Sakamoto Ryoma: The Indispensable “Nobody”

In June 1853, Commodore Matthew Perry of the United States Navy led a squadron of four heavily armed warships into Sagami Bay, to the Port of Uraga, just south of the shogun’s capital at Edo. What the Americans found was a technologically backward, though intricately complicated, island nation, under the rule of the House of Tokugawa, that had been isolated from the rest of the world for two and a half centuries.

Whether or not the Americans realized the far-reaching effects of their gunboat diplomacy, they now set into motion a coup de theatre which fifteen years hence would transform the conglomerate of some 260 feudal domains into a single, unified country. When the fifteenth and last shogun, Yoshinobu Tokugawa, abdicated his rule and restored the emperor to his ancient seat of power in November 1867, Japan was well on its way to becoming an industrialized nation, rapidly modernizing and Westernizing in a unique Japanese sense.

Quite a transformation in just fifteen years, and much of the credit goes to a lower ranking samurai from the Tosa domain named Sakamoto Ryoma. When Ryoma fled his native Tosa in spring 1862, he was a “nobody.” Although he was a renowned swordsman who had served as head of an elite fencing academy in Edo, and was also a leader of the young samurai in Tosa who advocated the radical slogans Expelling the Barbarians, Imperial Reverence and Toppling the Shogunate, in the eyes of the power that were he was a “nobody.” He had never held an official post, and he never would. When in the following October the “nobody” met Katsu Kaishu, the enlightened commissioner of the shogun’s navy, it might have been with intent to assassinate him. But, of course, Ryoma did not kill Kaishu. Instead, this champion of samurai who would overthrow the shogunate and expel the barbarians became the devoted follower of the elite shogunal official. Kaishu opened Ryoma’s eyes to the futility of trying to defend against a foreign onslaught without first developing a powerful navy; and to this end Japan desperately needed Western technology and expertise.