Sakamoto Ryōma

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Sakamoto Ryōma
Born January 3, 1836
Kōchi, Tosa Domain
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Cause of death assassination
Nationality Japan
Other names Imina  Naokage, Naonari
Occupation Samurai, politician
Spouse(s) Narasaki Ryō
Parent(s) Hachihei (Naotari), Sachi

Sakamoto Ryōma (坂本 龍馬?, January 3, 1836 – December 10, 1867) was a prominent figure in the movement to overthrow the Tokugawa shogunate during the Bakumatsu period in Japan. One of his most noted accomplishments during this period was the negotiation of peace between Chōshū and Satsuma, two powerful provinces that had long been hostile to each other. He then united them against the Bakufu, the government that supported the Tokugawa shogun. Ryōma frequently used the alias Saitani Umetarō (才谷梅太郎?) during this period, as he was often hunted by Bakufu supporters, such as members of the Shinsengumi. He was ultimately attacked and murdered, along with his companion Nakaoka Shintarō, at an inn in Kyoto. Although many suspects have been named the identities of the assassins have never been confirmed.

Early life

Ryōma was born in Kōchi, of Tosa han (present day Kōchi Prefecture), on the island of Shikoku. By the Japanese calendar, he was born on the 15th day of the 11th month, of the sixth year of Tenpō. Previous generations of his family had acquired enough wealth as sake brewers to purchase the rank of merchant samurai, or goshi (ja:郷士), which was the lowest rank in the samurai hierarchy. Unlike other domains, Tosa had a strictly-enforced separation between joshi (high-ranked samurai) and kashi (low-ranked samurai). Joshi and kashi were treated unequally and residential areas were segregated; even in Sakamoto Ryōma's generation (the third in the Sakamoto family), his family's samurai rank remained kashi. At the age of twelve, Ryōma was enrolled in a private school, but this was a brief episode in his life, as he showed little scholarly inclination.

His older sister subsequently enrolled him in fencing classes of the Oguri-ryū when he was 14, after he was bullied at school. By the time he reached adulthood he was by all accounts a master swordsman. In 1853 he was allowed by his clan to travel to Edo to train and polish his skills as a swordsman. There he enrolled as a student at the famous Hokushin Ittō-ryū Hyōhō Chiba-Dōjō, which was led by its first Headmaster Chiba Sadakichi Masamichi at that time. He received the scroll from the school that declared his mastery.[1] He became a shihan at the Chiba-Dōjō and taught Kenjutsu to the students together with Chiba Jūtarō Kazutane, in whom he found a close friend. That year, Commodore Matthew C. Perry of the United States arrived with a fleet of ships to force Japan out of its centuries-old national isolation policy.


When Ryōma completed his studies in 1858, he returned to Tosa. In 1862, his friend, Takechi Hanpeita (or Takechi Zuizan), organized the Tosa Loyalist Party "Kinnoto". Their political slogan was, "Revere the Emperor, Expel the Foreigners". It consisted of about 200 samurai, mostly from the lower rank, who insisted on the reform of the Tosa government. Since the Tosa lord refused to recognize the group, they plotted to assassinate Yoshida Toyo (who was later assassinated, but after Ryōma had left Tosa). Ryōma participated in the plot but did not advocate it; Takechi demanded a revolution for only the Tosa clan, and Ryōma thought they should do something for all of Japan. He decided to leave Tosa and separate from Takechi. In those days, no one was permitted to leave their clan without permission, on penalty of death. One of Ryōma's sisters committed suicide because he left without permission. Sakamoto would later use the alias "Saitani Umetarō" (才谷 梅太郎) as he worked against the shogun.[2]

Bakumatsu period

While a ronin, Ryōma decided to assassinate Katsu Kaishū, a high-ranking official in the Tokugawa shogunate and a supporter of both modernization and westernization. However, Katsu Kaishū persuaded Ryōma of the necessity of a long-term plan to increase Japan's military strength. Instead of killing Katsu Kaishū, Ryōma started working as his assistant and protégé.

In 1864, as the Tokugawa shogunate began taking a hard line, Ryōma fled to Kagoshima in Satsuma Domain, which was developing as a major centre for the anti-Tokugawa movement. Ryōma negotiated the secret alliance between Chōshū and Satsuma provinces. Satsuma and Chōshū historically had been irreconcilable enemies, and Ryōma's position as a "neutral outsider" was critical in bridging the gap in trust.

Ryōma is often regarded as the "father of the Imperial Japanese Navy", as he worked under Katsu Kaishū's direction toward creating a modern naval force (with the aid of western powers) to enable Satsuma and Chōshū to hold their own against the naval forces of the Tokugawa shogunate.[citation needed] Ryōma founded the private navy and trading company Kameyama Shachū (亀山社中) in Nagasaki City with the help of Satsuma. Later Kameyama Shachū became Kaientai or Ocean Support Fleet.

Chōshū's subsequent victory over the Tokugawa army in 1866 and the impending collapse of the Tokugawa shogunate made Ryōma a valuable commodity to his former masters in Tosa. Ryōma was recalled to Kōchi with honours. The Tosa domain was anxious to obtain a negotiated settlement between the Shogun and the Emperor, which would prevent the powerful Satchō Alliance from overthrowing the Tokugawa by force and thus emerging as a new dominant force in ruling Japan. Ryōma again played a crucial role in the subsequent negotiations that led to the voluntary resignation of the Shogun Tokugawa Yoshinobu in 1867, thus bringing about the Meiji Restoration.

