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People : Sakamoto Ryoma (2)

Monday, November 1, 2004 Posted: 10:28 AM JST

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

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

Earlier in the same month, ships of the United States and France had shelled the radical Choshu domain in retaliation for Choshu's having recently fired upon foreign ships passing through Shimonoseki Strait. News of the attack deeply troubled Ryoma, who was concerned about possible designs among the Western powers, particularly France and England, to colonize Japan as the latter had China. When Ryoma learned that the foreign ships that had bombarded Choshu were subsequently repaired at a Tokugawa shipyard in Edo, he was fighting mad. "It is really too bad that Choshu started a war last month by shelling foreign ships," he wrote his sister. "This does not benefit Japan at all. But what really disgusts me is that the ships they shot up in Choshu are being repaired at Edo, and when they're fixed will head right back to Choshu to fight again. This is all because corrupt officials in Edo are in league with the barbarians."

But, now, through the good offices of Katsu Kaishu, Ryoma too was in league with some very powerful men. "Although those corrupt shogunal officials have a great deal of power now, I'm going to get the help of two or three daimyo and enlist likeminded men so we can start thinking more about the good of Japan, and not only the Imperial Court. Then, I'll get together with my friends in Edo (you know, Tokugawa retainers, daimyo and so on) to go after those wicked officials and cut them down."

Ryoma was not opposed to boasting, and he had a big ego, declaring to his sister: "It's a shame that there aren't more men like me around the country." For all his boasting, however, Ryoma was also a realist. "I don't expect that I'll be around too long. But I'm not about to die like any average person either. I'm only prepared to die when big changes finally come, when even if I continue to live I will no longer be of any use to the country. But since I'm fairly shifty, I'm not likely to die so easily. But seriously, although I was born a mere potato digger in Tosa, a nobody, I'm destined to bring about great changes in the nation. But I'm definitely not going to get puffed up about it. Quite the contrary! I'm going to keep my nose to the ground, like a clam in the mud. So don't worry about me!"

It seems that Ryoma was also an incredible visionary who foresaw his own destination. Four years later the "nobody" from Tosa forced the peaceful abdication of Shogun Tokugawa Yoshinobu, and the restoration of the emperor to power - the event that historians call the Meiji Restoration.

But how could Ryoma - who had plunged from the status of "nobody," to that of outlaw, and one of the most wanted men on a long list of Tokugawa enemies - be of sufficient consequence to force the abdication of the generalissimo of the 267-year-old samurai government? And what were his reasons for doing so, even at the risk of his own life?

Read Part 1.
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.
Stone Bridge Press

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