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Sakamoto Ryoma: The Indispensable “Nobody”

By Romulus Hillsborough

Editor’s Note: Ryoma was once a low class samurai, a ronin without allegiance and a wanted man. But today he is recognized as the Japanese equivalent of America’s George Washington – a person who marshaled a unique strength of personality, diplomacy, and historical vision to help transform his nation, a vision that produced a unified modern Japan out of the rough cloth of a fragmented feudal tradition. Ryoma’s life is a tale of Shakespearian proportions -- a life of daring and personal triumph that helped mold a nation, but also a life lived without regard to personal gain or safety. His life tragically ended prematurely with his brutal assassination. This article is based on Ryoma’s life as detailed in the author’s book, “Ryoma - Life of a Renaissance Samurai.”

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 Shogun¹s capital at Edo (how Tokyo). What the Americans found was a technologically backward, though intricately complicated, island nation, under the rule of the House of Tokugawa (a family of Shoguns, or military rulers that had unified and ruled Japan since 1600) had, which 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 country. 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 (centered on the southern Japanese island of Shikoku) 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 (now Tokyo), 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.”

Ryoma had never held an official post, and he never would. When in the following October the “nobody” met Katsu Kaishu (another influential leader whose work and influence would also help mold a modern Japan), the enlightened commissioners 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 (a seaport town near Osaka, close to Kyoto), 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 believe the false accusation, in the following June Ryoma vowed, in a letter to his sister, to “clean up Japan once and for all.”

What Ryoma was talking about was overthrowing the military government (Tokugawa), which Kaishu loyally served. Earlier in the same month, ships of the United States and France had shelled the radical Choshu domain (on the southern end of the big Japanese island of Honshu) in retaliation for Choshu’s having recently fired upon foreign ships passing through Shimonoseki Strait (a strategic narrow body of water dividing the main island of Honshu and the southern island of Kyushu that controlled access to the Inland Sea).

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 they will head right back to Choshu to fight again. This is all because corrupt officials in Edo are in league with the barbarians (foreigners).” But, now, through the good offices of Katsu Kaishu, Ryoma too was in league with some very powerful men.

Ryoma wrote: “Although those corrupt shogunal officials have a great deal of power now, I’m going to get the help of two or three daimyo (lords of feudal domains) 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 don¹t 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 (the county’s military leader) 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? 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.

The greatest obstacle to this freedom, and to the salvation of Japan from foreign subjugation, however, 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 (located on the county’s southern most island of Kyushu) 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 the clans of 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 Ryoma 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 (the huge Japanese conglomerate of today). 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, an 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.

© Romulus Hillsborough
Reproduced on by permission of the author.

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About the Author:

Romulus Hillsborough is the author of “RYOMA - Life of a Renaissance Samurai” (Ridgeback Press, 1999) and “Samurai Sketches: From the Bloody Final Years of the Shogun” (Ridgeback Press, 2001) RYOMA is the only biographical novel of Sakamoto Ryoma in the English language. Samurai Sketches is a collection of historical sketches, never before presented in English, depicting men and events during the revolutionary years of mid-19th century Japan. Reviews and more information about these books are available at

“Ryoma - Life of a Renaissance Samurai”

By Romulus Hillsborough
Ridgeback Press
Hardcover, 614 Pages

RBP-B- 2035
(Plus $6.00 Shipping Within US)

Romulus Hillsborough is a native Californian who lived in Japan for sixteen years, studying the language, history and culture. His extensive research includes over fifty books about his subject's life, historical period and prominent contemporaries, all of Ryoma's extant letters, of which there are over 120 in publication, numerous other letters written to him by his peers, and articles and other pieces from Japanese history journals. The author traveled to those areas in Japan where Ryoma was most active, including the historical cities of Kyoto, Nagasaki, Kagoshima, Hagi, Ryoma's native Kochi, and the picturesque fishing village of Tomo-no-Ura on the Inland Sea. Hillsborough currently lives in San Francisco with his wife and son.

To find more articles of interest, search on one of these keywords:

history, martial arts history, Ryoma, Tokugawa, Meiji, Tosa, Satsuma, Choshu, Shimonoseki Strait, Katsu Kaish, Yoshinobu Tokugawa, Kaientai

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