Retracing the life of Saigo at remote Okinoerabujima island

The Yomiuri Shimbun

Tamina Cape, a 51-meter-high sheer cliff projecting out to the East China Sea

By Tetsuo Ukai / Yomiuri Shimbun Senior WriterWhen it comes to Takamori Saigo, many people may think of the statue in Tokyo’s Ueno district. However, when his widow Ito saw the statue of him wearing a yukata summer kimono and standing with a dog, she reportedly muttered “He wasn’t like that.”

She probably thought that the stout, 1.8-meter-tall hero, who was known for his big eyes, didn’t appear in public in such shabby attire.

Okinoerabujima island was formed by the rise of coral reefs about 550 kilometers south of Kagoshima city, which is experiencing a boom thanks to “Segodon,” an ongoing NHK historical drama series about Saigo. I went to the island because I wanted to see a seated statue of Saigo, who was exiled to the island at age 34, three years before he married Ito.

The statue depicts an emaciated man in a windswept prison. If Ito had seen the statue, which was created in the Showa era (1926-89), she would have been unable to speak.

Even before he was exiled, Saigo was a brave man who didn’t fear death. However, according to the book “Saigo Takamori” by Yoshiki Iechika, Saigo was a rationalist who tended to drive others into a corner. He was banished to a remote island, the second most serious punishment after a death sentence, because he purportedly criticized the policies of Shimazu Hisamitsu, an adored leader of the Satsuma domain, and called Shimazu a hick.

However, during the final days of the Tokugawa shogunate, Saigo reformed himself in prison over the course of 1½ years from 1862. He grew and became a man whom Ryoma Sakamoto admired as a “person who would react a little if one knocks a little, and react greatly if one knocks a lot,” meaning he had both boldness and sensitivity.

Saigo ultimately became a hero of the Meiji Restoration.

I traced Saigo’s life on the island. From Inobe Port on the north coast of the island, where there is a monument commemorating his landing there, I walked about 30 minutes on a road where Saigo also walked, and arrived at the remains of the prison on the south coast. Saigo lived in a cell of about four tatami mats on the small island.

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  • The Yomiuri Shimbun

    Shoryudo limestone cave

  • The Yomiuri Shimbun

The prison recreated in front of the Saigo Nanshu Kinenkan memorial museum has a sturdy structure. However, the original prison cell was of shoddy construction, made of pine trees assembled into a lattice structure. His meals were composed of just cooked rice, salt and Japanese pickles.

The sun shone into his cell, which was equipped with a toilet, and he was reportedly troubled by mosquitoes and flies. On windy days, sand and waves blew into the cell. Saigo soon grew thin.

Even so, Saigo stuck to his status as a criminal and refused to accept things offered to him, saying, “I appreciate the offer, but I’m afraid I can’t accept it.” Then he patiently communed with himself.

What changed Saigo were the warm hearts of the people on the southern island.

According to Mitsunobu Sakida, 75, the head of the Museum of Wadomari Town History and Folklore, which exhibits calligraphy written by Saigo, “The kindness of a certain person apparently gave Saigo the desire to live again.”

That person was Masateru Tsuchimochi, an island official who patrolled around the prison.

Tsuchimochi saw that Saigo was in danger of dying about two months after being imprisoned. Impatient with Saigo’s situation, Tsuchimochi spoke with a senior official, saying, “The domain ordered us to imprison him in an enclosure, so it doesn’t make sense to put him in a windswept prison cell.”

He then moved Saigo to a clean room.

From around that time, Saigo opened his heart to Tsuchimochi. He spoke with Tsuchimochi at the prison and provided education for children on the island. Gradually, Saigo recovered his health.

The hearts of the islanders, who felt affinity even with a criminal, and his own thoughts and meditations through poems and calligraphy in the prison birthed Saigo’s philosophy of “revere heaven, love people.” This probably allowed Saigo to achieve his great deeds after returning to the domain, according to Sakida.

Nature in abundance

On Okinoerabujima, which is surrounded by coral reef, there are many sightseeing spots such as Tamina Cape with its beautiful sheer cliff, the Fucha scenery formed by erosion from the waves against coral rocks, and a group of large limestone caves including the Shoryudo limestone cave.

However, Saigo didn’t have time to enjoy the island’s natural beauty during his imprisonment. He left in 1864 to dive into the turbulent last days of the Tokugawa shogunate. If this hero, who also placed importance on agriculture, had come in contact with the island’s nature, what would have happened? The island also evokes such romantic thoughts.


About two hours by air from Haneda Airport to Kagoshima Airport. Transfer at Kagoshima Airport and travel about 70 minutes by air to Okinoerabujima island.

Information: Saigo Nanshu Kinenkan memorial museum can be reached at (0997) 92-0999. For general tourism information, call the Okinoerabu Island Tourism Association (0997) 92-0211.

To find out more about Japan’s attractions, visit


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