KL Yong earned a bachelor's degree in communication studies in 1999. His interests include history, traveling, and mythology.
1. Taira no Masakado (平 将門) AD 774–835
Thanks to video games such as the Shin Megami Tensei franchise, Heian Period samurai Taira no Masakado enjoyed some degree of pop-culture fame in recent years.
In these digital depictions, Masakado is usually described as a righteous Japanese rebel whose vengeful spirit haunted Japan after he was beheaded. The Shin Megami Tensei games go as far as to depict Masakado as the spiritual guardian of Tokyo too. In these games, Masakado typically represents human will unbound from religious or survivalist doctrines.
In real-life, though, Masakado was a wealthy landowner who led a revolt against the imperial court. Though unsuccessful and subsequently beheaded, the rebel earned great respect from common folk. Respect that led to his deification as a Shinto demigod.
At the same time, Masakado’s beheading also generated paranoia, with claims that should his vengeful spirit not be properly appeased at all times, Edo i.e. historical Tokyo would suffer great calamity. For this reason, shrines in Tokyo dedicated to Masakado continue to be well-maintained. The deified samurai might not be the official guardian of Tokyo in actual Japanese religious beliefs, but he is certainly one spirit few Tokyolites dare offend.
2. Amakusa Shirou (天草 四郎) AD 774–835
Christianity was heavily frowned upon by many medieval and pre-modern Japanese rulers. Despite that, the faith still flourished in various parts of Japan, such as in Kyushu. Imperial i.e. Shogunate efforts to crush these congregations then led to various tragedies and massacres. For example, the 1597 crucifixion of 25 Christians in Nagasaki.
In 1637, the violent suppression of Christianity in Shimabara resulted in a brief uprising, one led by a 17-year-old youth named Amakusa Shirō Tokisada. Supported by Portuguese Jesuits and said to possess miraculous healing powers, the charismatic Amakusa was able to rally a significant number of commoners in the Shimabara Domain. Many of these peasants and fishermen were secretly Christian.
Sadly, Amakusa’s fortunes reversed after briefly taking over Hara Castle. Ultimately, the youth was even betrayed and captured. After execution, his head was publically displayed for days as a warning to potential rebels.
With his death that of a classic martyrdom, the executed warrior soon came to be regarded as a folk saint by Japanese Christians. He also earned respect as a young hero valiantly albeit unsuccessfully resisting the tyranny of the Tokugawa Shogunate.
In recent years, Amakusa doubly found international fame as a frequent character in Manga, Anime, video games, and light novel series. The 1962 movie Amakusa Shirō Tokisada, directed by renowned and controversial director Nagisa Oshima, was also based on this famous Kyushu rebel.
3. Sakamoto Ryōma (竜馬坂本) AD 1836–1867
The most beloved revolutionary in Japanese history, the deeds and accomplishments of Sakamoto Ryōma continue to be celebrated today. He often cameos in Anime, Manga, and video games. A year-long Taiga television drama about his life was also screened in 2010.
The son of a low ranking samurai family from Tosa Prefecture (土佐, present-day Kōchi), Sakamoto became politically active after completing his studies in 1858. Five years earlier, the Tokugawa Shogunate had suffered its worst humiliation under the gunship policy of American Commodore Matthew C. Perry i.e. the isolated nation was forced under threat of invasion to open its doors to foreign trade. Convinced that the Shogunate was no longer capable of administrating the country, Sakamoto joined other revolutionaries and rebels keen on restoring power to the Japanese throne. Their motto was “Revere the Emperor, Expel the Barbarians.”
The master swordsman would subsequently be instrumental in the overthrowing of the Tokugawa Shogunate. Among his many deeds, his greatest achievement was to negotiate an alliance between the rival provinces of Satsuma and Chōshū. This alliance paved the way for a formidable army that could challenge the forces of the Shogunate.
While onboard a ship off Nagasaki, Sakamoto also wrote the famous “Eight Proposals While Shipboard.” This thesis outlined the future political, social, and military needs of a modern Japan.
Tragically, Sakamoto never saw his efforts come to fruition; he was assassinated by Tokugawa loyalists in 1867. (His actual killers are debated) After the success of the Meiji Restoration, though, the Tosa samurai is hailed as a key figure in the transition of Japan from a secluded medieval state to a modern nation. As mentioned above, his fame also lives on thanks to regular pop-culture depictions. This famous Japanese rebel will for a long time be remembered and respected.
