was Japan's most renowned samurai. He helped to bring
down the Tokugawa shogunate and restore the Meiji emperor.
The story of the 'Last Samurai' inspired the movie starring Ken Watanabe
and Tom Cruise. Assistant Professor Gregory K Clancey who teaches
History at the National University of Singapore and is an author himself
took a walk back in time and told us all about the man behind the legend
on 'Off The Shelf'. Here are some excerpts from the interview:
(BOOK INFORMATION: The Last Samurai - The Life and Battles of Saigo
Takamori by Mark Ravina. Published 2004. John Wiley. Pages 265 -
Paperback. Price US $16.95)
Q : Who was Saigo Takamori?
A : Saigo was one of the samurai leaders of the Meiji Restoration, which
overthrew the Shogun and brought the Japanese Emperor to power in 1868.
But nine years later, Saigo led an armed rebellion against the Emperor's
government, and was forced to commit suicide on the battlefield. He
became a legend. His legend inspired the character Katsumoto (played by
Ken Watanabe) in the movie "The Last Samurai"
Q : Why did Saigo rebel?
A : The Meiji government abolished certain samurai privileges, such as
wearing special clothing, carrying swords, and above-all getting a
stipend from the state. Now many samurai went along with this, because
they retained their status and pay as officers in the new army or as
bureaucrats. Saigo couldn't go along, for complex reasons that book
explains. The irony is that he didn't want to lead the rebellion, but
the rebels appealed to him, and out of a sense of responsibility - and
maybe because of a death-wish - he agreed to lead, knowing it would be
his death sentence.
Q : Why has the legend of Saigo persisted?
A : People like doomed heroes - those who fight against impossible odds
knowing that they'll be killed in the end. Saigo stood and died on
principle, and was generally merciful to his enemies. Plus, the doomed
hero persona particularly resonates in Japanese culture. It proves one
is sincere. But Ravina demonstrates that like any good legend, the
Saigo one has been embellished.
Q : Was the film portrayal of Saigo's rebellion accurate?
A : Hollywood's accuracy usually stops with costumes. The film portrays
Saigo's samurai army as medieval - on horseback, dressed in armour, and
using swords instead of guns. In reality, they used western guns and
even dressed in western uniforms. Saigo had no trouble with modern
technology. Saigo and the rebels did throw away their guns in the end,
but only because they ran out of ammunition. Thus they raced down a
hill to their deaths with swords drawn, and they did kill each other on
the battlefield so they wouldn't be taken prisoner.
Saigo was later converted into an anti-Western figure. Actually he was
not. He praised western prisons, for instance, as being more humane
than Japanese ones, and he even conspired with Englishmen against the
Shogun. The book shows him as much more complicated than Katsumoto in
the movie. One thing that the movie portrays accurately, however, is
that Saigo was a generous, calm, and humorous man who strove for
simplicity. He was apparently admired by everyone.
Q : Was the film based on the book?
A : No. The author, Mark Ravina, just happened to be researching and
writing about Saigo at the same time that Hollywood got interested. So
there's no sensationalism about the book. It tells the story in a
straight forward way. It's a good read. I highly recommend it.
"Where was Saigo Takamori's head? For one frantic morning in 1877 this
question consumed the Japanese government. The Japanese imperial army
had defeated Saigo's rebellion. They had reduced his army of thirty
thousand fearsome, disgruntled samurai to a few hundred diehards . . .
But the government's triumph rang hollow. The imperial army had Saigo's
body, but his head was nowhere to be found. Without Saigo's head the
government victory was incomplete."
(BOOK INFORMATION: The Measure of All Things: The Seven Year Odyssey
that Transformed the World by Ken Alder. Abacus. Published 2002. Pages
435 -Paperback. Price US $10.20 for paperback. Hardcover US $27)
We also took a closer look at Ken Adler's 'The Measure of All Things:
The Seven Year Odyssey that Transformed the World'
Q : What's so interesting about the history of the meter? How can anyone
write over 400 pages about it?
A : It turns out that the meter is a product of the French Revolution.
The revolutionaries wanted to throw out all tradition and custom, and
base society on 'natural laws'. France had hundreds of different, local
measuring systems, as did every country. French scientists and
politicians decided to replace them all by a measure based in nature.
The meter would be one ten millionth of the distance between the North
Pole and the equator. Because it was based on nature, they reasoned, it
would be adopted by the whole human race, not just France. And that
utopian project was incredibly successful: the meter's now used,
officially, in every country except three - the US, Myanmar and Liberia.
Q : How could they measure the distance between the North Pole and the
A : They couldn't, but it turns out that if you measure about 10%, you
can calculate the whole distance, because the earth curves and they're
measuring an arc - a segment of a circle. So they set out to measure
France from top to bottom, and a little bit of Spain. But just as they
began - one scientist going north from Paris and one going South - the
Revolution broke out. What started as a peaceful scientific expedition
became an adventure story. And that's what the book is about - it
follows the separate journeys of two scientists as they conduct the most
painstaking and ambitious scientific project ever undertaken up till
then, but in the midst of the complete social chaos of war and
The contrast between what they were attempting to do and what was
happening around them was extreme. But on the other hand, without a
Revolution, there would probably have never been a meter. The meter was
itself a revolution.
Q : What happened to them?
A : Everything you can imagine. Because they carried strange surveying
instruments, they were considered spies in some places and thrown in
prison. In Paris many of the best French scientists were then being
guillotined, so they had to navigate shifting political winds. They also
had to take their measurements from high places, like church steeples,
and forts, but the revolutionaries were pulling down churches and the
forts were sometimes under siege, so everything had to be negotiated
Once they were surveying between mountain ranges while a battle raged in
the valley between them. But the generals on both sides gave them
passage in this instance because they successfully argued that it was
for the sake of science. You could still make that argument then: that
science and war were separate.
Q : The book also reveals, doesn't it, that there is a secret mistake in
the meter, one which has never been corrected?
A : Right, the author, Ken Alder, creates some mystery and anticipation
in the introduction by revealing that the meter is in error, that the
error was covered up by the surveyor who made it, and that he's the
first to discover a sealed box of letters which explain the whole
incident. One of the scientists took a mistaken measurement from a
fortress in Barcelona, Spain, but on realizing his error, he couldn't go
back and correct it because Spain and France were at war, and he was
So he returned to Paris consumed with guilt, but too worried about his
reputation to reveal the mistake. Eventually his mistake was discovered
by others, but by that time the meter had been set, and its never been
changed. Scientists long knew about the mistake, but Alder was the
first to read the surveyor's own explanations, describing in detail what
happened, and showing that he was so haunted by it that he was driven
almost mad. Eventually the man died trying to correct the mistake. But
it never has been corrected and likely never will. The meter we have
has now become customary - a tradition - which is ironic because the
whole point was to overthrow custom by appealing directly to nature. As
we now know, however, nature turns out not to be as exact as unchanging
or capable of being measured as 18th century scientists wanted it to be.
"It was an operation of exquisite precision for such violent times. At
every turn they encountered suspicion and obstruction. How do you
measure the earth while the world is turning beneath your feet? How do
you establish a new order when the countryside is in chaos? Or is
there, in fact, no better time to do so?"
And Professor Clancey says: "I like this because we often assume,
incorrectly, that scientific revolutions take place in periods or
circumstances of calmness and placidity. In fact its often been the
opposite. Wars, revolutions, and generally unsettled times have often
been productive of great changes in the way we see nature."