Who is Ryoma? He’s a topnotch swordsman who takes on 30 kendo opponents in a row and leaves them all battered and bruised. A natural leader with ambition that rages inside him like a black wild boar, he’s a rebel, a pragmatist, a patriot, a real hombre who gulps down sake like tea, yet also embraces his feminine side. Indeed, within him radiates a being like the goddess Kannon. Men admire him. He’s clumsy and shy with women, but they throw themselves at him all the same.
A man of action, Ryoma is also an out-of-the-box thinker who brought together the Satsuma and Choshu clans in an alliance which facilitated the Meiji Restoration 150 years ago. Not content with that, he laid out the “eight shipboard proposals,” which were a kind of blueprint for Japan’s supercharged modernization project of the subsequent four decades.
This Ryoma Sakamoto is a well-documented historical figure, yet also a product of the imagination of Ryotaro Shiba, Japan’s premier historical novelist of the 20th century.
Shiba, who died in 1996, is little known in the West, but remains a Japanese publishing phenomenon. His total book sales top 100 million copies, but even that understates his influence, given the huge exposure his works have received through TV serializations, films, and theater. No wonder he was termed “a history-creating historian” by Michifumi Isoda, the author of the recent best-seller Learning History from Ryotaro Shiba.
Ryoma! was Shiba’s most successful work, with its four volumes together selling over 24 million copies. As Professor Henry D. Smith of Columbia University explains in the fascinating introduction, Ryoma was a charismatic but somewhat marginal figure in the turbulent events leading up to the Meiji Restoration. His contribution might have been much greater had he not been assassinated in 1867 at the age of 31. “Whom the gods love dies young.” They don’t have time to disillusion us.
Today Ryoma is an iconic figure, revered by the Japanese public and politicians ranging across the ideological spectrum. His image has been used to advertise noodles, cram schools, cell phones, life insurance, and luxury cars. He appears in anime films, manga, even Nintendo games, and has an asteroid named after him. Most of this present-day fame is due to Shiba’s portrayal of him.
He originally wrote Ryoma! as a daily serialization in the Sankei Shimbun. He began the project in 1962, just 17 years after the end of World War II, and completed it in 1966, at the peak of Japan’s GDP-doubling boom, when society was in flux and a new breed of entrepreneurs, personified by Soichiro Honda and Sony’s Akio Morita, had appeared as if from nowhere and were going from strength to strength.
Ryoma himself is presented as a 1960s kind of guy. “A born entrepreneur by instinct and inclination,” he is from the lower echelon of samurai, which were deemed “the dregs of humanity” by the privileged and mostly useless upper samurai. His manners are rough and ready, he does not comb his hair or wash his face, and his kimono sleeve is white with the snot he regularly wipes there. He has little time for teachers, either—“all they did was grade you, insult you and implant feelings of inferiority.”
Shiba’s Ryoma opposes authority, but in a coolly rational way. While his friends and peers are caught up in the anti-foreigner frenzy, he expresses respect for “Perry, the American hero” and plans to set up his own fleet of black ships. He is also capable of being Machiavellian in the pursuit of his goals, counselling “the way of hard-heartedness and the way contrary to human feelings.” Ideologically, he is an egalitarian, wanting to abolish not just the Shogunate, but the clan system too. Yet, he is burningly patriotic. Doing something great for Japan is his sole motivation.
Shiba was noted for his thorough research and the most important characters in the book are real historical figures. Yet, some of the most intriguing passages are highly novelistic. Tazu-sama, the bold and beautiful aristocrat who disdains conventional morality, prefigures the independent “new woman” of the 1920s. She has no interest in marriage, which would constrain her intellectual pursuits, but is strongly sexual. In Shiba’s words, “a strange creature seemed to be writhing inside her, keeping her from sleep until dawn.”
It is the transgressional Tazu-sama who first suggests the idea, astonishing to Ryoma, of toppling the Shogunate. In Ryoma’s mental world at the time, “the Shogunate was Japan.”
The twists and turns and random ironies of history are Shiba’s great theme. A thuggish villager, who spends his time in jail learning bookkeeping, turns out to be the future founder of the Mitsubishi industrial empire, Yataro Iwasaki. A young lady, into whose bed-chamber Ryoma “night-crawls” (a rural “dating” custom) in the mid-1850s, sees some benefit 70 years later. Finding out that the now aged lady is living alone in poverty, the head priest of the local shrine persuades acquaintances to offer help on the grounds that “we can’t abandon a woman that Sakamoto Ryoma loved, if only for one night.”
Like anyone who says anything worth saying, Shiba has been criticized. Specifically, academic historians have questioned his somewhat Manichean division of modern Japanese history into a “bright” 40-year period from the Meiji Restoration until just after the victory over Russia in the Russo-Japanese War of 1905 and a “dark period” from then on, until disaster and defeat in the Pacific War.
It isn’t that simple, they claim, and are probably right. Yet the dramatic arc of rise and fall—of individuals and whole societies—has been a key theme in storytelling since time immemorial, and it is no surprise that a gifted imaginative writer saw the extraordinary events of recent history in such terms. Sometimes fiction can be more useful than scholarly classification in dealing with the mysteries of human behavior.
Japan badly needed Ryoma Sakamoto when Shiba wrote him into the popular consciousness in the mid-1960s. It probably still does. Perhaps all of us have a need for a Ryoma-like figure to keep us going.
The English version of Ryoma! is available, thanks to the support of self-professed “Ryoma fan,” trading house executive Akira Takahashi. The first shot in the four-volume project has been expertly translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter and Paul McCarthy. It is a lot of fun.
RYOMA! The Life of Sakamoto Ryoma, Japanese Swordsman and Visionary, Volume 1 (English Edition)
By Ryotaro Shiba
Amazon Services International, Inc., May 2018, 526 pages
Price: ¥1,072, including tax
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