Changing history without needless bloodshed
Today Sakamoto Ryoma (1835-1867) is regarded as the most heroic samurai in history and a founding father of Japan’s modern age. He devoted his life to bringing about the Meiji Restoration, a political, economic and social revolution that fundamentally changed the shape of Japan. Ryoma never saw the introduction of this new movement, assassinated at the tender age of 33 because of his democratic, selfless and advanced way of thinking.
In 1867 Sakamoto Ryoma helped bring about the Imperial restoration through peaceful means by drafting an eight-point plan calling for a new government structure to replace the obsolete Tokugawa shogunate. To avoid conflict he devised a means of abolishing the existing shogunate but at the same time including the past Shogun in the new political structure.
Ryoma’s document contained various proposals that served as the foundation of the new Meiji administration. This included the establishment of an assembly, a governmental bureaucracy, a diplomatic service, a western democratic constitution, a modern military system and the Emperor as the titular head of Government. Later in the same year, the Tosa clan, of which Ryoma was a member, submitted an amended proposal to that of Ryoma’s, though still keeping the essential eight points in tact.
This plan culminated in and included Taisei Hokan (Restoration of Imperial Rule). So in the following year of 1868 Ryoma’s colleagues from Satsuma, Choshu and Tosa clans successfully negotiated with Tokugawa Yoshinobu (the last Shogun) the bloodless transfer of Edo and the restoration of Imperial rule.
Why is Sakamoto Ryoma so popular in Japan?
Sakamoto Ryoma is seen as an exceptional visionary, deeply concerned with the future of his people and nation, irrespective of personal cost, and for which he paid the ultimate sacrifice. He wanted change, however without needless bloodshed, and wished for a united country that included the old and new power brokers. He envisioned a modern Japan where corruption and ineptitude gave way to democracy and modern values. In 1863, Ryoma wrote in a letter to his elder sister, “I want to cleanse Japan.”
In the days of the post-bubble economy of 2001, when Japan’s indebtedness was nearly one quadrillion Yen, the Asahi Newspaper asked executives from 200 Japanese corporations “Who from the past 1,000 years of world history, regardless of nationality, would be most useful in overcoming Japan’s financial crisis?” The winner of the poll was Sakamoto Ryoma, the man who midwifed the birth of the modern Japanese state. It was still obvious for these Japanese executives that Japan needed a modern statesman like Sakamoto Ryoma with a desire to ‘cleanse Japan’!
In Sakamoto Ryoma’s footsteps
Sakamoto Ryoma was born in 1835 in Tosa domain (now Kochi). His childhood playground was Katsurahama Beach, and there is conjecture that his wide perspective was cultivated by looking out at the vast blue expanse of the Pacific Ocean. The Sakamoto Ryoma Momorial Museum is situated just before arriving at Katsurahama Beach, with exhibits dedicated to the life of this local hero who was instrumental in bringing about the Meiji Restoration.
In 1866, at Kyoto Teradaya Inn 100 policemen dispatched by the Tokugawa shogunate ambushed and badly wounded Sakamoto Ryoma. He survived the raid with help of his future wife Oryo, who ran naked from a bath to inform him of the coming danger. Soon after the incident at Teradaya Inn, Ryoma and his newly wedded wife Oryo went to recuperate in the onsen in Kirishima of Satsuma (now Kagoshima), on what’s said to be Japan’s first honeymoon.
Visitors to Kyoto can find various sights connected to Sakamoto Ryoma around the city. Ryoma is enshrined in the Kyoto Ryosen Gokoku Shrine with 1,354 other samurai who gave their lives for the Meiji Restoration. In 1868, the Meiji Emperor ordered the shrine be built in their honour. Ryoma is buried side by side with Nakaoka Shintaro, who was assassinated with him in 1867 at Omiya Inn in Kyoto. The path coming up to the main gate of the shrine is called The Road of Ishin (Restoration).
On 15th November, 2003, the Kochi Airport was renamed the Kochi Ryoma Airport in honour of Sakamoto Ryoma.