When I took my first trip to Japan, I spent several nights in Kyoto in a ryokan in Fushimi. As we walked around, I noticed that the town was a virtual monument to a single samurai. The town is host to a full 1-kilometer trail dedicated to him, indicating notable places the samurai stayed, where he fell in love, and even where he was almost murdered. The samurai’s name is Sakamoto Ryoma (坂本龍馬; sakamoto ryouma).
I discovered that Sakamoto was one of the driving forces behind the fall of the Shogunate and the rise of the new Japan. I also discovered that, when you change the world, you make a slew of enemies. Ryoma’s life ended at age 31. But his legacy continues to inspire people well into the modern era.
The End of 260 Years of Peace
Before discussing Ryoma’s life, it’s important to understand Ryoma’s Japan.
For two centuries, since Tokugawa Ieyasu won the battle of Sekigahara, the Tokugawa family ruled Japan. The Tokugawa shogun (将軍) sat at the top of the power structure as the ruler of the bakufu (幕府), or warrior government. Japan’s Emperor had mere symbolic status.
Underneath the Tokugawa family were the daimyo (大名; daimyou), the provincial feudal rulers of the country. A select few daimyo were steadfastly loyal to the shogunate (often due to blood relations). But others – the hereditary vassals, or tozama daimyo (外様大名; tozama daimyou) – served under the shogun in a marriage of convenience. Any of them could grow powerful enough to eventually overthrow the central government. In other words, the daimyo represented a constant potential threat to the Shogun’s power.
The Shogunate’s Methods of Control
The shogunate responded to this threat through several means. One was a system called sankin kotai (参勤交代; sankin koutai). A daimyo and his family were forced to live near the shogun in the capital of Edo every two years. On the in-between years, they were allowed to return home. However, their wives and children had to remain behind.
This hostage-taking system meant the daimyo’s family lived under the constant threat of dismemberment. It was also a great way for the Tokugawa regime to hobble the daimyo financially. Retaining and traveling between two homes, after all, isn’t cheap.The mid-1800s in Japan was a time of increasing instability. Sakamoto Ryoma ended up being a man well suited to such turbulent times. Click To Tweet
Then there was tetsudai fushin (手伝普請). This was a set of public works projects imposed on the daimyo that also drained local coffers. Using these tactics, the Tokugawa family kept its subordinate rulers in line.
The Tokugawa family also created plentiful income streams and was skillful at placating the farming community. As a result, it pulled off a remarkable feat: 260 years of mostly peaceful, uninterrupted rule of a united Japan. The result was a cultural explosion that gifted us with many of the cultural arts that many regard today as uniquely Japanese. These include Kabuki, woodblock printing, and sushi, among others. Japan’s agricultural economy thrived and its population nearly doubled.
But no ride lasts forever. Eventually, the bakumatsu (幕末), or end of the samurai government, came to dawn .
The first cracks appeared in the early 19th century around the time of the 5th Tokugawa shogun, Tokugawa Tsunayoshi (徳川綱吉). The long period of peace in Japan allowed commerce to prosper. Ironically, this undermined the feudal, farming-centric economic model upon which the regime relied. The number of farmers who fell into poverty increased. As a result, so did the number of local protests and rebellions.
This increasing discontent didn’t go unnoticed by two of the largest clans in Japan. These were the Satsuma clan (薩摩藩; satsuma-han), located in the south in Kagoshima and the Choshu clan (長州藩; choushuu-han) at the southernmost end of the main island of Honshu.
With the rise of commerce, Satsuma in particular began to shine. It built ironworks and western-style factories, further enriching its own coffers. Choshu’s own growth and ambitions found it at odds with the Shogunate. In the 1860s, the two sides actively went to war against one another.
In short, the mid-1800s were a time of increasing instability. Sakamoto Ryoma ended up being a man well suited to such turbulent times.
Where was Sakamoto Ryoma Born?
Sakamoto Ryoma was born in 1835 (the 6th year of the Tempo Imperial Era) to a low-ranking samurai family in the Tosa clan, in modern-day Kochi Prefecture (高知県; kouchi-ken) on the southern island of Shikoku.
Legends about the childhood Ryoma tell of a kid you wouldn’t expect to become a samurai. Reputably a terrible student, Ryoma dropped out of school, after which he was educated primarily by his sister, Otome, who herself excelled at various arts, including swordsmanship, archery, and swimming. Ryoma found himself particularly adept at swordsmanship. Improving his skills became something of an obsession.
