The Revolutionary Sakamoto Ryoma Samurai and shaper of the Modern Japanese World

    Sakamoto Ryoma is easily one of the most famous and influential people in Japanese history. Idealized by many Japanese boys, Sakamoto led a revolution to overthrow the Tokugawa shogunate during the Bakumatsu period. Tales of his charisma and bravery have been heralded and praised in media ever since. His life was cut short by assassination at the tender age of 31, but his legacy will live on forever.

    The Birth of a Hero

    Sakamoto Ryoma portrait

    Sakamoto was born on the island of Shikoku in 1836. He was born into a low ranking merchant samurai family that had bought their title with the wealth they acquired from selling sake. Sakamoto was bullied in school, and wasn’t really feeling the whole academic scene so he took up kendo at the age of 14. Thanks to this, he was a master swordsman come adulthood.

    The division between the low class samurai and high class samurai was incredibly obvious where Sakamoto grew up. Low class samurai like Sakamoto were constantly messed with and abused by the upper class samurai. Sakamoto and his friends hated this and resented the upper class samurai. They hungered for change.

    In 1853 when Commodore Matthew Perry rolled into Japan, Sakamoto actually saw his black ships coming into the harbor. This roused feelings of both curiosity and angst in Sakamoto. Japan was pressured into signing the Convention of Kanagawa, one of the “unequal treaties” the shogunate was forced into signing during this time. Sakamoto was already pissed off from being pushed around by the upper class samurai – getting pushed around by foreigners too was just too much.

    Young samurai like Sakamoto were eager to expel the foreign barbarians taking advantage of Japan. As Japan was forced to make greater and greater concessions to foreigners due to a lack of military might, even permitting foreigners to build settlements on sacred Japanese land, the radical samurai became even more nationalistic and xenophobic.

    sakamoto ryoma in dramatization
    “I’m like, so xenophobic right now.”

    Under the slogan, “Sonno-joi,” (“Revere the Emperor, expel the barbarians”) they called for the removal of all foreigners from Japanese soil, the reinstatement of the Emperor to a position of real power, and the deaths of the traitorous Japanese officials who enabled these foreign oppressions.

    After Sakamoto completed his studies in 1858, he joined his friend in the Tosa Loyalist Party in 1862. The Tosa Loyalist Party was only focused on a revolution for the Tosa clan whereas Sakamoto wished for a nationwide revolution. Because of these conflicting views, Sakamoto ended up abandoning the clan without permission and became a ronin. This, of course, was a big no-no. One of Sakamoto’s sisters ended up committing suicide out of grief from the incident. Yes, it was that serious.

    While working against the Japanese shogun in secret, Sakamoto took on the name Saitani Umetaro to conceal his identity. To start his mission, Sakamoto decided to assassinate a high-ranking official in the Tokugawa shogunate who was a staunch supporter of both modernization and westernization. This man was Katsu Kaishu. Sakamoto’s current mindset was that these people were betraying Japanese tradition and history and they needed to die.

    The Revolution Begins

    actor portrayal of Sakamoto Ryoma
    “Okay, you’ve convinced me not to kill you.”

    Surprisingly enough, Katsu convinced Sakamoto to not assassinate him and Sakamoto became his protege instead. He explained to Sakamoto that Japan needed to develop a long-term plan for their future and increase their military strength. This way Japan could modernize and stand up to the rest of the world, but they need not compromise their integrity or heritage.

    Sakamoto was convinced. Among many other things, Katsu instructed Sakamoto in the ways of naval science, joint stock corporations, American democracy, and the Bill of Rights.

    Sakamoto then managed to negotiate a secret alliance between the Choshu and Satsuma provinces against the Tokugawa shogunate. The Choshu and Satsuma were the two most powerful provinces in Japan during this time and had long been bitter enemies. It was quite a feat that Sakamoto managed to get them to cooperate. Sakamoto was beginning to show just how impressive a man he was.

    Together with Katsu, Sakamoto worked towards creating a modern navy to contend with the naval forces of the Tokugawa. Sakamoto was so influential here that he’s even been called the “father of the Imperial Japanese Navy”. Sakamoto also established Japan’s first modern company, Kaientai. Kaientai was a private naval and shipping firm that Sakamoto and his men used to transport guns for the revolutionaries.

    While Sakamoto’s revolutionaries prepared to crush the shogunate with military might, Sakamoto drew up an eight-point plan. It was a simple but incredibly forward-thinking piece of work which laid out what he considered to be the necessary conditions for a stable and respectable government after the fall of the shogunate.

    The plan was delivered to Lord Yamanouchi Yodo, who in turn sent it to the Shogun, representing it as his own proposition. Tokugawa Yoshinobu accepted the Eight Point Plan and officially resigned in 1867 to avoid the looming treat of an incredibly violent revolutionary overthrow of the government. The Meiji Restoration followed.

    The Meiji Restoration was chain of events that restored imperial rule to Japan under Emperor Meiji. The Restoration led to enormous changes in Japan’s political and social structure. This period lasted until 1912 and was responsible for the emergence of Japan as a modernized nation. This restoration was brought about in no small part by Sakamoto himself. He truly had a large hand in getting Japan to where they are today.

    actor portraying Sakamoto Ryoma
    “I die!? WHAT!?”

    Unfortunately Sakamoto was assassinated at an inn in Kyoto in 1867, just before the restoration began. Blame has been thrown around and a pro-Shogun group even confessed to the murder in 1870, but the true assassin has never been proven in a court of law.

    The Sakamoto Legacy

    statue of Sakamoto Ryoma

    Sakamoto was a great man. He wanted a revolutionized Japan where all were equal. He wanted Japan to modernize. He wanted Japan to be unified and great and proud. Eventually, all his ambitions were realized. Sakamoto was killed just five years after he met Katsu and began to form a vision of a new Japan but he changed and influenced so much in that short time.

    Six months after Sakamoto’s death, the new Meiji Emperor presented a five-point Charter Oath derived from Sakamoto’s Eight Point Plan and it became the first constitution of modern Japan.

    Recently when Japan’s economy was in the dumps, executives of 200 Japanese corporations were asked the following question: “Who from the past millennium of world history would be most useful in overcoming Japan’s current financial crisis?” Sakamoto Ryoma topped the list. He won out over people like Thomas Edison, Leonardo da Vinci, Oda Nobunaga, and the founders of NEC and Honda. Would he really be the best choice? It’s hard to say, but Japan has enough respect for him to claim so.

    He also had a penchant for wearing Western footwear with his usual samurai clothing. Many like to cite this as his own take on modernizing without compromising Japan’s history or culture.

    Sakamoto was a true visionary, imagining a modernized Japan while others were stuck in the past. He sought inspiration from overseas and developed a plan to break down class barriers and unite the country as one. Even though he died before all of his visions were realized, he had a monumental effect on Japanese history, bringing Japan up to speed with the rest of the world without compromising the Japanese identity.

    Ryoma Den, the Drama

    Yes, I realize this is a Thai trailer, but I couldn’t find one in Japanese or English. Sue me.

    I just recently checked out the first episode of the 2010 hit drama Ryoma den. I’m normally not into J-dramas that don’t have a comedic or romantic aspect, but this drama seems like it could be pretty interesting. It’s 48 episodes long which is like four times as many episodes as I prefer in a series, but for a guy as awesome as Sakamoto, I suppose he deserves that many.

    The show looks like it will chronicle all of Sakamoto’s greatest achievements in thorough detail. I’m sure they’ll be taking more than a handful of liberties with the history to make it more entertaining, but if you’re into Sakamoto and you enjoy historical dramas, I’d definitely say that this is a show worth your time.