Saigo: A Man of Spiritual Strength

I was interested in the story and tried to read about Saigo. I asked my teacher of Japanese at the British embassy if he could find some short pieces about Saigo; He found a couple of books and selected a few fairly easy passages. I could improve my Japanese by studying them in advance and then with him. This was much more interesting than extracts from newspapers, which some other language students used.

I remember reading about three samurai who had approached Katsu Kaishu8, asking for a letter of introduction to Saigo in Kyushu. Katsu suspected that these samurai intended to kill Saigo but wrote a note introducing them, in which he warned Saigo of what he suspected. He sealed it and gave it to their leader. Assuming that it was a mere introduction, they went to Kyushu, to Saigo’s small house. When he came out in his simple clothes, they assumed that he was a servant. They handed him the letter, saying: ‘Give this to your master*.

To their surprise, he opened it, read it and said: ‘So you’ve come to kill me? All the way from the capital—quite a journey*. And he laughed. They looked at each other in bewilderment and then left.

But why didn’t they kill him?’ I asked my teacher. He was an intellectual man and looked a bit embarrassed. I think he was afraid that I would find it incredible. Finally he said awkwardly: ‘Well, it is difficult to explain, but some of those Meiji heroes had a sort of… a sort of what we call spiritual strength’.

I felt I had met something deep in the Japanese character. Later I read something about the attack on Admiral Kantaro Suzuki in the February 26, 1936 attempt at a coup. The assassin, Captain Teruzo Ando, tried to explain his motives to the Admiral, whom he admired. Suzuki cut him and said, ‘If that’s all you have to say, then shoot’. Ando then shot him, but not fatally. Suzuki’s wife rushed in and outfaced the assassins with her own courage. I was impressed by Suzuki’s calm indifference to death.

But the big surprise came soon after the war, when I met postal minister Hisatsune Sakomizu, who had been cabinet secretary at the end of the war under Suzuki, who was then prime minister. Sakomizu gave me a lunch in private and presented to me a copy of his book about the concluding stages of the war, adding some personal comments. He said that the old premier seemed to do nothing, just reading and signing the papers which Sakomizu as cabinet secretary had prepared. ‘I felt I was running the country’, said Sakomizu. The old man just sat there reading Tao-te Ching by Lao-tzu, occasionally saying, ‘Hot day, isn’t it?’

But then one morning, Suzuki did not appear. The cabinet secretary, generally so cool and efficient, suddenly found that he could hardly do any work. He could not decide things; he found his hands shaking. He suddenly realized the terrible dangers which they were all running. And then when Suzuki came back in the afternoon, the atmosphere again became calm and resolute.

I have sometimes told this to Western people; they agree that we have nothing quite like it. To the West, Budo has associations with films of what we call blood-and-thunder. I believe that the deeper tradition of Budo calm should be known also. Japanese should get to know some of the incidents where it has been shown both in historical and modern times.

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