In 1853, enthralled with the discipline, Ryoma moved to the capital of Edo. There, he studied the Hokushin Itto (北辰一刀流; hokushin ittou-ryuu) style of swordsmanship under Chiba Sadakichi. Hokushin Ittou is often described as a “logical” reworking of other schools of swordsmanship. It compressed those traditions’ complex 9 levels of progress down to three. This reduced the time required to clear the system from a grueling 10 years down to a mere five.
The Black Boats Arrive
Just two months after Ryoma landed in Edo, Japan’s world changed forever.
On June 3rd, the first of Commodore Matthew Perry’s ships landed in Uraga Bay. History records this event as “the arrival of the black boats” (黒船来航; kurobune raikou). Perry brought a simple message to Japan’s leaders. If they didn’t open their borders to trade with the US and other Western nations, the US would open them by force.
Up until that time, Japan is said to have had an “isolationist” policy (Japanese: 鎖国; sakoku). Some thinkers, however, such as Aizawa Osamu, say this term is misleading . Japan wasn’t cut off from the world. Rather, the Tokugawa regime funneled all contact and trade through four points of entry. (The most famous example is perhaps the island of Dejima (出島) off of the coast of Nagasaki.)
The regime limited their trading contacts primarily with the Dutch. The shogun received a regular report directly from Dutch traders keeping them abreast of the major events in the world. In other words, the Tokugawa government’s goal wasn’t to “isolate” itself. Rather, it sought to control the flow of goods and information throughout the country. This approach also allowed the Tokugawa government to prevent Christian missionaries from gaining a foothold.
Chaos on Perry’s Arrival
This strategy was successful for well over a hundred years. But Perry’s arrival threw the country into chaos. Government officials and samurai scholars fiercely debated how to respond.
Many sympathized with this desire to repel the invaders. But the level-headed thinkers realized this was foolish. The primarily agrarian economy of the Tokugawa bakufu couldn’t respond forcefully to Perry’s demand for open trade. The Western powers were just too heavily armed.
A new movement began: sonno joi (尊皇攘夷; sonnou joui) – “revere the Emperor and expel the barbarians”. Its proponents argued that the Emperor should return to his rightful place as the sovereign leader of the nation. Furthermore, the country should muster its armed forces and chase out the foreigners.
Perry gave the Tokugawa government a year to respond to the US President’s request. A year passed, however, and the Tokugawa regime had no effective response. The government had no choice but to sign the Convention of Kanagawa (日米和親条約; nichibei washin jouyaku). The convention was a “peace” treaty with very favorable terms for the US. The Tokugawa then later signed another treaty with most of the larger Western powers.
The move angered Japan’s warrior class and undermined the Tokugawa government’s legitimacy in the eyes of many. One of the primary parties to the treaty, Ii Naosuke, was vilified throughout the country. In response, he led a round-up in 1858 of many associated with the sonno joi movement.
Two years later, Naosuke was assassinated. After 260 years of relative peace, Japan was entering into a dangerous and turbulent battle for the soul of the nation.
Sakamoto Ryoma the Ronin (浪人)
The arrival of the black boats seemingly fueled Sakamoto Ryoma’s desire to double down on his studies. The world was changing, but he still had a lot to learn.
Ryoma entered the school of the intellectual-warrior Sakuma Shozan (佐久間象山; sakuma shouzan). There, he studied gunnery, Sinology (Chinese and the Chinese classics), and Dutch. (The Netherlands were Japan’s primary trading and communications partner under the Tokugawa regime.)
Ryoma took a break from his studies in 1855 upon the death of his father, Hachihei. He returned to Edo in 1856 and resumed his learning.
Sakamoto Ryoma also entered into the debates surrounding the foreigners . The daimyo of the major clans began communicating amongst themselves about the best way to respond to the arrival of the US. We know from letters that Ryoma sent his father that Ryoma himself was a believer in the “repel the barbarians” rhetoric.
However, Ryoma also made contact with others who had knowledge of the world outside of Japan. Such figures included the thinker and artist Kawada Shouryou, who had spent 11 years in America. And there was John Manjirou, a former fisherman from Ryoma’s Tosa clan. Manjirou had made his way to America after being shipwrecked on a deserted island.
