Japan: The Hero, Sakamoto Ryoma

Confident, charismatic, and ever so dashing, Sakamoto Ryoma (坂本龍馬) has always been one of Japan's favorite historical figures. Since NHK started to broadcast the historical drama series Ryomaden (龍馬伝: ‘The Legend of Ryoma’) this January, a nation-wide Ryoma boom has exploded.

Website for Ryomaden

Official Website for Ryomaden

Called a “renaissance samurai” in a biography by researcher Romulus Hillsborough, Ryoma was a key figure involved in overthrowing the Tokugawa Shogunate. The movement, fueled by the mounting risk of Western colonization, ended almost 300 years of feudal rule. Japan charged headfirst into becoming an industrialized country under a modern government headed by the Emperor, with doors open to foreign trade. The Psychology Masters blog offers a detailed description of Ryoma's life and historical significance.

Ryomaden is simply the most recent in the long line of books, movies, and TV shows based on the man. “Every year the television network produces one gorgeous high-budget historical period drama called the Taiga Drama”, explains Peter Payne. The Jdrama Weblog provides a list and comprehensive explanation of the main characters. Ryomaden will be shipped to other countries, too – Funn happily reports that the series will air in Taiwan with Chinese subtitles and possibly Korea, Thailand and Vietnam.

The present day perception of Ryoma is said to be shaped mainly by Ryotaro Shiba's historical novel Ryoma ga Yuku (竜馬がゆく: “Ryoma moves ahead”). As pigrilm_reader explains:

青春歴史小説である『竜馬がゆく』は、『坂の上の雲』と並んで紛れもなく司馬遼太郎の代表作である。 この小説を人生の一冊として挙げる日本人は特に多く、また功成り名を遂げた政治家や経営者が後輩に薦める一冊としても、この作品が選ばれる場合が圧倒的に多い。戦後に生きた多くの日本人を魅了し、 心を励まし続けてきた、まさに国民的な歴史長編と言える。

Ryōtarō Shiba's masterpiece is, without a doubt, the historical novel Ryoma ga Yuku, alongside Saka no Ue no Kumo. There are many Japanese who will name this book as their bible in life. It is also overwhelmingly the most popular book recommended to the younger generation by politicians and business leaders who have achieved fame and fortune. The book captivated and wholeheartedly cheered on the spirit of people who lived in post war Japan. This historical series is indeed a national novel.

From commemorative coins, beer cans to latte art, Ryoma's image can be seen everywhere. The Hopeless Romantic posted pictures of Ryoma seen around town while Time Out Tokyo listed up some places that Tokyoites can get a taste of the legend.

by Flickr user naitokz

One of the most famous spots to visit is Katsurahama Park in Kochi Prefecture [ja], which boasts a large bronze statue of Ryoma looking out to the sea. The Citynet blog reports that there's a temporary tower [ja] set up so visitors can get closer to the statue.

Takashi Yoshida comments:


The country is going through an unprecedented Ryoma boom. Kochi has always relied on Ryoma for tourism purposes. Even our airport is called Kochi Ryoma Airport. Making up 2% of Kochi Prefecture's gross production and 40.9 billion JPY nation-wide, the economic effect of the drama Ryomaden is huge. (The fact that my salary increased by 2% might give you an idea of its effect!) Having lived in Kochi for 11 years, I'm familiar with his popularity here but I'm not so sure about this national boom. Some places are transparent in their intent to make money while it can by riding the wave. From the Liberal Democratic Party to the Japanese Communist Party, politicians on both sides of the spectrum seem to think they're safe as long as they mention Ryoma.

Why does Ryoma command so much love and respect? Jon digs into this question in his review of Sakamoto Ryoma and the Meiji Restoration by Marius Jansen.

The fact is Ryoma WAS one of the most significant figures during the Bakumatsu. His personality, his character, his ability to develop relationships and create alliances allowed him to do what few others could have done. […] I think you will find many examples throughout history of famous historical figures who may not have developed many of the original ideas they are known for but they took those ideas and improved on them or used their charisma and skill to carry them through. Sakamoto Ryoma is no different.

Here is another reason given at a thread on Q&A site Yahoo! Chiebukuro. The corporation refers to is the naval trading company Kaientai. Ryoma's associate Iwasaki Yataro would go on to build the Mitsubishi empire.


Did you know that Ryoma was the founder of the first modern corporation in Japan? I'd say that he was ahead of his time in terms of business sense – his moneymaking skills were outstanding. That Ryoma used his talent for the good of the country, rather than for himself, is why he is so respected. You can't help but wonder what could have been, had he hadn't died so young.

Preview of the second season of Ryomaden

One of the most publicly enthusiastic fans is Masayoshi Son, founder and CEO of the telecom giant Softbank. Random fact: Softbank's logo is based on that of Ryoma's trading company Kaientai (海援隊). Last year, @masason tweeted:

来年の大河ドラマは、坂本龍馬。私が最も尊敬する偉人です。 日本の夜明けのために命をかけた。立派なことだと思います。 事業を通じて少しでも龍馬さんの心境に近づけたらいいなあと思います。

Next year's NHK Taiga drama is about Sakamoto Ryoma, a man that I respect more than anyone else in the world. He staked his life on the dawning of Japan's tomorrow. This is such an admirable thing to do. Through my own enterprise, I strive to reach closer to Ryoma-san's mindset.

Photo from Edo-Tokyo Museum

In 1863, Ryoma wrote in a letter to his elder sister, “I want to cleanse Japan once again.”

The letter was exhibited this spring at Edo-Tokyo Museum [ja] this spring as part of an exhibition to commemorate the NHK drama series. TJ Orosa reviewed the exhibition here.

While the words have been over-quoted lately, especially in the political scene, the sentiment hits close to our hearts. duku0312 blogged:

It is said that Japan in the end of Edo era where Ryoma Sakamoto lived looks like Japan now, with nearly one quadrillion yen in debt, hasn't caught up with globalization and whose people are concerned about their politics and future.

That is why Japanese are wishing modern Ryoma Sakamoto to appear. But…


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