Daibutsu, Kamakura

Daibutsu, Kamakura
Daibutsu in Kamakura, June 2010. There were thousands of school kids visiting that day. It was still great fun.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Sakamoto Ryoma and the Meiji Restoration

Sakamoto Ryoma is big in Japan right now with the current Taiga drama Ryomaden. But even before this drama, Ryoma was probably the most famous and popular historical figure in Japanese history. Why is that and is his popularity deserved? Recently I read Marius Jansen's book Sakamoto Ryoma and the Meiji Restoration. Jansen, who passed away in 2000, was a professor of Japanese History at Princeton University and author of more than twenty books of which this book he is probably best known for. First published in 1961, this book is still considered one of the excellent sources regarding the Bakumatsu period. In Sakamoto Ryoma and the Meiji Restoration, Jansen describes the societal transformation from the late Tokugawa Bakufu through the restoration of power to the Emperor. Jansen focused mainly on Sakamoto Ryoma but also devoted much of the book to Nakaoka Shintaro, another important figure in Meiji Restoration or Bakumatsu period. The title of the book really could have been Sakamoto Ryoma, Nakaoka Shintaro and the Meiji Restoration. Jansen begins by covering the political and economic situation of Japan in general and then moves to the political and economic issues in the domain of Tosa, Ryoma's home. Finally Jansen narrows the focus of the book further to that of the actions of the shishi and specifically of Ryoma and Shintaro. The shishi were the samurai, often ronin, who worked and fought for the overthrow of the Tokugawa Bakufu and the restoration of the emperor. One of the aspects I like about this book is how Jansen wrote it in a manner that could be easily understood by readers who may not be well-versed in Japanese history or the Bakumatsu period.

I am not going to detail the events of the Bakumatsu that Jansen covers in the book since these events are already so well known. I will highlight some interesting points I took from the book and use the book to try and answer some questions about Sakamoto Ryoma. It would be an understatement to say that Sakamoto Ryoma is one of the key figures in the Meiji Restoration period. Sakamoto Ryoma is a political hero in Japan and even a celebrity star. You can find his name and face everywhere. His grave site in Kyoto is a popular destination and although Nakaoka Shintaro is also buried there, visitors often leave with Sakamoto Ryoma merchandise which they purchase nearby. I am pretty sure there are not too many people buying Nakaoka Shintaro merchandise. This raises questions such as why is the popularity of Ryoma so high and is it deserved? How much of a contribution did Ryoma actually make to the events of the time?And how original were some of Ryoma's important ideas?

Jansen describes Ryoma's development from the early years of the Bakumatsu period when loyalist parties were being formed. He points out that both Ryoma and Shintaro were not so much innovators as they were followers of the opinion of their peers during this early time. They were literate but by no measure were they intellectuals. Even a few years later, a friend of Ryoma's, Hirai Shujiro, warned his sister against getting involved in Ryoma's plans: "Although Ryoma is a splendid fellow, he doesn't have any learning, and therefore he sometimes makes serious mistakes" (p80). One of the best examples of Ryoma's lack of political knowledge and education in his early years was his famous meeting with a group of samurai from Mito domain who had traveled to Tosa to win support for their loyalist cause. Ryoma and several others traveled to the Tosa border to meet with the Mito group. The diary of one of the Mito messengers revealed the lack of political awareness of the the Tosa group in 1858. "The two outsiders [Tosa men]," he wrote, "don't know a thing about their han's affairs; Ryoma doesn't even know the names of any of the ministers" (p89-90). Clearly Ryoma was not one of the most brilliant people around in his younger years. He was not highly educated and his writing ability was poor. Jansen describes Ryoma's letters to his sister as awkward and his vocabulary was limited. He certainly was not a person developing creative philosophies or ideas. So how did Ryoma come to be such an important figure?

In 1862, Ryoma fled Tosa. But the following months showed how little he realized the complexity of the problems facing Japan. Following the logic of a simple swordsman, Ryoma concluded that assassinating the "cowardly leaders" was the best course of action and his target would be Katsu Kaishu, a leading Tokugawa official. It is at this point according to Jansen that we see for the first time Ryoma's ability to adapt and learn. When confronted with evidence that he was wrong about Kaishu, Ryoma reconsiders his goal and decides to become Kaishu's disciple. Jansen states that this event showed Ryoma's growing sophistication and maturity (p153). Jansen also points out that one of the most important aspects of Ryoma's development was the fact that his duties for Kaishu brought him into contact with some of the most enlightened Tokugawa councillors where he first heard the possibility of a peaceful transfer of power from shogun to emperor. Already by 1863 as Ryoma continued to develop, Kaishu began entrusting him with more responsible and difficult missions (p169). Clearly Kaishu saw something in Ryoma to trust him with these types of assignments. Although Ryoma was not well educated, Kaishu's trust in him showed that Ryoma had other strong qualities. Ryoma's qualities lay in the fact that he was skilled at developing relationships which indicates that he probably had a high level of emotional intelligence.

