Sakamoto Ryoma is one of my favorite figures from Japanese history. He was a low ranking samurai who played an outsized role in Japan’s transformation from a feudal society into a unified nation bent on modernizing itself and catching up with the West. He appeared at a critical juncture in history and, like the Beatles, had a more profound effect on events than anyone could have predicted–given his low stature in society and the limited amount of time during which he was politically active. It took the Beatles eight years to change the world, it took Sakamoto Ryoma just five years to change Japan.
He made an enduring contribution to Japan’s modernization through his so-called “Eight-Point Program,” about which Marius B. Jansen, professor emeritus of Japanese history at Princeton, writes:
Almost the entire Restoration program is contained within this program of Sakamoto’s. Its language would be echoed in the Charter Oath of 1868 [Japan’s first constitution], and its promise would be the basis for the complaints of Itagaki and Goto that inaugurated the movement for representative institutions in 1874.
Sakamoto Ryoma’s Eight-Point Program was as follows:
- Political power of the entire country should be restored to the Imperial Court, and all decrees should come from the Court.
- Two legislative bodies, an Upper and Lower house, should be established, and all government measures should be decided on the basis of general opinion.
- Men of ability among the lords, nobles and people at large should be employed as councillors, and traditional offices of the past which have lost their purpose should be abolished.
- Foreign affairs should be carried on according to appropriate regulations worked out on the basis of general opinion.
- The legislation and regulations of earlier times should be set aside and a new and adequate code should be selected.
- The navy should be enlarged.
- An Imperial Guard should be set up to defend the capital.
- The value of goods and silver should be brought into line with that of foreign countries.
As you can see, Sakamoto’s program was made up of diverse elements. Taken as a whole, it could be described as a plan for a constitutional monarchy (point 1 is problematic though, as it could be interpreted as granting absolute power to the emperor. Ambiguity as to the role of the emperor was in fact a feature of the Meiji Constitution; a fact which played a large part in Japan’s prewar descent into military dictatorship), which was neither particularly progressive or conservative for the times. On the other hand, points 3 and 5 are quite radical, while points 4, 6, 7 and 8 deal with practical considerations necessary for Japan’s self defense, and for it to emerge as a modern nation on the world stage.
Given Sakamoto Ryoma’s background, The Eight Point Program was a remarkable achievement; both for the fact that he was able to conceive of such a forward-looking blueprint, and that he was able to get people in positions of power and influence to listen to him.
Sakamoto Ryoma was born in 1835, in Tosa, a powerful feudal domain on the southern island of Shikoku–the youngest son of a goshi samurai. Goshi was the very lowest rank of samurai–they were disparagingly called “country samurai,” but rank and wealth did not necessarily go hand in hand in Edo era Japan. The Sakamotos were descendants of a well-to-do merchant who had made successes of a pawn shop and a sake brewery in the mid-16th century. A century later, in 1771 to be exact, the Sakamotos entered the ranks of the samurai when one of their ancestors was granted goshi status, just 64 years before Ryoma’s birth.
Sakamoto Ryoma’s family was not of high status, but they were well off enough to enroll Ryoma in a private school in the castle town of Kochi when he was twelve. This was a short-lived episode in his life as he showed little scholarly inclination. When he was fourteen, he took up fencing, or kenjutsu, at which he excelled. He became one of the top swordsmen in his dojo, and an accredited practitioner of the discipline in 1853, when he was nineteen. That same year, he moved to Edo and joined the Kyobashi Fencing Academy, the respected dojo of Chiba Sadakichi, in order to hone his sword fighting skills. This was fateful timing, because it was in 1853 that Commodore Matthew Perry arrived in Uraga Harbor, near Edo, with his “black ships,” determined to pry open the hermit kingdom that Japan at that time was. The sight the four American warships, two of them steam powered, made a big impression on the young Sakamoto–as it did on all of his countrymen.
