Sakamoto Ryoma (January 3, 1836 – assassinated December 10, 1867)
Sakamoto Ryoma was one of the key figures in the overthrowing of the Tokugawa Shogunate, Still recognized as one of the nation’s great heroes of the Edo period, Sakamoto Ryoma was born January 3, 1836 in Kochi, Toda domain in Shikoku. His ancestors had been wealthy sake brewers, and it was his great grandfather who had paid for the privilege of obtaining the lowest rank of samurai hierarchy, being merchant samurai, or Goshi.
As a youth, he demonstrated exceptional talent as a swordsman, so much so, he was permitted to travel to Edo to refine his sword skills. Sakamoto trained at the famous Hokushin Itto-Ryu, gaining Shihan (master instructor) status and began teaching sword techniques there. In 1858, he returned to Kochi. Four years earlier, a fleet of American ships under Commodore Matthew C. Perry had entered Japanese waters, forcing Japan out of its self imposed isolation, and anti-foreign, anti Tokugawa, pro Emperor movements were beginning to form. While the Tosa leaders of the rebel group had only considered reform within the Tosa Domain, Ryoma had pushed for national reform. He then left the domain, (Prohibited at the time on penalty of death, and in fact one of his sisters committed suicide because he had absconded without permission) and targeted Katsu Kaishu, a high ranking Tokugawa official for assassination.
When he finally managed to confront his target, the man calmly asked to be heard before being cut down. Katsu Kaishu then explained his plans for increasing Japan’s military strength through modernization and westernization. Instead of cutting him down as planned, Ryoma became his assistant, not assassin. Together they created a naval force to be reckoned with.
Sakamoto Ryoma played an important role in uniting the former enemies, the Satsuma and the Choshu clans, which together would become a driving force that would topple the Shogunate and bring Japan out of 260 years of Tokugawa Rule.
On the night of December 10, 1867, Sakamoto Ryoma and his friend, Nakaoka Shintaro were staying at the Omiya Inn in Kyoto. A group of assassins had gathered outside the inn. Acting as a visitor, one knocked on the door, killing Ryoma’s former Sumo wrestler bodyguard when he answered. The group then charged upstairs to Ryoma’s room, and cut down both Ryoma and Nakaoka. The assassins then fled. Ryoma died that night, Nakaoka, two days later. Ryoma was 31 years old.
The assassins were never identified, although members of the Shinsengumi, and their leader Kondo Isami were accused and executed on charges of the assassination. Although members of the pro-Tokugawa group, the Mimawarigumi allegedly confessed to the killing in 1870, no action was ever taken against them.
Statue of Sakamoto Ryoma and Nakaoka Shintaro, Ryozen-ji Temple, Kyoto
Grave site of Sakamoto Ryoma and Nakaoka Shintaro
Ryoma’s grave marker, left, and Shinatro, right.
Sakamoto Ryoma worked not for personal gain, but for the good of Japan. His actions, and his beliefs, along with having been cut down in his prime, have made him a national hero to this day.