, he did indeed commit suicide - allowing himself to be beheaded by his faithful servant, Beppu. Then his last remaining 40 samurai, true to the code of bushido, drew their swords and charged an army of 30,000. They were cut down in a hail of gunfire. Thus the last of Japan's true samurai passed into the pages of history.

An accurate account of the 1877 rebellion led by Saigo Takamori can be found in the August 2003 edition of Military History magazine.

Victor Sirl,
Fortitude Valley, Qld

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