According to standard reference works, the Meiji leader Saigō Takamori committed ritual suicide in 1877. A close reading of primary sources, however, reveals that Saigō could not have killed himself as commonly described; instead, he was crippled by a bullet wound and beheaded by his followers. Saigō's suicide became an established part of Japanese history only in the early 1900s, with the rise of bushidō as a national ideology. By contrast, in the 1870s and 1880s, the story of Saigō's suicide was just one of many fantastic accounts of his demise, which also included legends that he ascended to Mars or escaped to Russia. Remarkably, historians have treated Saigō's suicide as an unproblematic account of his death, rather than as a legend codified some four decades later. This essay links the story of Saigō's suicide to the rise of modern Japanese nationalism, and examines other Saigō legends as counternarratives for modern Japan.

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