Ryoma - Life of a Renaissance Samurai
by Romulus Hillsborough
Ridgeback Press, $40 Hardcover,
614 Pages ISBN 0-9667401-7-3
Review by Christopher Caile
This is an important fictionalized biography of Sakomoto Ryoma, an incredibly
adept 19th century statesman, warrior, businessman and samurai who was
a founding father of modern Japan -- a genius in a time when creativity
and independence of thought were rare.
The book is very readable and exciting. To westerners it opens up an
important period in Japanese history as it weaves together the complex
tapestry of ideology, events, life, culture and political/military forces
leading to the modern age -- all portrayed through Ryoma's eyes. But this
is no dry text. The dialogue is lively, and the personalities and views
of many important leaders are brought to life, mixed with a sense of drama
and history that holds the reader.
Ryoma lived during the political turbulence instigated by Commodore Perry's
forced opening of Japan beginning in 1853, when western power thrust open
this feudal, isolated nation. In the backdrop was western subjugation
of China and India which spawned fears of a similar fate for Japan. Suddenly
confronted with the reality of superior western armament and technology,
Japan was split on how best to respond -- some were dedicated to expelling
the barbarians at any cost, while others favored opening the country.
At stake was no less than the independence and future of Japan, as powerful
political/military forces jostled for position: the Shogun and the Tokugawa
regime in Edo fighting to maintain their political/military hegemony (one
they had maintained for hundreds of years), the Imperial Court in Kyoto
(under the Emperor) which many sought to restore to governmental power,
and powerful regional powers (hans), who plotted against each other as
their allegiances changed. It was this political cauldron that brought
forth Ryoma and other fascinating samurai leaders who piloted internal
factions into a modernized Japan.
The book begins with Ryoma's formative years. At first Ryoma's life was
uneventful as he grew up as a lower class samurai in his native province
of Tosa. But then he traveled to the Shogun's capital, Edo, and distinguished
himself in the study of fencing (kendo) and witnessed the arrival of Commodore
Perry's warships. He soon realized that feudal Japan was no match against
foreign technology and that samurai spirit could not stem the power of
Western armament. These experiences shaped him as a leading protagonist
in the overthrow of the Shogun. Later, back in his native province of
Tosa, Ryoma became associated with revolutionaries who spearheaded political
assassinations (by the sword) in the name of preserving Japan from foreign
influence and restoring the Emperor to power.
Seeking another path Ryoma abandoned Tosa to become a masterless samurai.
Leaving his clan without official permission was a crime which placed
Ryoma on a list of wanted men. Pledged to slay the Shogun's naval commissioner,
Katsu Kaishu, who is seen as a traitor, Ryoma became captured by the logic
of this enemy. This brilliant naval student and leader adopted the young
samurai (Ryoma) and gave him a powerful gift -- western naval knowledge
-- the modern equivalent to an internship on a Star Trek Voyager. This
knowledge became the key to a future political alliance with a powerful
clan, the Satsuma, under whose sponsorship he and his men started a western
style trading company and received the use of a ship. Ryoma and his company
supplied armaments (guns) to a rival clan, the Choshu, who headed the
revolutionary movement against the Tokugawa regime. This supply relationship
and Ryoma's personal political acumen helped forge an unlikely relationship
between these two distrustful and once rival clans -- an alliance that
eventually spearheaded the downfall of the regime.
In this drama Ryoma is a most unlikely candidate. He was among the Shogun's
most wanted man, an outlaw in constant hiding although he seemed almost
indifferent to his safety -- as if he felt protected by some powerful
unseen force. His lower samurai rank would normally have barred him from
association, much less influence over, powerful leaders. And his worn
and soiled clothes, unkempt hair and non-attention to personal hygiene
did not contribute to a heroic image. In addition he was brash and often
flaunted proper etiquette. Not what you would picture for a diplomat.
But his persuasive vision and ideals combined with judgment of people
and an almost uncanny sense of timing influenced a generation of great
leaders who would shape Japan's entry into the modern era. He also provided
an outline for action. Ryoma penned the political plan for the future
of his country by which the Shogun relinquished his power and reins of
government to the Emperor who sat over a union of former feudal clans.
Throughout the book the reader is introduced to Japanese samurai and
other leaders, political groups and regional military powers which, to
those not versed in Japanese history, may be at times difficult, even
daunting, to remember. But the confusion is worth the effort, for what
emerges is a riveting political and military drama -- the powerful story
of Ryoma which is so large that it is often difficult to remember that
the tale is one of history and not fiction.
To martial artists this book will open up an understanding of samurai
and the enlightened role they played in laying the keystones of modern
Japan. These were members of the feudal power structure and society who
saw beyond the narrow vision of their own heritage and position. One also
sees the role of early fencing societies (kendo associations) at a time
when kendo was not just limited to sport, but when its practice was used
to train those whose swords were tools of political and military warfare.
This book also educates the reader about the role within Japanese history
of the great southern Satsuma clan -- the clan which had earlier controlled
and then invaded and subdued Okinawa and the Ryukyu Islands and whose
ban on weapons spurred the development of karate.