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Tuesday, June 8, 1999

The 'nobody' who changed Japan

Staff writer
RYOMA: Life of a Renaissance Samurai, by Romulus Hillsborough. Ridgeback Press, San Francisco, 1999, 614 pages, $40 (cloth).

Every country needs its heroes. Unfortunately, the great Japanese hero seems to have been a casualty of World War II. To this day, Japan tends to look all the way back to the Edo Period for its favorite heroes, including Sakamoto Ryoma, the "ronin" revolutionary who was instrumental in bringing about the Meiji Restoration.

Ryoma's life, as depicted in this new fictionalized biography, reflects the rapid changes his country went through in the 1860s. At the beginning of the story, Ryoma lived like a traditional lower-ranking samurai and held the same views, opposing change and abhorring any encroachment by the "filthy barbarians," as foreigners were then called. But he went through a series of enlightening experiences that helped him develop his modern, revolutionary ideas.

First, he became an expert swordsman, which gave him a certain renown nationwide. This brought him into contact with politically influential men in the revolutionary underground who were dreaming of overthrowing the Tokugawa dynasty's feudal "Bakufu" system that had ruled Japan for some 260 years.

Then he met scholar Kawada Shoryo, who gave him his first exposure to Western ideas and persuaded him that the only way to protect Japan against foreign domination was to adopt Western technology and knowhow. In those days, this was a highly nonconformist and dangerous idea.

Another major influence on Ryoma was the shogun's navy commissioner, Katsu Kaishu, who established a naval academy in Kobe and trained Ryoma in modern seagoing navigation. This allowed the young man to fulfill his dream of commanding his own "Black Ship" to defend Japan's honor.

Unlike most revolutionaries of his day, Ryoma sought only the long-term benefit of Japan. Hillsborough writes that "Ryoma's vision did not stop at simply overthrowing the Bakufu; he desired more than anything the abolishment of the entire feudal system which maintained the existence of hundreds of individual 'han.' He was aware of the necessity of uniting Japan into one nation, with a centralized government."

Practically every other man of influence had ulterior motives. Some were fanatically dedicated to attacking the foreign enclave in Yokohama, regardless of the hopelessness of gaining a military victory over the well-armed foreigners. Other activists wanted to overthrow the Tokugawa regime only to replace it with a similarly feudal system dominated by the southern domains of Choshu or Satsuma. And the central government in Edo (Tokyo) sought only to preserve its privileged status.

It was this kind of narrow-mindedness in his native Tosa (today's Kochi Prefecture) that led Ryoma to abandon his home territory and become a ronin, or outlaw. This was considered highly subversive and put Ryoma's life in constant danger, but it also brought him into the highest circles of power where he could have direct influence on the course of history.

His "freedom" as an outlaw allowed him to serve as an intermediary between the often feuding clans of Satsuma and Choshu. He could have clandestine meetings with members of the Imperial court in Kyoto and Bakufu ministers. He even found time to establish a private fleet and shipping company, said to be the first company in Japan organized along modern lines.

Hillsborough sums up, "After all, there was nobody who played a more important role in toppling the Bakufu than Ryoma. It was Ryoma who had united Satsuma and Choshu; it was Ryoma who had devised the plan for restoration; and now it was Ryoma who was proposing the plan for a new government." It seems amazing that a simple nobody from a remote province could achieve so much, but this book develops his character and career to make it all believable.

During one of the many civil war skirmishes, Ryoma is watching from a distance as a specially organized force of Choshu peasants armed with rifles attacks a unit of traditional samurai fighters from Kokura Han. He says, "This is revolution. Real revolution. Peasants fighting samurai and winning. I've finally seen it, and it's fantastic. It's time for the people to come to power. Soon there'll be no more samurai, no more 'daimyo,' no more 'han' and no more Bakufu."

With his easily readable and entertaining style, Hillsborough does a great job of elucidating the complex customs that ruled Edo Period life and politics. Since this is more a historical novel than a faithful biography, the author is free to put together lively dialogue and portray the characters from the point of view of an omniscient narrator. This goes a long way toward alleviating the typical dryness of a scholarly work of history.

Thus, the non-Japanese reader can fully understand the motives of each character in the drama and feel their tragic narrow-mindedness. Ryoma's genius was his ability to see the future and persuade others, including those at the pinnacle of power, to go along with his vision.

By focusing totally on Ryoma, of course, Hillsborough is biased and tends to depict other popular Japanese heroes of the era in a disparaging light. The Satsuma chieftain Saigo Takamori, for example, comes across as oafish and unable to think for himself beyond the borders of his own domain. Shogun Yoshinobu, another figure widely revered today, is seen as a dastardly enemy of the people -- until his timely abdication.

In various melodramatic scenes, Hillsborough may annoy readers by sticking faithfully to the standard "samurai drama" formula. When Ryoma first went to meet Katsu Kaishu, he was determined to assassinate him for his devotion to the Bakufu, but after talking for a while, Ryoma suddenly bowed his head to the floor and said, "Katsu-sensei, it was my intention tonight to perhaps kill you, but now I am ashamed of my narrow-minded prejudice. I beg you to accept me as your disciple."

And when news of Shogun Yoshinobu's abdication reached Ryoma, he "was ready to give his life for the man whom until moments before he had been prepared to kill." Ryoma exclaimed, "He's really made the right decision. I swear I would die for him now."

For modern readers, this certainly seems like overreacting but perhaps this kind of behavior was common back then. In any case, die-hard fans of Edo Period dramas would probably insist on nothing less.

But this book is also an eye-opener for non-Japanese with little previous interest in Edo Period stories. Many foreigners tend to look down on the silly macho sword fights of these arrogant and narrow-minded samurai characters, but this book gives one a sense of how similar today's politicians are and how little has really changed. The swords may be gone and the spirit subdued, but the Japanese soul is the same deep down.

Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi, on his personal Internet home page, lists Sakamoto Ryoma as one of his most admired heroes. There are dozens of "Ryoma societies" all around Japan, and an Asahi Shimbun survey recently asked Japanese executives which historical figures they thought would be most capable of dealing with Japan's economic and political problems of today. Sakamoto Ryoma received the most votes by far.

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