These new friends spun stories about what they had seen abroad, opening up Ryoma’s eyes to the wider world, and deepening his thinking. Particularly, they impressed upon Ryoma the huge difference in commerce that separated countries like the US and Britain from Japan.
Return to Tosa
Ryoma returned to Tosa. There, his close friend, Takeichi Suizan (武市瑞山; also known as Takeichi Hanpeita), sought to bring Japan’s clans together in resistance against the foreigners.
Both Takeichi and Ryoma became part of an organization in Tosa called the Tosa Kinoto (土佐勤王党; tosa kinootou), or the Tosa Imperial Loyalist Party. The Tosa Kinoto aimed to make the ideals of the sonno joi movement a reality. Takeichi asked Ryoma to make a key trip to the Choshu clan to gain their cooperation, as Ryoma was one of the few people he could trust.
However, the Party wasn’t able to achieve much change in direction among the leadership in Tosa. Tosa was home to classes of lower and upper-class samurai. Both Ryoma and Takeichi belonged to the lower class and couldn’t engage in politics. Tensions between the two classes had been flaring up in recent years. As a result, the upper classes sidelined and discriminated against the lower classes harder than ever.
The Evolution of Ryoma’s Thought
In this climate, Ryoma’s thinking began to diverge from Takeichi’s. Takeichi saw the only path forward as violence – i.e., progress through assassination. As Harada on the site meiji-revolution.com puts it, many in the sonno joi movement shared this fanatical devotion to their cause, which is akin to the attitude of the tokkotai fighters (the so-called “kamikaze” pilots) of World War II:
I think they put more weight on the idea that what counted was less the success or failure of an action, but on fulfilling their ideals and convictions by making a small measure of progress – even if it could cost them their lives. Even if the failure rate was high, I feel they saw the action itself as more important.
By contrast, Ryoma placed a premium on both individual human life and on human relationships. He began to see success, not in military terms, but in terms of building partnerships and bridges with others. Ryoma had a flexible mind that saw around corners. In his view, it was more important to understand one’s opponents and work to find common ground with them than to simply beat them into submission.
So in March of 1862, Ryoma chose the path of dappan (脱藩) – leaving his clan and becoming a clan-less samurai, or ronin (浪人; rounin). It was undoubtedly a tough decision. It was also a decision that changed the course of Japan’s history.
A Fraught Political SituationKatsu told in his own letters that he met Ryoma when Ryoma came to kill him, but Katsu was so persuasive in his vision for Japan's future that Ryoma became his pupil instead. Click To Tweet
Sakamoto Ryoma left Tosa with another ronin, Sawamura Sonojo (沢村 惣之丞; sawamura sounojou), and headed for Choshu. He soon discovered that the political situation was more complicated than he and his friend Takeichi had thought.
Some clans, such as Choshu, did indeed support the sonno joi movement. But others, such as the powerful Satsuma clan, favored a concept called Official Unification (公武合体論; koushiki gattairon). Under this plan, the Imperial Court and the Shogunate would merge into a single branch of government.
The sonno joi chose to address dissent by killing the dissenters. This spurred further violence between the two factions. In a bizarre twist, Ryoma – who had foresworn killing for diplomacy – came under suspicion of assassinating a Tosa politician. In fact, Ryoma’s friend, Takeichi, had ordered the man’s death.
Friendship with Katsu Kaishu
Ryoma soon met a man who would have a huge influence on his life.
Katsu Kaishu (勝 海舟; katsu kaishuu) was a warrior who would become an influential politician in the post-samurai era. Besides being a warrior, Katsu was a vaunted sailor who had made frequent trips to America.
He wrote in his own letters that he met Ryoma when Ryoma came to kill him. But Katsu was so persuasive in his vision for Japan’s future that Ryoma became his pupil instead. Many people feel this is a tall tale of Katsu’s. But regardless of the circumstances, Ryoma soon took to studying sailing and numerous other topics under his tutelage.
Katsu’s love of sailing, and his ideas surrounding naval power, were a huge influence on Ryoma. He also had deep political connections, including a relationship with the shogun, Tokugawa Iemochi (徳川 家茂). Katsu introduced Ryoma to other powerful figures, such as Matsudaira Shungaku (松平春嶽), the daimyo of the Fukui clan, who saw something special in Ryoma.
