Ryoma Sakamoto – Rebel Without a Cause

Written by Cassie Lim, Be Movement issue 4 – INDIA, published August 2014

When I first came across the story of Ryoma Sakamoto, I was struck by how much he had done for his country by the time he died aged 31. He lived a full life, but lost it at an age where most people haven’t begun to figure out what they want to do with their lives. Ryoma’s sense of duty was so strong that it drove him to forsake traditions, become an outlaw and achieve things that most would consider impossible. So who is this fascinating man, who was called a “renaissance samurai” in a biography by researcher Romulus Hillsborough? Why is he important to Japan and what was his duty?

Great changes in history often require tremendous courage and sacrifice. Japan in 1836, at the time when Ryoma was born, was a vastly different country from today. It was under the rule of the Tokugawa shoganate (government), where the social order was unbending and based on inherited position rather than personal merit. At that time, the individual had no legal rights and the family was the smallest legal entity. In fact, this sense of community over individuality can still be felt in modern Japan.

Ryoma was born into a well-to-do family in a feudal area known as Tosa. His family was from the merchant class, which was the lowest of four distinct social classes: shi-nou-kou-sho (samurai, farmer, artisan and merchant in descending order of rank). His father was able to buy the rights for a samurai class. However, it was for a subordinate class and there were strong distinctions between higher and lower classes. Although Ryoma was subject to social prejudice since birth, he wanted to change the system instead of conforming to it.

Be Movement India issue Ryoma 2

Be Movement India issue Ryoma 2

Possessing outstanding swordsmanship since a young age, Ryoma was sent by his family to Edo (modern day Tokyo) to further his training and eventually open his own school. It was in Edo where Ryoma had his first exposure to the West, which dramatically altered the course of his life. He was one of the students sent by the Shogun (military commander) to guard the Edo Bay when Commodore Perry of the United States Navy arrived with his ships in 1853. Through self-imposed isolation, Japan had been closed from the rest of the world for over 200 years. Therefore, this was the first time that Ryoma saw the “Black Ships” from America. The majestic sights of the large ships with superior technology left a deep impression on Ryoma, who envied the power of the West and realised the repercussions of Western advancement and strength on Japan’s future. He was aware of the “Unequal Treaties” that had been imposed upon China for the last ten years and did not want the same thing to happen to Japan.
This was the catalyst of his journey as a reform-minded samurai, responding to the challenges posed by the West.

However, Ryoma required greater knowledge and began to learn about the politics, economy and social systems in the Western countries, especially America. What impressed Ryoma most was the lack of class distinction in America and Ryoma felt his task was to radically change Japan’s feudal system. In a letter that Ryoma wrote to his elder sister he said, “I want to cleanse Japan once again.” This desire to alter Japan made him leave his clan, even though it meant that he would become a Ronin, or a master-less samurai, which was disreputable and fraught with risk. His decision caused one of his sisters to commit suicide as a penalty. At the cost of his life, his reputation and even his kin’s life, Ryoma chose to fulfil his calling.

In a strange twist of fate Ryoma became a supporter of a man called Katsu, whom he had set out to assassinate. Katsu was a high-ranking officer and one of the most forward thinkers of the Shogun’s government. Because of Katsu’s close contacts with foreigners, most people misunderstood that Katsu was betraying Japan by caving in to foreign powers. When Katsu managed to get Ryoma to listen to his views (before killing him) he shared with Ryoma his true desire, which was for Japan to have their own navy for protection from other countries. Ryoma began to understand Katsu’s vision, which included total reform of the Tokugawa bakufu government (government of a Shogun), resolution between the Shogun and the Imperial Court, the opening up of Japan, economic reform and the establishment of a modern military. This fundamental shift in Ryoma’s perception set in motion his greatest contribution to modern Japan and kick-started the Meiji restoration.

Through Katsu, Ryoma became the head of a new navy school at the age of 29 and gathered over 300 Ronins to teach them sailing and exploration. A year later, Ryoma went to Nagasaki and founded the kaientai (“Naval Auxiliary Force”) which is Japan’s first corporation. Contrary to the astute businessmen in sharp suits that Japan is known for, Japan’s first modern corporation founder was a gun-toting samurai who wore boots with traditional clothes and disliked red tapes.

Ryoma’s love for freedom and space was realised in Nagasaki, which was Japan’s only window to the world at that time. Through his business dealings and naval expertise, Ryoma managed to unite the two most powerful clans at that time: the Chosu and Satsuma clans. With this unification, the clans began preparing for war against the shogunate. Capitalising on the threat of a civil war, Ryoma persuaded the shogunate to relinquish power to the emperor to avoid war in 1867. Ryoma also presented a visionary “Eight Point Plan”, which laid the foundation for the new Meiji government. This ushered in the Meiji restoration, and the peaceful abdication of the shogunate was Ryoma’s greatest contribution to his country shortly before he was assassinated on his 31st birthday (according to the lunar calendar).

What followed was the rapid transformation of feudal Japan into a modern industrial and technological power, with a constitution, a parliament, a nationwide compulsory education system, modern infrastructure, military and telecommunications in less than 50 years. Without the intervention of the rebel, Ryoma, Japan would not be what it is today.

“I don’t 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.  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!” – Ryoma Sakamoto •

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