Aws Alherbish is a Clinical Assistant Professor of Medicine, specialized in Cardiology and Critical Care at the University of Alberta, Edmonton. His main interest outside medicine is in Classic Literature and History.
The day gave in to night for the third time leaving the soldiers searching for Saigo Takamori’s head in vain. The whereabouts of the head left them perplexed, hence mountains surrounded the battlefield and no human settlements were in view. How could a head depart its body and vanish? Did it accompany the soul in its departure journey from this world? The stubborn Samurai had exhausted them by his death more than his life and converted their supposed triumph into a defeat. They have never expected to win and when they thought victory was finally achieved, the Emperor’ rage about the absent head made their success appears like a failure. Because the Emperor saw no alternative evidence other than the head to declare Saigo’s downfall. For how many giant bodies in the battlefield will claim the sceptics that it matches the Samurai size. Nothing equalled Meiji’seagerness for announcing Takamori’s death to mark the beginning of his Restoration except the stubbornness of the later and his insistence to conserve the heritage in any path chosen to achieve progress.
A small caravan from the capital arrived to the battlefield. The generals were terrorized when they discovered that the Emperor himself had secretly come to head the investigation. When the Emperor and his men stood in front of the giant headless body, which seemed to occupy a large space in the ground, very disturbing facts started to emerge. First, the abdomen was cut deeply from left to right horizontally indicating that the Samurai had performed Seppuku with dedication. Furthermore, the wound had transected the aorta leaving no question to that effect. Nonetheless, it was the absent head that enraged the Emperor and drew deep wrinkles to a face known to be soft and calm. “Why was the head removed if Saigo performed Seppuku diligently?” he thought. “Even if his head was decapitated because he failed to end his life by himself, they would have left the back of his neck intact for the head to remain above its body dignified”. He came up to the conclusion that Saigo had taken his life first and someone subsequently had removed the head and run away with it. “Even if someone is bold enough to dare such an act, how can he disappear from this land with the head while my army is occupying every corner and surrounding every border?” he added to his thoughts indignantly.
The Testimony of General Yamagata:
We have defeated the demons your honour, it was a war with mere demons. I left nothing to chance by recruiting sixty fighters for each demon. We covered every hole and attended to every escape. After surrounding them in Shiroyama’s mountain, a shudder struck me. I realized that they ran out of options and the idea of confronting helpless suicidal demons petrified me. So I offered them a safe exit until they stand in front of your honour’s justice but they viciously refused. By then, it was clear that nothing imagined would stop those delirious ruthless monsters. They attacked like eagles hunting prey. As if they were competing on how many of us will each take with him to the other world. But we closed gaps, prevented penetration and left nothing to chance. They killed thousands of us unfortunately. The one of them would even slice his comrade’s head if he senses his closeness to death. It was a portrait of inferno. There are hundreds of bodies without a head your majesty and Takamori’s body is one of them. My ultimate wish is to have your pardon when you realize how perplexing the situation was. We gathered three soldiers who gained our trust and appeared to be close to Saigo’s last moments. After killing hundreds of our soldiers and getting wounded in his thigh, the devil cornered himself in that valley when he realized his approaching end.
The Testimony of the First Soldier:
My tongue remains crippled in describing what I witnessed your majesty. I was up on the hill and despite the rainy foggy weather; I was able to see with clarity. I couldn’t forget Saigo’s limp when he supported his body on his comrade Beppu Shinsuke. Oh that strong body, how trivial and hidden that limp appeared despite the deep wound. They were followed to the valley by three of our soldiers who were killed eventually. One of our men killed Beppu and Saigo became frenzy afterwards. Something must have hit him on his head or monsters may have appeared before him. His sword was swaying right and left and his body was shuffling with it. He annihilated our soldiers in seconds, but it is what followed that was of ultimate magnificence. I witnessed Saigo Takamori sitting divinely on the ground cross-legged as if he was a saint. I saw a lightning striking and descending on his head. I have no doubt your highness that it was the god Hachiman who took his head.
The Testimony of the Second Soldier:
I hope that it is not a mystery to his highness that many of our men are leaning toward Takamori’s side. I am afraid that what I witnessed will disturb your majesty. Although I was far from the valley, there were no boundaries or soldiers between us. Oh what a treason. They acted as if they were fighting him until they hid inside the valley. They sat around him and committed a group Suicide. One of those traitors must have removed Takamori’s head and run with it.
The Testimony of the third Soldier:
What I have encountered will be perpetuated in Japan’s history forever your highness. I was very close down in the hill when I saw the strange events. Allow me to congratulate you before anything that Saigo had in fact died, but choosing to. God bless that man’s will. When they found themselves alone in the valley, our men caught up with them. Despite his wound, he attacked with his comrade like lions and killed them one after the other. Takamori sat down to perform Seppuku after that and Beppu stood by his head as his second. When he started cutting his abdomen and before completion, one of the presumably killed soldiers rose suddenly behind Beppu and killed him by a stab to his back. With a bleeding abdomen, Takamori jumped on the soldier and strangled him with his hands to death. What happened after that is a legend. Saigo who is left alone with an open abdomen by now, took the sword from the ground and sat peacefully. I saw him raising the sword, pointing it high to the sky and then landed it on his own neck and decapitated it completely. The thunderstorm stroke loudly thereafter and lightened the earth and the sky in witness of this glory. I saw the head flying in the air but I don’t know where it landed. It is likely that the Gods will not allow us to find the reverend head after this glorious act.
The emperor sat in his golden carriage heading back to the capital thinking about the three narratives. He did not care about their validity but about their indication. His chain of thoughts was interrupted by a very loud scream that came from outside “Takamori’s head”. The anticipated joy was mixed with an underlying severe feeling he couldn’t understand. The partially preserved corpse of Beppu Shinsuke was easily recognized lying outside on its back after it was hit and flipped around by one of the royal caravan wheels. The dead body appeared to be hugging Takamori’s head forcibly as if it was refusing to abandon it. One of the soldiers even reported that it was really hard to uncross the arms to free the head. The scene struck Meiji by a peculiar sadness. He felt as if he was leaving the era of sacrifice and dedication to enter a new dry era void of those morals. One of the Restoration advisors held the head up with his right hand and said with entitlement: “Tomorrow when we hang this terrible head in the capital and announce the end of Satsuma’s Rebellion, our country will start its journey towards enlightenment and progress with no place for those monsters”.
Meiji woke up in the middle of the night sweating and feeling a weight on his chest. He sat down on his royal office and opened the Charter Oath that he signed nine years ago. He read the fifth article carefully:
“The nation core shall be vitalized by gathering knowledge from all over the world, while cherishing our beautiful culture and tradition centering the emperor”.
He then took his pen and wrote:
“In the name of our nation, we grant Saigo Takamori and his comrades full pardon. Saigo Takamori’s head is to be returned to his body and buried with Japan’s national heroes. A large monument is to be held in the middle of the capital for the Last Samurai”.