Maxims of Takamori Saigo

Maxims of Takamori Saigo

Takamori Saigo
, known to all Japanese as ‘Great Saigo’, was a samurai who played a leading part in Japan’s history at the end of last century. He took an active part in the overthrow of the feudal government and the establishment of a constitutional government, based on Western models.

He became Foreign Minister in the new government, and brought to its support his tremendous personal prestige and strength of character. Later he resigned on a point of principle and went into retirement. In 1876, his clan organized a rebellion against what they considered the mistaken policy of the government in foreign affairs, and Saigo was called in to lead it. The rebellion failed, and Saigo, as a final protest, killed himself in the traditional manner of the samurai.

Saigo was a man of heavy build. His friends affectionately nicknamed him ‘The Bull’. He was famous for his personal bravery; his courage and endurance were shown by the fact that a year’s imprisonment and torture by the feudal party could not break him. As Foreign Minister he won the respect of all for his complete frankness and sincerity. He lived a life of extreme austerity even at the height of his worldly success. He is said to have possessed only one kimono—while this was washed, the Foreign Minister received no callers.

Like many samurai of his time, Saigo studied Zen Buddhism under a great master. The aphorisms here translated crystallize the experience of his life. The thought is derived from Zen and from the philosophy of the Chinese Confucian sage, Wang Yang Ming.


One who wants neither life, nor name, nor rank, nor money, is hardly to be controlled. It is only such indomitable men who can carry great affairs of state through adversities to completion.

Do not have dealings with men; make your dealings with Heaven. In this way, confronting Heaven, put forth your whole endeavour. Never lay blame on other men, but consider where your own sincerity falls short.

In matters great and small tread the way of righteousness, apply complete sincerity, and never once use trickery. Many resort to it when they meet an obstacle, thinking that if just this one obstacle can be got round, they will be able to carry on somehow. But the disasters attendant on trickery inevitably arise, and the project always fails. The path of righteousness may not seem the shortest at first, but one who treads it quickly achieves success.

The Way being natural to the Universe, man as a follower of the Way should make it his purpose to revere Heaven. Heaven loves others and myself in the same way, and with that heart which loves me, loves others also.

One who follows the Way meets difficulties in the course of things, but however grave the situation, he never cares at all for success and failure or whether he live or die.

People think these days that if they only have sufficient cleverness, things turn out as they wish, but I find it most dangerous to trust to cleverness.

Deceiving others and plotting in secret, even supposing it to succeed, is the depth of depravity in a wise man. Behave towards others with justice and sincerity. Without justice one can never be a hero.

After setting right a mistake, it is best just to think: ‘This mistake was made by me.’ Then, putting the matter away and not turning back, pass on at once. To feel mortified over a mistake and worry about how to gloss it over, is as useless as to try to mend a smashed teacup.

The Way is the natural way of the Universe, and to learn it, one must revere Heaven, love man, and live one’s life from first to last in self-control. As a rule men succeed by self-control, and fail through self-love. Study the lives of the men of this and other ages. When a man sets about something, he generally completes seven- or eight-tenths of it, but rarely completely succeeds with the remaining two-tenths. This is because, at the beginning, a man fully restrains his egoity and respects the work for itself. Results begin to come, and his fame increases. But then egoity stirs, the prudent and restrained attitude is relaxed, pride and boasting flourish. In the confidence born of his achievements so far, he plans to complete the work for his own ends. But his efforts have become bungling, and the end is failure—all invited by himself. Therefore restrain the self, and be careful not to heed what others do or say.

What is admired by the world and posterity is simply one moment of complete sincerity. Even if it does happen that the world praises a man of no sincerity, it is praising a mere fluke. But where there is great sincerity, then, even if none know that man in his own day, surely in after ages there will be those who know him.

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