Sakamoto Ryōma (坂本 龍馬, Sakamoto Ryōma) (January 3, 1836 – December 10, 1867) was a Japanese imperial loyalist whose effort to forge the Satsuma-Choshu Alliance (1866) between those two large, feudal domains, or “hans,” was crucial to setting the stage for the Meiji Restoration in 1868. Ryoma was a lower-class samurai, a disaffected ronin (masterless samurai) sought by the authorities, but today he is regarded as a Japanese hero and a founding father of the modern age. He was a visionary who used his diplomatic abilities and strong personality to advance his vision of a unified, modern Japan. Initially opposed to any contact with the Western world, he came to understand that in order to compete with the industry and technology of the outside world, Japan must modernize itself and the abilities of the Japanese people must be put to work. He was inspired by the example of the United States, where there were no legal distinctions among social classes. His dramatic life ended prematurely, when he was brutally assassinated at the age of thirty-three.
Origins and early life
Ryoma was born January 3, 1836, in central Kochi, in the feudal domain known as “Tosa,” on the island of Shikoku, Japan. He was the second son of a well-to-do family; his father, Sakamoto Hachihei-naotari, ran a successful emporium. At that time, there were four distinct social classes, the shi-nou-kou-sho (samurai, farmer, artisan, and merchant in descending order of rank). In Tosa, the samurai were divided into upper and lower classes, joshi and goshi. The Sakamoto family belonged to the lowest merchant class, but Ryoma’s father bought the right to be a goshi, a lower class samurai. The difference between joshi and goshi was defined by strict rules; for example, joshi could carry an umbrella when it rained, but goshi couldn’t. Joshi were allowed to wear tabi (socks with a separate big toe, worn with geta and zori), but goshi were not.
At the age of fourteen, like many other children, Ryoma began to practice “kendo,” the way of sword. (Some historians say that his older sister enrolled him in fencing classes after he was bullied at school.) Through daily practice, he became very skillful and acquired self-confidence. His father, observing his son’s ability, believed that he could one day become a master swordsman and open his own school. In 1853, after Ryoma completed his swordsman’s training and received his certificate, he was sent to Edo (present-day Tokyo) to develop his technique in the school of Chiba Sadakichi. As he was leaving, his father wrote him a letter saying, “Ryoma, you must keep these three things in mind. First, you must practice harder. Secondly, do not waste money. Thirdly, in Edo, there are a lot of beautiful girls, do not fall in love with them easily. All you have to do is practice kendo.”
In the school, Ryoma became friends with Jutaro and Sanako, the son and daughter of Chiba Sadakichi, the nephew of Chiba Shusaku, then the most famous sword master in Japan. Ryoma improved his skills and became the strongest among the students in the school. At the age of nineteen, he received the second rank (shihan dai) in his school. He acquired a reputation as one of the strongest sword masters among the many young students who had been sent by their clans to study kendo in Edo. The strongest clans were Satsuma, (present day Kagoshima prefecture in Kyushu), Choshu (Yamaguchi prefecture on Honshu), and Tosa (Kochi prefecture on Shikoku).
Exposure to the West
In 1853, Commodore Perry of the United States Navy arrived with his ships in Edo Bay. Japan had been shut off from the rest of the world for more than 200 years in self-imposed isolation. The shogun ordered all lords of the clans to guard the Edo Bay, and students from Tosa, including Ryoma, were gathered to carry out the order. The experience of seeing the “Black Ships” from America made a great impression on Ryoma, who envied the power and technology of the west and became concerned for Japan’s future. He knew that Shin (the old name for China) had been conquered by the Western world, and he became a xenophobe, hating the foreigners and wanting to see them expelled by force. At this time, he wrote to his father, “I think there will be a war soon. If it breaks out, I will cut off foreign heads before coming home.” He was one of the youngest patriots, yet at the same time he wanted Japan to have its own ships like the Black Ships of the United States.
In Edo, Ryoma met Takechi Zuizan (also known as Hanpeita), his childhood friend from Tosa. Takechi tried to teach him about the problems Japan was facing, but the more serious the discussions became, the less patient and interested Ryoma was. In 1854, at the age of twenty, having completed his swordsmanship training in Edo, he returned to Tosa. There, for two years, he talked with Kawade Shoryo, who was famous for his knowledge of Western culture. Kawade’s knowledge had written a book about Nakahama Manjiro, a Japanese who had been shipwrecked in 1841, rescued, and taken to Hawaii and then America, where he became the first Japanese student in 1843. Since Japanese were not allowed to leave the country at this time, he was thoroughly interrogated by the government on his return. Through Kawade Shoryo, Ryoma became familiar with the politics, the economy, and social systems in the Western countries, especially America.
Ryoma was most interested in the fact that there were no class distinctions in America, and began to think that the Shogun would gradually become unnecessary in Japan. Returning to Edo in 1856, Ryoma found that the schools of swordsmanship had become centers of anti-foreign feeling. Ryoma continued to practice kendo and finally received the highest ranking in his school.