Sakamoto Ryoma Under Suspicion
These new connections would prove influential. Ryoma began to cultivate a vision of a strong, economically thriving Japan defended by a strong navy. In 1864, with the financial support of both Katsu and Matsudaira, he became headmaster of a naval school in Kobe. Around the same time, he met his wife, Narasaki Ryo (楢崎龍; narasaki ryou), commonly called “O-Ryo”, at the Terada House in Kyoto.
But circumstances soon took a grim turn. Back in Tosa, a rival decimated Takeichi Saizan’s Imperial Loyalist Party. As a result, Takeichi committed ritualistic suicide in July 1865. In a sorrowful letter to his sister, Ryoma vowed: “I’ll wash Japan” (日本を洗濯する).
Ryoma himself came under suspicion. He had many contacts in the sonno joi movement whom he employed strategically. Many of his students were not only supporters of the movement. They themselves committed several high-profile attacks on the Shogunate and supporters of Unification. This didn’t go unnoticed by the Shogunate, who shut down Ryoma’s school.
But Ryoma was far from done. Katsu Kaishu asked the Satsuma Clan to help out. Even though its political leanings differed from Ryoma’s, Satsuma realized it needed naval expertise – and Ryoma had it in spades. With funding from Satsuma, Ryoma, all of age 29, started Kameyama Shachu (亀山社中; kameyama shachuu), a private naval shipping and defense firm. It was the first company of its kind in Japan, and even today, some refer to Sakamoto Ryoma as “Japan’s first CEO”.
As it turned out, all of these seemingly coincidental circumstances – Ryoma leaving Tosa, his friendship with Katsu, his marriage of convenience with the Satsuma clan – put him in a position to change history.
The Satsuma-Choshu Alliance
As discussed above, the two most powerful clans in Japan, Satsuma and Choshu, were at odds over how to restructure Japanese society to deal with the threat posed by the Western powers. The two clans were effectively at war with each other: when the Shogunate moved to crush the sonno joi movement, it decided to attack its beating heart, the Choshu clan – and it leveraged the forces of Satsuma to do it. Choshu soldiers referred to Satsuma soldiers as “the Satsu Pirates”. The bad blood between the clans ran deep.The agreement changed the tide of Japanese history. Click To Tweet
But Ryoma, ever the strategist, looked past the clans’ differences, and found areas where they could cooperate. For Choshu, it was weapons. The Shogunate had forbidden them from acquiring sophisticated weapons from the West. This put them at a severe disadvantage against their enemies.
Similarly, Ryoma knew that Satsuma also faced a dire problem: rice production. Its yields were dropping drastically and the clan had no way to make up the difference.
In other words, each clan had what the other desperately needed.
The Satsuma-Choshu Alliance
Relying on a fellow Tosa refugee, Nakaoka Shintaro (中岡慎太郎; nakaoka shintarou) as a mediator, Ryoma’s company worked to secure a treaty. After two failed attempts at the negotiating table, Ryoma showed up personally to the third meeting and secured an agreement.
That agreement, the Satsuma-Choshu Alliance (薩長同盟; sacchou doumei), not only established trade relations. It also secured Satsuma’s commitment to back Choshu militarily if it was attacked again by the Shogunate.
The agreement changed the tide of Japanese history. Choshu now had Satsuma’s backing as well as advanced steamships and weapons. As a result, it was able to defend itself against the Shogun’s forces in a renewed battle in 1866 (The Second Choshu Assault: 第二次長州征伐, dainiji choushuu seibatsu). Choshu thus strengthened its own position while severely weakening the bakufu. With two of the largest clans now allied against the Shogunate, other, smaller clans hesitated to take the Shogun’s side.
While the Tokugawa government would hold on for another year, its fate had already been settled by a rogue samurai from Tosa.
The First Assassination Attempt
The Satsuma-Choshu Alliance made Sakamoto Ryoma a marked man.
In March of 1866, Ryoma stayed in the Terada House (寺田屋; teradaya) where O-Ryou worked. Accompanying him was a bodyguard, Miyoshi Shinzo (三吉慎蔵; Miyoshi Shinzou), assigned by the Satsuma clan.
While taking a bath, O-Ryou heard some 30 men from the Shogun-controlled magistrate’s office surround the building. She warned Ryoma and Miyoshi, who were able to muster their defenses before the guards stormed in.
The men attempted to seize or kill Ryoma. Ryoma used a pistol to shoot two of them dead while Miyoshi fended off the rest with a spear. But Ryoma’s hand was badly injured and he was bleeding profusely.
