From Samurai Revolution: The Dawn of Modern Japan Seen Through the Eyes of the Shogun’s Last Samurai, by Romulus Hillsborough (Tuttle, 2014), Kindle pp. 541-543:
Previously trade with Korea had been carried out through Tsushima Han. With the abolition of the han system, however, the Tsushima envoys in Korea were replaced by officials from the Foreign Ministry. The officials sent to Korea displayed an arrogance and ignorance not shown by the more familiar Tsushima samurai in the past. The Koreans naturally reacted with aversion. In May 1873 (Meiji 6), Korean officials in Pusan erected a billboard claiming that Japan had violated its three centuries-old agreement with Korea by sneaking merchants into Pusan to conduct illicit trade without permission from the Korean government. The breach of protocol, the billboard said, would not be tolerated. Included in the billboard was language to the effect that Japan had sold out to the Western barbarians by shamelessly imitating Western culture and that the perpetrators of such action were unfit to be called Japanese. Japan was offended, needless to say. The Emperor himself was extremely upset, as was his prime minister, Sanjō Sanétomi, while many in the government—including Saigō and his militarist faction—considered Korea’s attitude downright insulting.
Saigō’s alleged advocacy of a Korea invasion presents yet another enigma regarding his thinking and actions during this period, with historians divided as to whether or not he actually called for war. Most historians believe he did, many of whom argue that Saigō was motivated by the anti-Western ideology of Mito and Chōshū Loyalists of the past—i.e., that Japan must conquer Korea to fend off Western encroachment in the region. Supporting this argument is a statement, attributed to Shimazu Nariakira and quoted by Chinese historian Wang Yün-shêng in the early 1930s, laying out the reasons why Japan should occupy China. Masakazu Iwata, Ōkubo Toshimichi’s biographer, provides an English translation of this statement. After alluding to China’s internal rebellion and invasion by foreign powers since the Opium War, Nariakira is quoted as saying that Japan, in order to avoid the same fate, must “take the initiative” and “dominate” China, otherwise:
… we will be dominated. We must prepare defenses with this thought in mind. Considering the present situation, it behooves us first to raise an army, seize a part of China’s territory, and establish a base on the Asiatic mainland. We must strengthen Japan without delay and display our military power abroad. This would make it impossible for England or France to interfere in our affairs despite their strength.
Nonetheless, Nariakira asserted that his purpose was not to bring about “the liquidation of China, but rather to see China awaken and reorganize itself in order that together we might defend ourselves against England and France”—which resembles Katsu Kaishū’s vision of a Triple Alliance with China and Korea. But, Nariakira was quick to add, based on China’s self-proclaimed superiority over Japan, it was doubtful that China would agree to cooperate with Japan. “Consequently, we must first undertake defensive preparations against foreign encroachment…. The initial requirement is the acquisition of both Taiwan and Foochow [Fuzhou].” It would not be too much to presume that after the “initial requirement” was met, Korea might follow. And as we know, Saigō most certainly would have acted on Nariakira’s dictum—as soon as the opportunity availed itself. During the final years of the Bakufu and the first few years of the Meiji era, Japan was simply not prepared to expand into East Asia. But in 1873 things were quite different, and it is by no means farfetched to assume that Saigō was now ready to act.
It is also argued that Saigō called for a Korea invasion as a means of providing a livelihood and career to dispossessed former samurai throughout Japan. The argument follows that in a foreign adventure Saigō perceived a way to overcome the divisiveness within the government.