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Home » Archives » October 2004 » People : Sakamoto Ryoma (1)

People : Sakamoto Ryoma (1)

Saturday, October 30, 2004 Posted: 01:55 PM JST

Photo of Sakamoto RyomaSamurai; Key player in overthrow of Tokugawa Shogunate
Lived: 1835-1867

This is the first installment of an article by Romulus Hillsborough about Japan's most celebrated revolutionary: Sakamoto Ryoma.


In June 1853, Commodore Matthew Perry of the United States Navy led a squadron of four heavily armed warships into Sagami Bay, to the Port of Uraga, just south of the shogun's capital at Edo. What the Americans found was a technologically backward, though intricately complicated, island nation, under the rule of the House of Tokugawa, that had been isolated from the rest of the world for two and a half centuries.

Whether or not the Americans realized the far-reaching effects of their gunboat diplomacy, they now set into motion a coup de theatre which fifteen years hence would transform the conglomerate of some 260 feudal domains into a single, unified ountry. When the fifteenth and last shogun, Yoshinobu Tokugawa, abdicated his rule and restored the emperor to his ancient seat of power in November 1867, Japan was well on its way to becoming an industrialized nation, rapidly modernizing and Westernizing in a unique Japanese sense.

Quite a transformation in just fifteen years, and much of the credit goes to a lower ranking samurai from the Tosa domain named Sakamoto Ryoma.

When Ryoma fled his native Tosa in spring 1862, he was a "nobody." Although he was a renowned swordsman who had served as head of an elite fencing academy in Edo, and was also a leader of the young samurai in Tosa who advocated the radical slogans Expelling the Barbarians, Imperial Reverence and Toppling the Shogunate, in the eyes of the power that were he was a "nobody." He had never held an official post, and he never would.

When in the following October the "nobody" met Katsu Kaishu, the enlightened commissioner of the shogun's navy, it might have been with intent to assassinate him. But, of course, Ryoma did not kill Kaishu. Instead, this champion of samurai who would overthrow the shogunate and expel the barbarians became the devoted follower of the elite shogunal official. Kaishu opened Ryoma's eyes to the futility of trying to defend against a foreign onslaught without first developing a powerful navy; and to this end Japan desperately needed Western technology and expertise.

Ryoma now worked with Kaishu, whom he called "the greatest man in Japan," to establish a naval academy in Kobe, where he and his comrades studied the naval arts and sciences under their revered mentor. But certain of his hotheaded comrades called Ryoma a turncoat for siding with the enemy, which, of course, was not true. As if to belie the false accusation, in the following June Ryoma vowed, in a letter to his sister, to "clean up Japan once and for all." What he was talking about was overthrowing the military government, which Kaishu loyally served.

Read Part 2.
Read Part 3.

About the Author
Romulus Hillsborough is a native Californian who lived in Japan for over fifteen years. Fluent in spoken and written Japanese, he has worked on the editorial staff of a Japanese weekly magazine in Tokyo and as a U.S. correspondent for the Japanese press.

Hillsborough spent seven years researching and writing RYOMA - Life of a Renaissance Samurai.

Keywords: people_focus

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The now legendary Sir Ernest Mason Satow (1843-1929) was a member of the British legation in Tokyo for twenty-one years. This classic book is based on the author's detailed diary, personal encounters, and keen memory. In it, Satow records the history of the critical years of social and political upheaval that accompanied Japan's first encounters with the West around the time of the Meiji Restoration. Fascinating.
Editor
Stone Bridge Press

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