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Is there any understanding a man like Saigo Takamori? His spirit seems as vast as his bulk, and his bulk was that of a sumo wrestler. He is “the quintessential hero of modern Japanese history,” said historian Ivan Morris.

“Sincerity” was the quality Saigo valued above all others. The sincere man, he wrote, “cares neither about his life, nor his fame, nor about rank or money.” Many people profess sincerity insincerely. Not Saigo. Bitterly he contemplated his own shortcomings. He committed them to poetry:

“I sit and study far into the night./ My face is cold, my stomach empty./ One’s selfish thoughts should melt away like snow before a lighted lamp./ Yet, when I gaze deep within my heart/ I am humbled by abundant shame.”

He was born in 1828 in the domain of Satsuma, a remote backwater in southern Kyushu. His family’s status was samurai, but barely — his father farmed part-time. Japan, long stagnant, long isolated from the outside world, was inwardly seething. “Barbarian” ships — Russian, American, British, French — were buzzing the coast; could Japan resist them? With what — swords? Was its government even legitimate? The Emperor, son of heaven, sat sidelined and impotent in Kyoto; the shogun in Edo (modern-day Tokyo) ruled but was helpless against the foreign threat.

Saigo from earliest manhood agitated for “restoration.” This meant restoring the Emperor to his rightful place, his rightful power. The Satsuma clan split — one faction restorationist, the other pro-shogun. Saigo rose and fell with the clan restorationists, suffering years of exile on distant southern islands when the shogunists, temporarily eclipsed, regained ascendancy.

But history was against them. Saigo rose again — as a prime mover of the Meiji Restoration of 1868. He was popular, charismatic, respected, incorruptible. The heights of power were open to him. Had he ascended, he’d have been a co-writer of modern Japanese history. How that would have turned out we’ll never know.

Probably disastrously. Sincerity is admirable, but circumstances — what the insincere call “reality” — called for compromises Saigo was too sincere to make. “Restoration,” literally interpreted, was impossible. Emperor Meiji in 1868 was a youth of 15, unready to lead the vast task ahead. The ancient Yamato-damashii (Japanese spirit) had to be purged of its sloth, the barbarians repelled, national life revived. The councilors who took power in the Emperor’s name were all (Saigo excepted) practical men. Yamato-damashii was all very well, but standing up to the rapacious West required Western arms, Western industries, a Western economy. India colonized, China dismembered, were vivid warnings of what Japan could expect unless spirit got the material support which, to the sincere, is anathema.

The story is familiar. Materialism overwhelmed spirit, and Japan within a generation accomplished the astonishing feat of itself becoming a “Western” industrial, technological and military power. Saigo recorded his feelings in his “posthumous words”: “Civilization is the upholding of justice; it has nothing to do with outward grandeur. … Truly civilized countries would have led the uncivilized ones to enlightenment by adopting a policy of benevolent and well-meant teaching.” Instead, “they have been barbarous enough to benefit themselves by conquering weaker countries by force of arms and treating them with a ruthlessness which becomes the more intense the greater the ignorance of the conquered.

“As to adopting the system of every other country to improve our own way of life,” he continued, “it is necessary first to base our country on a firm foundation, develop public morals. … If, on the other hand, we blindly follow the foreign, our national policy will decline and our public morals decay beyond rescue.”

As a young man, Saigo had attempted suicide. He was 30; the year was 1858. His feudal lord, a restorationist, had died suddenly. The restorationist cause seemed lost. Saigo and a like-minded priest jumped from a boat into the sea; the priest drowned, Saigo survived. Death seemed to have rejected him. Some commentators interpret the salient events in his subsequent career — his reckless advocacy of an invasion of Korea in 1873; his leadership in 1877 of a reactionary samurai uprising against the Westernizing Meiji regime he had been instrumental in creating — as Saigo’s desperate pursuit of the death that had eluded him decades before.

It may have been, though Saigo himself is more likely to have seen it as sincerity — his — in revolt against corruption — the regime’s. Sincerity is indifferent to practical results. Japan was weak and in no condition to invade a neighbor? What did that matter, if Korea in an official communique had slighted Japan? The uprising was doomed from the outset and would consume thousands of lives? So be it. “A man of true sincerity,” wrote Saigo, “will be an example to the world even after his death.”

As indeed Saigo has been. Morris, the historian, marvels at the universal esteem in which Japanese to this day hold him. That right-wing ideologues revere him is hardly surprising, but no less admiring have been left-wing ideologues, liberals, Christians and democrats — never mind that Saigo was neither left wing nor liberal nor Christian nor democratic. All seem to see something of themselves in him — or rather, something beyond themselves to which they can aspire. What can it be? His ritual suicide on the battlefield as defeat closed in explains nothing — in Japanese terms, seppuku, though the ultimate symbol of sincerity, is, in a defeated warrior, almost commonplace, almost a matter of course.

Any Japanese warrior worthy of the name dies sincerely, but Saigo lived sincerely. “Human beings and heaven,” he wrote, “are one. The end of life is only a returning to the universe.”

The oligarchs against whom he turned were not of his stamp, nor he of theirs. “Many of the government officials, addicted to dissipation and debauchery, live in such extravagance,” he wrote, “that they fall into error and public opinion is in turmoil.”

What would he say, this paragon of uncompromising sincerity, if he could see Japan today? “Error and turmoil beyond my most despairing fears,” probably. Saigo lived more in the universe than on planet earth. Maybe, in the final analysis, that’s what sincerity means.

Michael Hoffman’s new book, just out, is “Other Worlds.”

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