4. Saigō Takamori (西郷隆盛) AD 1828–1877
Thanks to the 2003 movie The Last Samurai, many non-Japanese are today familiar with the tale of a veteran samurai lamenting then rebelling against the modernization of Japan, following the Meiji Restoration.
Many, however, might not know that Ken Watanabe’s character in the movie was directly based on Satsuma samurai and warlord Saigō Takamori.
A compatriot of Sakamoto Ryōma, Saigō controlled Satsuma Province, whose army the royalists so badly needed for their uprising against the Tokugawa Shogunate.
Following the Boshin War and the Meiji Restoration, Saigō’s highly antagonistic position towards surviving Tokugawa loyalists and Korea led to a massive fallout with the new government. The disgruntled samurai then returned to his home province. In 1877, he also launched the Satsuma Rebellion.
The rebellion was hugely unsuccessful, though, and crushed within a year. Saigō himself was also mortally wounded in combat, thereafter dying under debated circumstances.
Of note, while many Japanese do still regard Saigō Takamori as a valiant samurai, one who died in combat defending the “old” ways of the warrior, the truth is, his motivations for the Satsuma Rebellion are questionable. The Satsuma Rebellion was supported by samurais disaffected by modernization. Like Saigō, they wanted their feudal privileges and esteem restored.
Regardless, Saigō Takamori lives on in legend as a foremost hero of that era and one of the most famous Japanese rebels in history. He might not be as beloved as Sakamoto Ryōma. However, no discussion or depiction of Japan’s modernization is credible without mention of him.
5. Mishima Yukio (三島 由紀夫) AD 1925–1970
Though he might not be considered the greatest, there is still little doubt that Mishima Yukio, actual name Hiraoka Kimitake (平岡 公威), was one of post-modern Japan’s most important and successful writers.
His works are numerous, complex, and difficult to grasp even when read in Japanese. Throughout his public life, he was also never free from controversy. Such controversy stemmed not just from rumors about Mishima being homosexual, or his fascination with the male body and death, it was also because Mishima was also staunchly right-wing. He openly lamented Emperor Hirohito’s public renouncement of divinity following Japan’s defeat in WWII. He also detested the westernization following the surrender.
In 1967, Mishima voluntarily enlisted in Japan’s Ground Self-Defense Force, the following year of which he established the Tatenokai, a militia dedicated to classic values and the veneration of the Japanese Emperor *.
His extreme views, particularly his belief that Hirohito should abdicate, found little resonance with the country, though. In 1970, a disgruntled Mishima infiltrated Tokyo’s Ichigaya camp and staged a coup. This coup, though lasting mere hours, would go down in history as the notorious Mishima Incident.
In essence, Mishima’s coup was doomed from the start. The writer only had four Tatenokai followers with him and when he tried to deliver a speech, he was royally booed by soldiers.
Undeterred, or perhaps enlivened, Mishima then committed seppuku i.e. samurai ritual suicide, a move that was the final flourish ** of his colorful life. This grim epilogue might not place Mishima on the same level as other historical Japanese rebels. However, there should be no question as to how deeply the man believed in his views, widely ridiculed as they were.
He was even willing to painfully die for them.
* Mishima’s views about the Japanese Emperor were complex. He revered the concept and authority of the Emperor. However, he felt Emperor Hirohito was unfit to rule, because Hirohito chose to surrender at the end of WWII.
** There are speculations that Mishima’s actual intent for the coup was for it to be a preamble to dramatic ritual suicide. Earlier in life, Mishima had posed in a series of near-naked photos depicting seppuku. His fascination with dramatized death was well-known.
© 2020 Yong Kuan Leong
Yong Kuan Leong (author) from Singapore on July 14, 2020:
Thanks for reading.
email@example.com on July 14, 2020:
Thanks for sharing this beautiful information here…
Yong Kuan Leong (author) from Singapore on July 01, 2020:
Thanks Liz. :) I added in Mishima to give the list a more modern feel. Most Japanese probably wouldn't think of him right away when asked about rebels, but having read the man's works, I'll say he's unorthodox even by today's standards. He certainly didn't go with the beliefs of the day.
Yong Kuan Leong (author) from Singapore on July 01, 2020:
Thanks Eric. :)
Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on July 01, 2020:
The rebels are fascinating, I like that this was a great history lesson.
Liz Westwood from UK on July 01, 2020:
This is an interesting and well-structured article. You have introduced me to some fascinating Japanese rebels. I like the way that you have spanned so much history in your article.