Miyoshi led Ryoma out of the building and tried to get him to the Satsuma residence in Kyoto. Unfortunately, her couldn’t find his way in the dead of night. The two hid in a wooden shed until morning. Miyoshi was prepared to take his own life through seppuku. Ryoma, however, persuaded him to leave him behind and seek out help from Satsuma’s forces himself.
Eventually, Miyoshi made it to the Satsuma residence. Shortly after, Satsuma forces retrieved a barely conscious Ryoma.
Rest and Recuperation
On the advice of his physician and the order of the head of the Satsuma military, Saigo Takamori (西郷隆盛; saigou takamori), Ryoma and O-Ryou took a 92-day respite in Kagoshima. It was perhaps the first time in years that the ambitious samurai was able to take a vacation.
After recuperating, Ryoma didn’t slow down. Besides tending to his shipping business, he became a critical figure in the discussions around the Restoration of Power to the Emperor (大政奉還; taiseihoukan). The leaders of Satsuma and Choshu were keen on bringing down the Shogunate through armed conflict. Ryoma, together with Tosa politician Kogo Shojiro (後藤象二郎; kougou shoujirou), worked to convince all parties to allow for a peaceful transition of power. Ryoma’s arguments won the day, and on October 13th, the leaders of 40 clans made a joint announcement that conformed in the main to Ryoma’s thinking.
Sakamoto Ryoma’s Final Days
It was the last great act of his short life. On November 11th, Ryoma and Nakaoka Shintaro were ambushed in Omiya in Kyoto by an assailant. Sick and separated from his sword, Ryoma was unable to defend himself. He died at age 31. His friend Nakaoka hung on long enough to give testimony about their assailants but died a couple of days later.
Who Killed Sakamoto Ryoma?
Ryoma’s assailant was never identified or captured, and to this day, his murder remains a mystery. There are four predominant theories :
- Kogo Shojiro, who killed Ryoma in an attempt to take full credit for the Restoration’s success.
- The Satusma clan, who feared what would happen if they didn’t remove the bakufu by force, took Ryoma out to undermine the peaceful transition of power.
- The Kishu clan, with whom Ryoma had a bitter legal dispute over a sunken ship.
- The Shogunate, for whom Ryoma had become Public Enemy Number One.
Whoever killed Ryoma, however, couldn’t stop the course of events. The Restoration occurred. Former samurai such as Katsu Kaishu transitioned from swordsmen to statesmen, and Japan began building up its industry and its military. Japan was on the path to modernization – and it owed a huge debt to Ryoma for bringing it there.
Sakamoto Ryoma’s Lasting Influence
Today, Ryoma’s story is often retold in products such as the manga O-i, Ryoma!, and the NHK drama Ryoma-den. It’s no exaggeration to call Sakamoto Ryoma one of the lasting heroes, not just of the Meiji Restoration, but of Japanese history.
Ryoma’s legacy was further popularized in 2014 by an installment in the Yakuza (Like a Drag) video game series that features Ryoma as the main character. The game is set for re-release in 2023.
On his sprawling tribute to Ryoma’s life, online author Harada sums up a number of reasons for Ryoma’s popularity. Sakamoto Ryoma was a decisive leader who was prepared to go to war if he had to. But he also possessed compassion and a breadth of thinking that was exceptional for his time. When others reflexively reached for violent solutions to the problems of the day, Ryoma sought first to negotiate peaceful strategies that included all parties.
The restoration of the Emperor put Japan on the path to Empire. The result was a host of tragedies, including the occupation of Korea, the invasion of China, and World War II. Many in Japan ask themselves: If Ryoma had lived, how might things have been different? We’ll never know. What’s certain is that post-samurai Japan suffered from the loss of his keen, large-hearted intellect.
Related Essays on the Bakumatsu Era
 5分でわかる江戸幕府！なぜ260年も続いたの？滅亡した理由や将軍一覧も. https://honcierge.jp/articles/shelf_story/4753
 江戸幕府が｢鎖国｣していたという大きなウソ. https://toyokeizai.net/articles/-/129161
 誰が龍馬を殺したのか、黒幕は…歴史作家・桐野作人氏が「真相」に迫る. https://www.sankei.com/west/news/171208/wst1712080007-n1.html
 「龍が如く 維新！極」試遊レポート！ 歴代「龍が如く」の人気キャラが新撰組隊士として登場！【東京ゲームショウ2022特集】. Akiba Souken