Sakamoto Ryôma 坂本龍馬 – A Hero of the Meiji Restoration (1)

Sakamoto Ryôma 坂本龍馬 – A Hero of the Meiji Restoration (1)

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the Meiji Restoration (明治維新 or Meiji Renewal in Japanese), dated from the proclamation of the restoration of political power to the emperor on 3 January 1868 (or the ninth day of the twelfth month of the fourth year of Keiô, according to the old lunisolar calendar, which continued to be used in Japan until 1873).  So for my blogs this year, I have decided to introduce some of the Japanese men and women who are the subject of my draft manuscript for The Meiji Miracle, people who helped bring about the Restoration and shape the era known as Meiji, which lasted until the emperor’s death in 1968.

1. From Thug to Diplomat

Hakodate, on Japan’s northern main island Hokkaidô, was not where I expected to find a museum dedicated to Sakamoto Ryôma, one of the most popular heroes of Japanese history and one of the young samurai who helped bring about the Meiji Restoration. Born in the domain of Tosa on the island of Shikoku, in 1835, he never set foot on Hokkaidô.

But of course, having heard about the museum from a colleague, I was determined to include it in my sightseeing programme on my first ever trip to Hakodate. So, on a cold afternoon in early April last year, I entered the small, unprepossessing building that houses the Hokkaido Sakamoto Ryôma Museum 北海道坂本龍馬記念館. 

The unprepossessing entrance to the Sakamoto Ryôma Museum is easy to miss if you are not looking for it.

It seemed a weird place. From the entrance area with the ticket counter and souvenir shop, you cross a red-painted bridge of the type you see in some Shinto shrines to reach the exhibition hall. And opposite the entrance to the hall there hangs a huge portrait of Sakamoto Ryôma, complete with a box for offerings underneath it. Moreover, should you have managed to overlook it on entering the museum, as you step back onto the street you cannot possibly miss the massive monument to Ryôma just across the road from the museum. The wide access way to the statue is lined on one side with stands full of ema 絵馬 votive tablets, again reminiscent of a shrine. I almost felt there should be a torii archway instead of the nearby electricity masts and the tangle of wires they were holding up.

The votive tablets lining the path to the statue of Ryôma are reminiscent of a Shinto shrine.

So what is Sakamoto Ryôma’s connection with Hokkaido, or Ezo as it was still called in hist time? Once inside the museum, I soon found out of course, but in fact it seems rather tenuous, at least at first sight (more on this in a later blog). But the museum, proclaims the pamphlet, is intended to be far more than a collection of historical materials: as “Ryôma juku” 龍馬塾 or place of learning it is to support visitors in fulfilling their potential and ambition and shaping the future.

Besides the usual prayers for the family, health or success in university entrance exams, there are also more contemporary aspirations: 10, 000 views on Youtube.

For all the veneration as one of the greatest men in the history of Japan, however, and for all the period dramas devoted to his life and deeds, as a young man, Ryôma (we will refer to him by his given name as is common in his case) was actually a bit of a thug. Following the arrival of Commodore Perry in 1853 and the conclusion of the Unequal Treaties, hotheaded young samurai began to band together, discuss foreign politics and call for decisive action against the foreign threat. In March 1860, a group of them assassinated Ii Naosuke, the councillor responsible for ratifying the Treaty of Amity and Commerce with the United States in 1858, and the “Ansei purges” that cost many critics of the shogunate their lives.

Thus began years of loyalist violence against the shogun’s officials, foreigners and anyone else who seemed a threat to emperor and realm. The young men who perpetrated these acts styled themselves shishi, “men of high purpose”; their highest purpose and duty, loyalty to the emperor justified leaving behind their families and their lords to conspire with like-minded men. Emotions, rather than plans and strategies drove them on. They created chaos. The creation of a new order eventually fell to others.

Ryôma determined to assassinate Katsu Kaishû in December 1862. The shogunate’s naval commissioner, he believed, was “exercising an unfortunate influence” on the political scene by advocating that Japan should open its doors to Western technology and trade. Having obtained an introduction, Ryôma and a companion proceeded to the commissioner’s house in Edo. Katsu was expecting them: “Did you come to kill me? If you did, you ought to wait until we’ve had a chance to talk.” Astonished, his would-be assassins paused. Katsu pressed his advantage. The only way Japan could effectively fight the foreigners, he explained, was to unite with its Asian neighbours, build a powerful navy and develop the necessary technology.

This made sense to Ryôma. His powerful anti-foreign emotions, the excitement of conspiracy and intrigue, the glories of sword-fighting were all very well. But where would they lead without a concrete and rational plan? So Sakamoto Ryôma decided to work for Katsu Kaishû (1823-1899), and thus began his transformation from a hot-headed, sword-fighting young thug to a diplomat, whose mediation led to the crucial alliance between the shogunate’s most powerful opponents, the lords of Satsuma and Chôshû and thus, ultimately, to the political constellation that made it possible to topple the Tokugawa bakufu and end centuries of rule by shoguns, establish a new government in the name of the emperor and set Japan on a course that would enable the country not only to fend off the foreign threat but to turn itself into a prosperous and strong nation that could hold its own in the “great game” of Western-style imperialism.

(To be continued)

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