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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:

それにしても空前の龍馬ブームである。高知は以前から観光も龍馬頼みで、空港の名も高知龍馬空港。そして「龍馬伝」の経済効果は409億円で高知県の県内総生産の2%というから相当なものだ(自分の給料が2%増えたことを考えるとその効果の程がわかる)。私は、高知で11年暮らしたので坂本龍馬の高知での人気ぶりは知っている。しかしこの全国的な人気はどうだ。ブームに便乗して稼げる内に稼ごうという姿勢が丸見えの地域もあらわれている。自民党から共産党まで、保革を問わず政治家は龍馬を口に出していればまず安心である。

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.

龍馬が日本で初めて株式会社を設立したのは知っていますか。おそらく当時の日本で龍馬は突出した経済感覚を持っていた人物だったでしょう。つまり金儲けの才能がずば抜けていた。その才能を自分だけの利益のためでなく日本全体のために働かせようとしていたところが尊敬されるのでしょう。
そういった意味で龍馬が若くして死んでしまったことは残念でなりません。

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…

5 comments

  • Why would you use that post to claim that Sakamoto’s sayings were “overquoted” in the political scene? To begin with, it would be difficult to find a group of more idealistic and serious politicians anywhere in Japan.

    Second, why is it OK for businessmen to find commercial inspiration in Sakamoto, and for people to write historical novels and make TV shows about him, but not OK for idealistic politicians to take political inspiration from a true national reformer?

    I think you’re reaching here, and suspect you don’t know a lot about the people involved in that group.

  • I think it’s true to say that the quote, “I want to cleanse Japan once again” has been overused. At any rate, Ryoma left some other good quotes. This is my favorite:

    “In whatever situation a person finds himself, he should not abandon his favorite ways and his special abilities.”

  • […] bathing house became the setting of a popular manga, the country went wild over the samurai Ryoma Sakamoto, and the art of monozukuri (”making things”) met DYI and technology. Heritage also […]

  • […] anybody wants “in” on the mad popularity of Sakamoto Ryoma TV dramas, ”Sakamoto Ryoma: The Life of a Renaissance Samurai” the novelized biography by […]

  • […] dramas. The ultimate example was Ryomaden, which was about Ryoma Sakamoto, the Bakumatsu hero. The immensely popular drama spawned a pantheon of spin-off goods and a major tourism boom to Sakamoto’s home province in […]

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