Under Kaishu, Ryoma continued to refine and moderate his own political thinking. However, by late 1864 Kaishu was dismissed from his post and Ryoma was now back on his own as a ronin. But this now eventually brings Ryoma under the protection of Satsuma and the beginning of his important relationship with that domain. And as we all know, Ryoma may be most famous for his work in bringing about the Satsuma-Choshu alliance. The Sat-Cho alliance is certainly one of the most important events during the Bakumatsu period so the question is really how important was Ryoma in bringing this together? The fact is Ryoma was not solely responsible for bringing Satsuma and Choshu together. Although a quick scan of the internet for Sakamoto Ryoma would often tell you that he was. Nakaoka Shintaro joined the Choshu loyalists during the same time that Ryoma was working with Satsuma and he worked to convince the Choshu leaders of the importance of an alliance (p186). In addition, other Tosa Loyalists worked towards this alliance by working closely with the Kyoto nobles who had been expelled from the capital. I don't think this should take away from what Ryoma was able to accomplish or the significance of his role. However, at the very least Shintaro should be given as much credit for his work as Ryoma. In some ways, Shintaro's assignment was even more difficult than Ryoma's. Shintaro had to convince a Choshu domain whose bitterness and hatred towards Satsuma was strong due to Satsuma previously siding with the Bakufu in expelling Choshu forces from Kyoto.

Ryoma is of course known for more than just his work in bringing about the Sat-Cho alliance. He is also known for his efforts in developing a modern navy and the Kaientai, the naval auxiliary unit that also would later become one of the first modern corporations in Japan. I am not going to get into those accomplishments of Ryoma but rather his development of the Eight-Point Plan for which he his also famous for. Jansen states that Ryoma's ideas formed during his years of service with Kaishu where he was exposed to the idea that the shogun should resign in favor of the emperor. He had also become familiar with the idea of a conciliar form of government from bakufu officials such as Okubo Ichio who had developed ideas about a council of lords (p294). Similar ideas were also proposed by others such as lord Matsudaira Shungaku. Ryoma's time in Nagasaki also exposed him to many more ideas regarding new forms of government. It was in Nagasaki where Ryoma met Nagaoka Kenkichi who some believe was the person who first wrote the plan for a new government which came to be known as Sakamoto's Eight-Point Plan. However, Jansen states that regardless of who it was who worded the Eight-Point Plan, there can be no doubt that it represented ideas toward which Ryoma had been reaching for several years (p295).

So why is Ryoma so much more famous than Nakaoka Shintaro and the many other important players involved in the Meiji Restoration? Jansen provides some excellent examples for why Ryoma became so popular. Following the assassination of Ryoma and Shintaro, Jansen states "Restoration leaders lamented the loss of both shishi. Iwakura particularly regretted the death of Nakaoka, but on the whole Sakamoto Ryoma's warm and engaging personality won him more eulogies, as they had won him more friends" (p345). "Nakaoka was a sage," Tanaka Koken wrote, "Sakamoto a real hero." As Jansen states, "Ryoma's romantic career and bouyant, self-confidant bearing and correspondence lent themselves well to the image the nation wished to hold of its Restoration shishi." Another interesting point that Jansen mentions regarding Ryoma's popularity is his lack of involvement with the Meiji government. Ryoma may not have wanted to participate in the new government even had he not been assassinated. But the fact that he was never a part of the new Meiji government meant that his image would never be tainted by the negative politics and issues of the new government.

So does Ryoma's fame exceed his actual contributions during the restoration period? Of course it does. His likeness is everywhere in Japan including on toilet paper and candy wrappers. He is probably the most famous and popular figure in Japanese history. He is far more famous and popular than other Bakumatsu figures, especially Nakaoka Shintaro, even though Shintaro and others probably contributed as much to the restoration as Sakamoto Ryoma did.

Was Ryoma the originator of the major ideas that he is known for such as the Eight-Point Plan? I think it's safe to say that no, he was not an originator of the ideas he is known for but rather modified and refined these ideas. Marius Jansen says as much when he states that Kenkichi may have actually conceived of the idea of the Eight-Point Plan.

