Top 5 Japanese Rebels in History

Updated on July 1, 2020
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ScribblingGeek earned a bachelor's degree in communication studies in 1999. His interests include history, traveling, and mythology.

Five famous Japanese rebels who left permanent marks in the history and culture of Japan.
Five famous Japanese rebels who left permanent marks in the history and culture of Japan.

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 also go as far as to depict Masakado as the spiritual guardian of Tokyo. In these games, Masakado typically represents human will unbound from religious or survivalist doctrines.

In real-life, 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.

Historical depiction of Taira no Masakado. This Heian Era samurai, and rebel, is both feared and respected.
Historical depiction of Taira no Masakado. This Heian Era samurai, and rebel, is both feared and respected.

The Tengyō no Ran Rebellion

Masakado rebelled because of dissatisfaction with inheritance laws; he was repeatedly questioned for killing relatives who invaded his land. Before he was defeated, he also succeeded in conquering eight provinces of the Kantō region.

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 also betrayed and captured. After execution, his head was publically displayed for days as a warning to potential rebels.

With his life story that of a classic martyrdom, though, 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 Japanese 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.

Woodblock print of Amakusa Shirō Tokisada. A devoted Japanese Christian, and samurai, who continues to inspire faith.
Woodblock print of Amakusa Shirō Tokisada. A devoted Japanese Christian, and samurai, who continues to inspire faith.

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 in Japan. He often cameos in Japanese 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. His greatest achievement was to negotiate an alliance between the rival provinces of Satsuma and Chōshū. This formed a formidable army that could challenge the armies 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.

Unfortunately, Sakamoto will never see 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, he 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 Japanese pop culture depictions. This famous Japanese rebel will for a long time be remembered and respected.

Statue of Sakamoto Ryōma at the outskirts of Kyoto City.
Statue of Sakamoto Ryōma at the outskirts of Kyoto City.

4. Saigō Takamori (西郷隆盛) AD 1828–1877

Thanks to the 2003 movie The Last Samurai, many non-Japanese are 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 Ken Watanabe’s character in the movie was directly based on Satsuma Samurai 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 debatable. The Satsuma Rebellion was supported by samurais disaffected by modernization. Like Saigō, they wanted their feudal privileges and esteem restored.

Regardless, Saigō Takamori will live 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.

The famous statue of “Last Samurai” Saigō Takamori at Ueno Park, Tokyo.
The famous statue of “Last Samurai” Saigō Takamori at Ueno Park, Tokyo.

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, 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 of Japan following the war.

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 Japanese 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, Mishima infiltrated Tokyo’s Ichigaya camp and staged a coup. This coup, though a few hours, would go down in Japanese history as the notorious Mishima Incident.

In essence, the 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.

Possibly Japan’s most controversial post-war writer, Mishima was an artist, model, film director, and extreme nationalist.
Possibly Japan’s most controversial post-war writer, Mishima was an artist, model, film director, and extreme nationalist.

© 2020 ScribblingGeek


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    • CYong74 profile imageAUTHOR


      3 weeks ago from Singapore

      Thanks for reading.

    • profile image 

      3 weeks ago

      Thanks for sharing this beautiful information here…

    • CYong74 profile imageAUTHOR


      5 weeks ago from Singapore

      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.

    • CYong74 profile imageAUTHOR


      5 weeks ago from Singapore

      Thanks Eric. :)

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 

      5 weeks ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      The rebels are fascinating, I like that this was a great history lesson.

    • Eurofile profile image

      Liz Westwood 

      5 weeks ago from UK

      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.


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