The kenjutsu sphere that Sakamoto existed in was one of hot tempers and extreme politics. Edo’s fencing academies, training students who were for the most part ambitious goshi samurai like Ryoma, were hotbeds of radicalized young samurai eager to expel the foreign devils. As the months and years passed, and the militarily inferior Tokugawa government was forced to make greater and greater concessions to the foreign “barbarians”–even permitting them to build settlements on the sacred land of Japan–the radicals became ever more nationalistic and xenophobic. Under the slogan, “sonno-joi”, (revere the Emperor, expel the barbarians) they called for the expulsion of all foreigners from Japanese soil, the reinstatement of the Emperor as the sole power of Japan, and the assassination of those Japanese officials whom they viewed as collaborators and traitors.
Sakamoto Ryoma held these same views, as did the great majority of the young samurai of the times; he accused the Tokugawa Shogunate of cowardice, selfishness and duplicity, and of being “hand in glove with the barbarians.”
His life was changed though, when he met one of the most interesting and influential men of his era. His fateful meeting with Katsu Kaishu occurred under slightly unusual circumstances as Sakamoto had gone to Katsu’s house in order to assassinate him. Katsu Kaishu was a scholar of “Dutch learning,” or the study of Western knowledge. He had even established his own academy of Western learning. Furthermore, Katsu had been a member of the first Japanese embassy to the United States in 1860. All of this, plus the fact that he advocated an open Japan policy, meant that in Sakamoto Ryoma’s eyes, Katsu was a foreign appeaser and enemy of the emperor. In December of 1862, Sakamoto Ryoma and an accomplice went to Katsu’s house with the aim to kill him. But, according to the account of Matsudaira Shungaku (the contact who helped them gain entrance to Katsu’s residence), as they entered his house, Katsu Kaishu inquired, “Did you come to kill me? If you did, you ought to wait until we’ve had a chance to talk.” Again, according to Matsudaira, “after hearing Katsu’s explanations they were deeply impressed and full of admiration.”
It was a case of mutual admiration. Katsu took Sakamoto under his wing, and Ryoma became a willing disciple. Here is how he described his good fortune in a letter to his sister:
I must say that it’s beyond me the way things work out in a man’s life. Some fellows have such bad luck that they bang their privates on getting out of a bath tub and die as a result. When you compare my luck with that, it’s really remarkable. Here I was on the point of death, and I didn’t die. I really thought I was going to, and instead I am to live. Now I have become the disciple of the greatest man in Japan, Katsu Kaishu, and every day I can spend on things I’ve dreamed about. Even if I should live to be forty, I wouldn’t think of leaving this to return home. I’ve told elder brother about this too; he’s in good spirits, and gives his approval. I’m giving everything I have for the province and the country.
Katsu Kaishu was not the only influential contact that Sakamoto was able to develop. By all accounts, he had confidence, a quick intelligence complimented by a practical bent, unusual powers of persuasion, and most importantly, a warm and engaging personality; he also possessed the traditional samurai virtues of calm courage and an improvident nonchalance when it came to money. Thanks to all of these qualities, he he was blessed with many friends, admirers and contacts.
Sakamoto Ryoma is most famous for, in 1866, successfully brokering a military alliance between Satsuma and Choshu–two militarily powerful domains that had traditionally been bitter rivals. This was no mean feat as there was no love lost and plenty of mutual suspicion between the two domains. The alliance sealed the fate of the Tokugawa shogunate, which was defeated in the subsequent Boshin War. The Boshin war was a particularly bloody one with a high number of casualties–a fact that is sometimes elided over to romanticize Sakamoto Ryoma’s role in the Meiji Restoration as having been one of engineering a “bloodless revolution.”
Sakamoto Ryoma did endeavor to make Japan’s transition from a feudal to a modern unified nation a peaceful one, but given the volatile times in which he lived, it’s not surprising that he failed in that endeavor. Also, given the volatile times in which he lived, it’s not surprising that he had enemies as well as friends. He didn’t live to see Japan become the strong, unified country he had envisioned. Sakamoto Ryoma was assassinated on December 10, 1867, one month before the coup d’etat that toppled the shogun, restored the emperor to power, and put Japan on the path to eventually become a modern nation-state, based to a large extent on his own Eight-Point Program.