When he finished his studies in 1858, he returned to Tosa. In 1862, his friend, Takechi Zuizan, organized the Tosa Loyalist Party (their political slogan was, “Revere the Emperor, Expel the Foreigners”) consisting of mostly of about 200 lower samurai who insisted on the reform of the Tosa government. Since the Tosa lord refused to recognize the group, they hatched a plot to assassinate Yoshida Toyo. Ryoma participated in name only, because Takechi demanded a revolution for only the Tosa clan, and Ryoma thought they should to do something for all of Japan. He decided to leave Tosa and separate from Takechi. In those days, nobody was permitted to leave their clan without permission, on penalty of death. One of Ryoma’s sisters committed suicide because he left without permission. Sakamoto used the alias Saitani Umetarō’ (才谷梅太郎 Saitani Umetarō) when he worked against the shogun.
Change of heart
In December 1862, Ryoma decided to assassinate Katsu Kaishu. Katsu was a high ranking officer in the government, and had been commander of the ship Kanrin-maru on its first mission to the United States to sign the Japan-U.S. commercial treaty. He was probably the most progressive member of the Shogun’s government. His ideas on communicating with foreigners and his apparent support of the shogun aroused the anger of the young patriots, who thought he was caving in to all the foreigners’ demands. Ryoma went with Jutaro, the son of his Chiba sword school master, to meet with Katsu. Katsu apparently knew of Ryoma’s true intentions and persuaded him to listen to his views before taking any action. As Katsu wrote later on, Ryoma did listen, admitted his true purpose, and said, “I am ashamed of my narrow-minded bigotry and beg you to let me became your disciple.” After that, Ryoma introduced his friends to Katsu. It was an abrupt change in Ryoma’s way of thinking, and he became a trusted supporter of Katsu. At that time, it was Katsu’s desire to take the shogun aboard a Western ship; he was convinced that Japan should have a navy for protection from other countries.
In April 1863, Katsu persuaded the shogun to establish a naval school in Kobe. Katsu secured a pardon for Ryoma for fleeing from Tosa and appointed Ryoma as a head of the new school. At the age of twenty-nine, Ryoma gathered over three hundred samurai and friends from all over Japan, with no attention to class distinction. He selected Ronin like himself, who were masterless samurai or young samurai with no clan allegiance, so that there would be no danger of them killing each other in battle. After they learned how to handle the ships, Ryoma planned to send them to explore Hokkaido, the northern island of Japan.
Katsu introduced Ryoma to Yokoi Shonan, a loyalist leader of the Fukui clan and a scholar and political reformer. Yokoi shared his vision for the future of Japan, including a complete reform of the Tokugawa bakufu government, a reconciliation between the Shogun and the Imperial Court, the opening of Japan to foreign trade, economic reform, and establishment of a modern military along Western lines. He also envisioned a national assembly of the major domains, with the Shogun evolving into something that resembled a prime minister.
By 1864, Japan had become unstable. The Choshu clan had bombed Dutch ships, the Satsuma clan had fought with the British at Kagoshima, and more assassinations had taken place. The Choshu and Satsuma clans were attacked by a Western allied force that inflicted heavy casualties, which made them realize the formidable power of the West.
In summer of 1864, some of the Choshu clan held a meeting at the Ikedaya Inn to plan a coup which would involve the abduction of the emperor to Mt. Hiei. Kondo Isami, leader of the Shinsen gumi, an unofficial police force under the command of the government, learned of their plot, attacked the inn, killed seven of the Choshu, wounded four, and captured twenty-three. A month later, soldiers of the Choshu clan attacked the Kyoto Imperial Palace at the Hamaguri Gate, in another attempted coup. The Choshu were now regarded as enemies, even by the emperor, and all other clans including the Satsuma were ordered to attack the Choshu. Katsu met with Saigo Takamori, one of leading officials of the Satsuma clan, and told him honestly that the opening of Japan to the West was inevitable, and that as the government was unable to deal with this, the only hope for Japan was for a major clan alliance to take power. Taking Katsu’s advice, Saigo decided to refuse to attack the Choshu.
The government found that some of the naval students from Choshu had joined in the attacks on the Imperial Palace and closed the Kobe naval school. Katsu was ordered to back to Edo, but before leaving the naval school, he entrusted Saigo with the care of the students.
Unity between the Choshu and Satsuma clans
In 1864, Ryoma went to Nagasaki with about twenty friends and founded the Kameyama Shachu (“the company”), which would later become known as the kaientai (“Naval Auxiliary Force”). The kaientai is sometimes called Japan’s first corporation. In 1867, Iwasaki Yataro, the founder of Mitsubishi (at that time, a maritime trading company) took over Tosa’s business dealings, which by then included the kaientai. As he did not own any ships, Ryoma rented ships from other clans to transport his cargo. Saigo then asked Ryoma to manage the Satsuma ships, because the sailors of Ryoma’s company were more skillful than the Satsuma. Katsura Kogoro, one of the head officials of the Choshu clan, visited Ryoma to ask for his help in procuring arms for the next battle, because the Chushu had been prohibited from purchasing weapons as punishment for the attack in Kyoto. Ryoma had been pondering how to unite the powerful Satsuma and Choshu clans, and saw this as an opportunity. The Choshu had a large crop of rice, and were not able to buy arms. The Satsuma were short of rice but could buy arms. If the Satsuma bought arms on behalf of the Choshu in exhange for rice, the two clans might unite and be able to change Japan. Ryoma negotiated with the Satsuma and the Choshu, and finally succeeded in getting them to sign a secret pact in Kyoto on January 22, 1866.
