Saturday, August 15, 2009

Kitty's Political Side: Sakamoto Ryoma

Since we left of with the Last Samurai, might as well stay with a few more players in the waning days of the warrior.

Sakamoto Ryoma was a low ranking samurai from Tosa (present day Kochi prefecture, Shikoku island). He was renown as a master swordsman, but for the most part, not considered a samurai of much importance. History would later show a very different story.

Like Saigo of the previous post, Ryoma was drawn into the anti-Tokugawa shogunate movement in this home region. When efforts to break away from the shogunate were uncovered, Ryoma was forced into exile as ronin. During this time period, Ryoma "crossed paths" with Katsu Kaishu - an important official in the Tokugawa shogunate. When I say "crossed paths" it really means he was going to assassinate him, but somehow, Kaishu was able to turn the tables and show Ryoma the futility in trying to "expel the barbarians." Kaishu believed that Japan could not stop invading forces without modernizing its military forces. Ironically, they could not do this with out the help from other parties from the West.

A Genyo-era plushie: Kitty as Ryoma-kun, representing the popular ronin warrior-turned-negotiator and the Shikoku region.

So instead of assassinating Kaishu, Ryoma worked with him to establish a Naval Academy in Kobe, Japan. Ryoma was a faithful follower of Kaishu but this did not change his view of the Tokugawa shogunate. This would eventually force Ryoma to flee once again as the shogunate grew more and more apprehensive over outbreaks of subversive activity.

As fate would have it, Ryoma fled further south to Kagoshima where anti-Tokugawa sentiments were stronger and becoming more organized. Perhaps his time with Kaishu had changed him from master swordsman to master negotiator because Ryoma was able to do what was thought of as impossible; he negotiated a secret alliance between the enemy domains of Satsuma (Saigo's territory) and Choshu. This alliance and its forces would be key to the downfall of the shogunate.

In this double netsuke version of Ryoma, Daisy appears in a pretty pink kimono as Ryoma's equally famous bride, Oryo, a maid servant who according to legend helped Ryoma escape an assassination attempt by Tokugawa forces. Their trip to a hot spring in Satsuma (at Saigo's invitation) following their wedding is said to the first Honeymoon in Japan.

Unlike Saigo, Ryoma was not seeking to preserve the feudal system and practices of the samurai. He envisioned a democratic government like the United States, and recognized that Japan could not survive against foreign invaders as long as it remained a disjointed group of feudal domains. Additionally, he did not support the political annihilation of the Tokugawa regime. Hard for me as a non-history major to discern what his motives were but it may have been fear of the Satsuma/Choshu region gaining too much power or the risk of civil war and foreign intervention that moved Ryoma to quickly negotiate a peaceful resignation of the Shogun.

In his own letters to his sister, Ryoma knew that due to his actions and efforts, he would not live a long life and certainly the fluidity of his political views earned him more enemies than devoted friends. While the life of being a masterless samurai offered him no monetary and physical protection, it did offer the ability to act on his own set of political beliefs and vision of Japan's future. Sadly, at the age of 32, Ryoma was assassinated by a pro-Tokugawa group.


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