The book is about ancient Japan’s cultural shift, the rise and fall of the samurai, and the story of one man called Saigo who had a part in ushering in a dramatic change in Japan’s cultural, economic, and political landscape.
The book starts as far back as the seventh century, when Japan first came together under an emperor. It is said that this imperial unity lasted for about 500 years and forms the bedrock of the earliest samurai traditions. The samurai tradition flourishes for many centuries and remains a dominant force even after Japan was unified in 1600. After 1600, these “violent, proud, and prickly warriors continue survive on “rice-stipends wrung as tax from farmers, merchants, and artisans, and would remain a vital force for another 300 relatively peaceful years.”
The arrival of American ships in 1845 opens the country after 250 years of isolation and alters the course of Japanese history. It is amid these events that a samurai named Saigo grew in political stature and was catapulted into the mainstream of politics. As a politician Saigo is unique in that as a high official, he lived like monk. He displays a high level of frugality, asceticism, and dislike luxury. It is said that he sometimes “sounded like a Confucian version of a Puritan preacher scourging his congregation.” But after a disagreement his fellow ministers about the merits of sending an envoy to Korea, Saigo resigns from the cabinet in Tokyo, followed by his loyalists (about 10% of the imperial army). This sets the tone for a rebel assault, which Saigo leads. With his soldiers, he fights the governments but pays for it with many casualties (his life included) over a short period of campaign.
John Man ends the book by stating that though Saigo fails miserably in his mission, he is a hero in Japan. He further explains that the hero status Saigo gains is because he stuck to his principles in the face of abject failure. Most importantly, the people realises that Saigo’s love for Japan was a strong motive behind his betrayal.
The Last Samurai thoroughly expands on the influence of the samurai in ancient Japan and today’s modern world. It reveals the Japanese culture and its unique way of thought and actions without dishing out the normal stereotypes. He leads the reader through the dusty old roads to the shiny tarmac as key figures and their ideologies changed the destiny of Japan as a country. A moving book.