The following day, with Miyoshi Shinzo, an official of the Choshu clan, Ryoma spent the night at the Teradaya inn in Kyoto. The Teradaya inn was Ryoma’s favorite inn, particularly because his girlfriend, Oryo, worked there. The government had learned of his negotiations with the two clans and sent soldiers to attack him. The story was recorded by Ryoma and others, and perhaps some of it has been embellished over the years. On January 23, Oryo was taking a bath in a wooden tub late at night when she noticed soldiers through the window and ran upstairs naked to warn of the attack. Over twenty soldiers broke into the house and ran up the stairs. Ryoma used his gun, but his fingers were so badly wounded in the sword fight that he could no longer shoot. In the struggle, Miyoshi, who was a skillful swordsman, wanted to continue the fight when more soldiers joined in, but Ryoma decided to escape. There were more soldiers at the front of the inn, but none in the back. Although there was no road at the rear of the inn, the two men crashed through the wall of an adjoining house in the dark. After running and hiding for a while, Ryoma could go no further and Miyoshi went to the Satsuma mansion and sent soldiers back to carry Ryoma to safety. Ryoma nursed his wounds at the Satsuma mansion in Kyoto, and Saigo suggested that Ryoma visit Satsuma for medical treatment with Oryo. It is said to be the first honeymoon in Japan.
In April of 1867, the Kishu clan, who were relatives of the Shogun, accidentally sank one of Ryoma’s commercial ships . The kaientai had become somewhat familiar with international sea law and Ryoma wanted to use sea law in Japan for the first time to secure funds for the ship’s replacement. He invited Westerners in Nagasaki to observe the negotiations and eventually succeeded in obtaining a rather large sum of money. During this process, he came into contact with Goto Shojiro, a high ranking official of the Tosa clan. Goto was born in Kochi, like Ryoma, and had become the counselor of his lord, Yamanouchi Yodo. Goto was concerned about the future of the Tosa and thought the clan should be part of a new government with the Satsuma and the Choshu.
Resignation of the Shogun
The anti-government clans prepared for war against the shogunate. Ryoma came to believe that the best plan to avoid war would be for the shogun to relinquish power to the emperor. Ryoma explained his idea to Goto and he relayed it to Lord Yamanouchi, who thus became the first to formally ask the for the shogun’s resignation. Ryoma outlined his ideas for the new government in his senchu Hassaku, or Eight Point Plan. The plan suggested that power should be returned to the emperor and that the value of gold and silver be equalized with that of other countries. In July, Ryoma brought about an alliance between the Tosa and the Satsuma clans. When Saigo read the list of officials for the new government which Ryoma had made, he wondered why Ryoma had not put himself on the list. Ryoma answered, “I don’t like the red tape and I have a dream that I will do business with Western countries using my ships.” In October of 1867, the shogun accepted the plan to return his authority to the emperor, beginning the Meiji Restoration.
In November of 1867, Ryoma was in Kyoto with his friend Nakaoka Shintaro. On November 15, they were both assassinated at a soy sauce shop called Omiya. Ryoma was thirty-three (according to the old lunar calendar, he was born on November 15, 1835, and killed on his birthday in 1867) and Nakaoka, who died two days later, was thirty. It is rumored that he was killed by the Shinsengumi (government police); Japanese history books report that his death was at the hands of his own men, who grew jealous of Sakamoto’s ever-increasing power and influence.
On November 15, 2003, the Kochi Airport was renamed to the Kochi Ryoma Airport in honor of Sakamoto Ryoma. There are many museums in and around Kochi and a notable statue at Katsura-hama.
Quotes from Sakamoto Ryoma
- “In whatever situation a person finds himself, he should not abandon his favorite ways and his special abilities.”
- “A hero should go his own way!”
- “Anything can be accomplished if you take responsibility for doing at least 80 percent to 90 percent of it yourself. Pass the remaining 10-20 percent of responsibility on to others and give them all the credit.”
- “I never do verbal battle with others, since even if I win an argument I can’t change the other person’s way of life.”
- “I am a person who raises himself up to the next level, rather than becoming discouraged.”
- “If you are a man, even if you die in a ditch during battle, you will die pitching forward.”
- “The purpose of coming into the world is to accomplish one’s duty.”
- Beasley, William G. The Meiji Restoration. Stanford University Press, 1972.
- Craig, Albert M. Choshu in the Meiji Restoration. Lexington Books, 2000.
- Hillsborough, Romulus. Ryoma: Life of a Renaissance Samurai. Ridgeback Press, 1999.
- Jansen, Marius. Sakamoto Ryoma and the Meiji Restoration. Columbia University Press, 1995.
- Kornicki, Peter F. Meiji Japan. Routledge, 1998.
All links retrieved December 22, 2022.
- Short biography, Portraits of Modern Japanese Historical Figures.