Ryōma was an admirer of democratic principles. Ryōma began studying democratic governance, particularly the United States Congress and British Parliament as a model for the governance of Japan after the Restoration. Ryōma argued that after centuries of having little political power, the Imperial Court lacked the resources and wherewithal to run the country. Ryōma wrote the "Eight Proposals While Shipboard" (船中八策)while discussing the future model of Japanese government with Goto Shojiro on board a Tosa ship outside Nagasaki in 1867. Ryōma outlined the need for a democratically elected bicameral legislature, the writing of a Constitution, the formation of a national army and navy, and the regulation of gold and silver exchange rates. Ryōma's proposals are thought to form the basis for the subsequent parliamentary system implemented after his death.


Ryōma was assassinated at the age of 31 at the Ōmiya (近江屋) inn in Kyoto, not long before the Meiji Restoration took place. On the night of December 10, 1867, assassins gathered at the door of the inn and one approached and knocked, acting as an ordinary caller. The door was answered by Ryōma's bodyguard and manservant, a former sumo wrestler who told the stranger he would see if Ryōma was accepting callers at that hour of the evening. When the bodyguard turned his back, the visitor at the door drew his sword and slashed his back, which became a fatal wound. The team of assassins rushed over and passed the dying sumo wrestler and up the stairs to the guests' rooms. Ryōma and Nakaoka Shintarō were resting in one room talking. Hearing the scuffle on the first floor, Ryōma opened the door to yell at his bodyguard, thinking he was wrestling with a friend. The assassins charged the room, some tearing through the paper doors (shōji), and confused melée ensued as lamps were knocked over and the room went dark. By the end of the fight, both Ryōma and Shintaro lay badly wounded, and the assassins fled. Ryōma died that night, regretting with his last words that his assassins caught him unprepared. Shintaro died two days later.

The night of the assassination was eventually called the Omiya Incident. According to the traditional lunar calendar, Ryōma was born on the 15th day of the 11th month, and killed on his birthday in 1867. Initial reports accused members of the Shinsengumi for Ryōma's and Shintarō's deaths, and Shinsengumi leader Kondō Isami was later executed on this charge. However, members of another pro-Shogun group, the Mimawarigumi, confessed to the murder in 1870. Although Mimawarigumi members Sasaki Tadasaburō (佐々木 只三郎) and Imai Nobuo carry the blame, the true assassin has never been proven.[3]


File:Teradaya fg2.jpg
Teradaya inn, Kyoto, where Ryōma was attacked and fatally injured

Ryōma was a visionary who dreamt of an independent Japan without any feudal trappings. He read about and was inspired by the example of the United States where "all men are created equal". He realized that in order to compete with an industrially and technologically advanced outside world, the Japanese people needed to modernize. He has also been seen as an intriguing mix of the traditional and modern, symbolized by his preference for samurai dress while favoring western footwear.[citation needed]

Ryōma has been heavily featured and romanticized in popular culture.[citation needed]

Honors in modern times

On 15 November 2003, the Kōchi Airport was renamed the Kōchi Ryōma Airport in his honor.

There is a Sakamoto Ryōma Memorial Museum (坂本龍馬記念館) south of Kōchi, with a large bronze statue of Ryoma overlooking the sea. The city of Kōchi has a number of Ryōma-themed attractions and locations, including the Sakamoto Ryōma Birthplace Memorial, and the Sakamoto Ryōma Hometown Museum, dedicated to showing what downtown Kōchi was like during Ryōma's childhood, including relevant aspects that may have influenced his views. On 15 November 2009, the Hokkaidō Sakamoto Ryōma Memorial Museum was built in Hakodate, Hokkaido.

Asteroid 2835 Ryoma is named after him. Asteroid 5823 Oryo is named after his wife.



  • Father Yahei (Imina Naotari)
  • Mother Sachi


  • Iyo


  • Gonbei (the elder)


  • Chizu (the eldest)
  • Ei (the second)
  • Tome (the third)



  • Tarō (adopted child, Chizu's child)

In popular culture

An April 2010 Japan Times article wrote "Ryōma has inspired at least seven television drama series, six novels, seven manga and five films."[4] His appeal stems from being "the kind of person onto whom anyone can project themselves", as actor Masaharu Fukuyama described his role playing him in the NHK drama Ryōmaden.[5]

Sakamoto is a recurring character in the NHK Taiga Drama: Shinsengumi!. He is portrayed as a friend of Kondō Isami since their younger days. In the drama he is assassinated by Sasaki Tadasaburō and the Mimawarigumi.

Sakamoto appears in the historical manga Shura no Toki, which was later adapted into the anime, Mutsuen Meiryū Gaiden: Shura no Toki. In addition, he also makes appearances, with varying levels of historical accuracy, in numerous other manga, anime, and video games, as well as a power-up on Kamen Rider Ghost, granting him the Ryōma Damashii form.


See also


  1. Kyodo, Staff Report, "Sakamoto swordsmanship scroll declared authentic", The Japan Times, Nov 9, 2015
  2. Hongo, Jun, "Sakamoto, the man and the myth", The Japan Times, April 27, 2010, p. 3.
  3. Gombrich, Marius, "Crime scene investigation: Edo: Samurai Sakamoto Ryoma's murder scene makes a grisly but fascinating show", The Japan Times, May 7, 2010, p. 15.
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External links