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Home » Archives » November 2004 » People : Sakamoto Ryoma (3)

People : Sakamoto Ryoma (3)

Monday, November 8, 2004 Posted: 12:16 PM JST

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

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


To answer the second question first, and to put it quite simply, Ryoma was a lover of freedom - the freedom to act, the freedom to think, and the freedom to be. These were the ideals that drove Ryoma on his dangerous quest for freedom - which, of course, was nothing less than the salvation of Japan. But the greatest obstacle to this freedom, and to the salvation of Japan from foreign subjugation, was the antiquated Tokugawa system, with its hundreds of feudal domains and suppressive class structure, which men like Katsu Kaishu and Sakamoto Ryoma meant to replace with a representative form of government styled after the great Western powers, and based on a free-class society and open commerce with the rest of the world.

While Ryoma was painfully aware of the necessity to eliminate the shogunate, the means for revolution eluded him. Having abandoned Tosa, he was a ronin, an outlaw samurai - a status which at once aided and confounded him. Unlike his comrades-in-arms from Choshu, Satsuma and other samurai clans, he was not bound to the service of feudal lord and clan. On the other hand he did not enjoy the financial support and protection of a powerful feudal domain.

After much trial and tribulation, and as his first giant step toward realizing his great objective, Ryoma devised a preposterous plan of convincing Satsuma and Choshu to join forces with one another as the only means to topple the shogunate. But Satsuma and Choshu were bitter enemies whose hate for one another surpassed even that hate which they had historically harbored toward the Tokugawa. What's more, the braggart Ryoma had a reputation for exaggerating. When he told his friends of his plan, some initially dismissed it as so much "hot air," while others simply thought he was crazy. But in addition to many other talents, Ryoma, a truly Renaissance man, was endowed with an uncanny power of persuasion. After a year of planning and negotiation, in January 1866, Ryoma, now an indispensable "nobody," successfully brokered a military alliance between Satsuma and Choshu, which more than anything else hastened the collapse of the Tokugawa Shogunate.

Although the shogunate had not yet learned of the secret alliance, Tokugawa police agents strongly suspected that Ryoma was up to no good. On the night after the alliance was sealed in Kyoto, Ryoma was ambushed by a Tokugawa police squad, as he and a samurai of Choshu, who had been assigned as Ryoma's bodyguard, celebrated their great success in a second-story room at Ryoma's favorite inn, the Teradaya, on the outskirts of the Imperial capital.

A young maidservant at the inn, named Oryo, had been soaking in a hot bath when she heard the assailants break into the house. Oryo immediately ran from the bathroom stark naked up the dark staircase to warn the two men upstairs. The scene is a very famous one, as is the ensuing battle, during which Ryoma wielded a Smith & Wesson revolver, his bodyguard a lethal spear, to fend off their assailants and escape through the backdoor. Equally famous is the wedding between Ryoma and Oryo, which took place soon after, and their subsequent trip to the hot-spring baths in the Kirishima mountains of Satsuma, which was supposedly the first honeymoon in Japan.

In spring 1867, Ryoma established his Kaientai, Japan's first modern corporation and the precursor to the Mitsubishi. Based in the international port-city of Nagasaki, the Kaientai was a private navy and shipping firm through which Ryoma and his men ran guns for the Choshu and Satsuma revolutionaries.

In the previous June, Ryoma had commanded a warship in a sea-battle off Shimonoseki, in which he aided Choshu's Extraordinary Corps, Japan's first modern militia, comprising both samurai and peasants, in a rout of Tokugawa naval forces. While Ryoma's anti-Tokugawa comrades from Satsuma and Choshu prepared to crush the shogunate by military might, the "nobody" from Tosa devised a plan to avoid bloody civil war and foreign intervention.

Ryoma's "Great Plan at Sea," an eight-point plan which he wrote aboard ship, called for the shogun to return the reins of government to the Imperial Court; for the establishment of Upper and Lower Houses of government; for all government measures to be based on public opinion, and decided by councilors comprised of the most able feudal lords, court nobles and the Japanese people at large.

Rather than merely saying that Ryoma was once again "blowing hot air," or that he was "crazy," there were now some among his comrades who felt betrayed. These men advocated complete annihilation of the shogunate to assure it would never rise again, and felt that Ryoma was a traitor. But Ryoma convinced one of his more level-headed friends, Goto Shojiro, who was a close aide to Yamanouchi Yodo, the influential Lord of Tosa, to urge Yodo to endorse the plan.

Meanwhile, Ryoma continued to run guns for the revolutionaries, because he knew that the only way to convince the shogun to abdicate would be to demonstrate that his only alternative was military annihilation, which, of course, was no alternative at all. Lord Yodo took Goto's advice and sent Ryoma's plan to the shogun, as if it were his own brainchild. Eleven days later, on October 14, 1867, in the Grand Hall of Nijo Castle in Kyoto, as Satsuma and Choshu hastened their final war plans, the shogun announced his abdication before his adversaries had the chance to strike.

With the overthrow of the corrupt and decrepit Tokugawa regime, the "nobody" from Tosa had made good on his vow to "clean up Japan" - although, unfortunately for his country, he would pay for it with his life. Sakamoto Ryoma was assassinated one month later, on November 15, his thirty-second birthday, in the second-story room in the house of a wealthy soy dealer in Kyoto which he used as a hideout.

Equally unfortunate for Ryoma's country was that cleaning up Japan "once and for all" proved to be too long a period of time, even for a genius like Ryoma. This is why, amidst the rampant corruption in Japanese business circles today, many people in Japan have expressed their wish that a leader of Ryoma's caliber would somehow miraculously emerge.

A couple years ago executives of 200 Japanese corporations were asked by Asahi Shimbun, a national daily newspaper, the question: "Who from the past millennium of world history would be most useful in overcoming Japan's current financial crisis?" Sakamoto Ryoma received more mention than any other historical figure, topping such giants as Thomas Edison, Leonardo da Vinci, Saigo Takamori, Oda Nobunaga and the founders of NEC and Honda.

Evidently many Japanese people today think their country needs a good scrubbing once again.

(This article originally appeared in the Spring 2002 issue of Tokyo Journal.)

Read Part 1.
Read Part 2.

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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1 comments so far post your own

1 | At 03:28pm on Nov 08 2004, Bill W. wrote:
A very interesting article. I enjoyed reading it and learned about this historical topic for the first time.
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