Photos by David Krigbaum
Photos by David Krigbaum

Tabaruzaka: A Japanese Gettysburg

by David Krigbaum
WWW.WAYFARERDAVES.COM

Atop a certain hilltop in Kumamoto Prefecture is a serene park, with lanes of cherry trees and azaleas on its terraced hillside. It has a commanding view of the quiet farming community in the river valley beneath it and the forested hills beyond, but this tranquil scene is incidental to the park’s existence.

This hill was the focal point of a great deal of violence in the biggest battle of Japan’s last rebellion, the Seinan (Southwest) Civil War or Satsuma Rebellion.

Atop a certain hilltop in Kumamoto Prefecture is a serene park, with lanes of cherry trees and azaleas on its terraced hillside. It has a commanding view of the quiet farming community in the river valley beneath it and the forested hills beyond, but this tranquil scene is incidental to the park’s existence.

This hill was the focal point of a great deal of violence in the biggest battle of Japan’s last rebellion, the Seinan (Southwest) Civil War or Satsuma Rebellion.

 

War Comes to Kyushu

In 1877 war came to Kyushu. After a series of rebellions the Meiji government had become paranoid concerning the multitude of disgruntled former samurai on the island and none had worried them more than Saigo Takamori. Saigo was a living legend, one of the men who founded modern Japan and field marshal in the Imperial Japanese Army. In 1873 he and others resigned from the government after political maneuvering concerning issues with Korea left him with a bad taste for modern politics and what the new government was becoming. Going into semi-retirement, he went home to Kagoshima (formerly Satsuma Domain) and ran military academies to employ out-of-work samurai and teach both traditional arts and modern warfare.

Fearing another southern rebellion the government took pre-emptive action, a ship was sent to empty the prefectural arsenal and spies infiltrated Saigo’s academies with orders to kill him. The plans were stopped by radical students and if they hadn’t intended to rebel before, these actions ensured that they would now. Donning his field marshal’s uniform once again, and with thousands of armed followers at his back, Saigo announced that he was going to Tokyo to “question the government.”


This is how Kagoshima likes to remember its favorite son, Saigo; its more militant than the dog-walker in Tokyo.

Saigo’s army made it as far as Kumamoto where they besieged Kumamoto Castle beginning on Feb. 23, 1877. The Imperial Japanese Army quickly mustered a relief force to break the siege.

There was only one road to Kumamoto capable of supporting artillery and it ran over Tabaruzaka. The battle for this triple hill and its vital road pitted ten thousand student-soldiers and former samurai against an equal number of Imperial Japanese Army soldiers. Both sides were commanded by competent commanders, had been drilled in modern military tactics and were armed primarily with modern artillery and firearms, though Saigo’s army also had some antique matchlocks in its ranks. Like Gettysburg this was also the farthest point of rebel advance.

The battle began on Mar. 4, 1877. The rebels had the better defensive ground, but rainy weather hampered them as their cotton clothing was unsuited for fighting through cold, wet spring days and many used muzzle-loading rifles which were often rendered inoperable leading to close-quarters engagements with reliable steel. The Imperial Japanese Army was better clothed, only used breach-loading rifles and had superior logistics. They expended 320,000 rounds of ammunition in a day and by the next were resupplied to do it again. After 17 days the army took Tabaruzaka, opening the road to Kumamoto Castle which they would relieve on Apr. 15, breaking the 54-day castle siege. The army lost 6,843 soldiers and the rebels lost 6,784.

 

Battlefield Today

There’s little left of the battlefield itself, the defensive positions have all disappeared and a single reconstructed storehouse bearing the scars of battle remains atop Tabaruzaka. The stone bridge at the foot of the hill is the only fully original battlefield structure.

Monuments dot the park sparingly with a single large wall of names behind a white pillar being the biggest. There’s but one statue, a teenage soldier on horseback in memory of the young men who rallied to Saigo, set against a massive tree which survived the battle. That sparseness, not being overwhelmed with memorials adds to the contemplative mood and does more to enhance its role as a place of honor and remembrance than would a dozen man-made statues. Like most battlefields the atmosphere is quiet and peaceful almost like a cemetery without bodies or headstones, but my wife thought it too sad and waited for me inside the park’s museum.

The Tabaruzaka Seinan Civil War Museum is small but right-sized for explaining the battle and is a must for getting the most out of a visit. It’s almost entirely in Japanese only, but the artifacts are easy to figure out and most have an English title with no further description. Using a translator app and some prior understanding of the battle I was able to glean quite a bit from the museum, almost as well as if I’d been able to read Japanese.

With the hill as peaceful as it is today, there’s a sensory theater that recreates a scene from the battle to help visitors get into the right frame of mind for thinking of Tabaruzaka as a battleground and seeing the artifacts in the rooms that follow in the context of tools in the hands of men and not items behind glass. Sitting behind a physical defensive position with ammunition and weapons laid out and forest between viewer and screen, the movie’s small unit action shows Saigo’s troops ambushing an imperial patrol, engaging in fast and bloody combat. Lights flash with  rifle shots fired toward the audience, the room shudders with artillery and perspectives switch between soldiers and even the first person view from a soldier going down under a volley of fire. It may be a bit much for young children.

The artifacts and reproduction items give life-sized form and texture to the battle’s story, showing and comparing what the soldiers wore, ate and fought with. There’s a nice collection of 19th century firearms that would interest American Civil War aficionados as surplus from our conflict went on to serve in theirs such as the Sharps carbine and Remington rifles.

Inside the adjacent reconstructed storehouse is a smaller complimentary museum about Hakuaisya, the predecessor of the Japanese Red Cross which rendered aid during the war.

Except for the movie the museum is kid friendly and has replica uniforms so visitors can dress up as Imperial soldiers, Red Cross nurses, Saigo’s soldiers, or even Saigo himself.

 

Where to Stay and Other Diversions

Though no longer on the main road to Kumamoto, Tabaruzaka is 15 minutes away from the Ueki interchange, making it an easy addition to a Kumamoto vacation itinerary.

When visiting Tabaruzaka you can stay at Kumamoto or for a special end to your day stay in Yamaga for relaxing onsens and to watch traditional Japanese dance and taiko drummers at Yachiyoza, a traditional Japanese theater in their Buzen Kaido Edo-era merchant district. Both Kumamoto and Yamaga are about half an hour away, but in different directions.

Saigo’s rebellion was fictionalized in 2003’s The Last Samurai, but he was an amazing figure greater than any fictional analog and I highly recommend reading Mark Ravina’s The Last Samurai: the Life and Battles of Saigo Takamori, which I used for reference writing this article.

 

Addresses

Tabaruzaka Seinan Civil War Museum
858-1 Toyooka, Ueki-machi, Kita-ku, Kumamoto-shi, Kumamoto 861-0163
https://kumamoto-guide.jp/en/spots/detail/216

Yachiyoza
1499 Yamaga-shi, Kumamoto Prefecture 861-0501
https://www.yachiyoza.com/english.html

 

 

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