The reality of Ryoma in Japan is overshadowed by his myth and dramatic storytelling. Shiba Ryotaro's eight volume novel Ryoma ga Yuku is probably the biggest reason for Ryoma's fame and popularity in post-war Japan. Although Ryotaro's work is fiction and he took much poetic license when he wrote it, the novel still contributed greatly to Ryoma's legend and popularity. But hold on all you Ryoma fans out there. Don't come banging down my door just yet. The fact is Ryoma WAS one of the most significant figures during the Bakumatsu. His personality, his character, his ability to develop relationships and create alliances allowed him to do what few others could have done. Maybe the Sat-Cho alliance would have materialized eventually without Ryoma's efforts. But without his work, it would probably not have happened when it did. And maybe Ryoma did not originate the Eight-Point Plan. But as Jansen described, Ryoma modified it and expanded on it and he used his abilities to convince others of the viability of this plan including his lord Yamauchi Yodo who took the plan to the shogun and convinced him to resign his powers to the emperor. He was probably the only one who could have done that at that time and had he not, the end of the Bakumatsu likely would have been far bloodier. I think you will find many examples throughout history of famous historical figures who may not have developed many of the original ideas they are known for but they took those ideas and improved on them or used their charisma and skill to carry them through. Sakamoto Ryoma is no different. Marius Jansen did an excellent job showing how Ryoma grew and developed from a young, ignorant samurai from Tosa to a person respected by some of the most powerful figures of the Bakumatsu period. That by itself demonstrates how significant a person Sakamoto Ryoma was.


  1. Takeda was destroyed by Tokugawa and Oda
    Sanada was a vassal of the Takeda clan. . He becomes a lord in the Ueda city, Nagano.

    Why was not feudalism able to be destroyed though Tokugawa was able to unite Japan?

    it was because of this battle

    Hidetada tokugawa ,His force(38,000) was delayed to come Sekigahara because of Sanada
    Therefore, Tokugawa could not help giving land as the reward to other feudal lords though tokugawa won.

    Choshu( 毛利 mouri)and Satsuma (shimazu), the both were west forces loyal.
    I think they never forgot their disgrace against Tokugawa at Sekigahara.
    Meiji Restoration has the connection to sekigahara?.


    Sanada masayuki and Ueda ppl

  2. Yes, Sekigahara is linked to the Meiji Restoration. Choshu and Satsuma never forgot their disgrace from that battle. Hidetada was delayed because he was foolish. He was supposed to bypass Sanada as ordered by his father but he did not listen. Tokugawa would have given land as reward anyways no matter whether Hidetada arrived at Sekigahara on time. That was how Tokugawa ensured support and loyalty.

  3. I am currently unable to get Ryomaden at this time but from watching Sakamoto Ryoma's portrayal in 2004's Shinsengumi, I am really becoming a fan of him.

  4. I feel bad you are not able to watch Ryomaden. So far it is a really good taiga and I really like the actor portraying Ryoma. I just watched episode 7 and it had me laughing. Ryoma was discussing John Manjiro with another person and Ryoma was asking him what a "John' was. When he learned it was the name that was given to Nakahama Manjiro when he was in America, Ryoma then said his name would be John Ryoma. It was pretty funny.

    Ryoma was an amazing figure and I can see why he was so popular. He must have had an amazing and magnetic personality.

  5. Yes, I am really bummed about missing out on Ryomaden. I'll agree with your theory that he must have had one dynamic personality to have influenced so many key figures during the Bakumatsu period. On a related note, I will be going to San Francisco to Pier 9 to see where John Manjiro & Katsu Kaishu stepped on US Soil. It will be a great fact finding trip that will be most helpful in my book which features the Shoginate's Delegation to San Francisco aboard the Karin Maru and to see the Karin Maru II. Thanks for letting me know about it.
    Arigatou Gozaimasu!

  6. 正碩嫌念阿彌陀佛往生西方極樂世界3:10 PM

    阿彌陀佛 無相佈施


    之為腥。所謂「葷腥」即這兩類的合稱。 葷菜
    (重定向自五辛) 佛家五葷



    興渠另說為洋蔥。) 肉 蛋 奶?!

    念楞嚴經 *∞窮盡相關 消去無關 證據 時效 念阿彌陀佛往生西方極樂世界

    不婚 不生子女 生生世世不當老師

    log 二0.3010 三0.47710.48 五0.6990 七0.8451 .85
    root 二1.414 1.41 三1.732 1.73五 2.236 2.24七 2.646
    =>十3.16 π∈Q' 一點八1.34

  7. @正碩嫌念阿彌陀佛往生西方極樂世界

    Thank you Master.

  8. Good essay!

    I saw the 48 episode TV series, Ryomaden and was
    so impressed by the story, that I wrote about it.

    Themes In The Fabulous Japanese TV Series, Ryomaden

    Although, it is not as eloquent as your writing.

    The Ryomaden series really made me think.
    My post is a few of my thoughts.