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While Ryoma was painfully aware of necessity to eliminate shogunate, means for revolution eluded him. Having abandoned Tosa, he was a ronin, an outlaw samurai - a status which at once aided and confounded him. Unlike his comrades-in-arms from Choshu, Satsuma and other samurai clans, he was not bound to service of feudal lord and clan. On other hand he did not enjoy financial support and protection of a powerful feudal domain. After much trial and tribulation, and as his first giant step toward realizing his great objective, Ryoma devised a preposterous plan of convincing Satsuma and Choshu to join forces with one another as only means to topple shogunate. But Satsuma and Choshu were bitter enemies whose hate for one another surpassed even that hate which they had historically harbored toward Tokugawa. What's more, braggart Ryoma had a reputation for exaggerating. When he told his friends of his plan, some initially dismissed it as so much "hot air," while others simply thought he was crazy. But in addition to many other talents, Ryoma, a truly Renaissance man, was endowed with an uncanny power of persuasion. After a year of planning and negotiation, in January 1866, Ryoma, now an indispensable "nobody," successfully brokered a military alliance between Satsuma and Choshu, which more than anything else hastened collapse of Tokugawa Shogunate.
Although shogunate had not yet learned of secret alliance, Tokugawa police agents strongly suspected that Ryoma was up to no good. On night after alliance was sealed in Kyoto, Ryoma was ambushed by a Tokugawa police squad, as he and a samurai of Choshu, who had been assigned as Ryoma's bodyguard, celebrated their great success in a second-story room at Ryoma's favorite inn, Teradaya, on outskirts of Imperial capital. A young maidservant at inn, named Oryo, had been soaking in a hot bath when she heard assailants break into house. Oryo immediately ran from bathroom stark naked up dark staircase to warn two men upstairs. The scene is a very famous one, as is ensuing battle, during which Ryoma wielded a Smith & Wesson revolver, his bodyguard a lethal spear, to fend off their assailants and escape through backdoor. Equally famous is wedding between Ryoma and Oryo, which took place soon after, and their subsequent trip to hot-spring baths in Kirishima mountains of Satsuma, which was supposedly first honeymoon in Japan.
In spring 1867, Ryoma established his Kaientai, Japan's first modern corporation and precursor to Mitsubishi. Based in international port-city of Nagasaki, Kaientai was a private navy and shipping firm through which Ryoma and his men ran guns for Choshu and Satsuma revolutionaries.
In previous June, Ryoma had commanded a warship in a sea-battle off Shimonoseki, in which he aided Choshu's Extraordinary Corps, Japan's first modern militia, comprising both samurai and peasants, in a rout of Tokugawa naval forces. While Ryoma's anti-Tokugawa comrades from Satsuma and Choshu prepared to crush shogunate by military might, "nobody" from Tosa devised a plan to avoid bloody civil war and foreign intervention. Ryoma's "Great Plan at Sea," an eight-point plan which he wrote aboard ship, called for shogun to return reins of government to Imperial Court; for establishment of Upper and Lower Houses of government; for all government measures to be based on public opinion, and decided by councilors comprised of most able feudal lords, court nobles and Japanese people at large. Rather than merely saying that Ryoma was once again "blowing hot air," or that he was "crazy," there were now some among his comrades who felt betrayed. These men advocated complete annihilation of shogunate to assure it would never rise again, and felt that Ryoma was a traitor. But Ryoma convinced one of his more level-headed friends, Goto Shojiro, who was a close aide to Yamanouchi Yodo, influential Lord of Tosa, to urge Yodo to endorse plan. Meanwhile, Ryoma continued to run guns for revolutionaries, because he knew that only way to convince shogun to abdicate would be to demonstrate that his only alternative was military annihilation, which, of course, was no alternative at all. Lord Yodo took Goto's advice and sent Ryoma's plan to shogun, as if it were his own brainchild. Eleven days later, on October 14, 1867, in Grand Hall of Nijo Castle in Kyoto, as Satsuma and Choshu hastened their final war plans, shogun announced his abdication before his adversaries had chance to strike.
With overthrow of corrupt and decrepit Tokugawa regime, "nobody" from Tosa had made good on his vow to "clean up Japan" - although, unfortunately for his country, he would pay for it with his life. Sakamoto Ryoma was assassinated one month later, on November 15, his thirty-second birthday, in second-story room in house of a wealthy soy dealer in Kyoto which he used as a hideout.
Equally unfortunate for Ryoma's country was that cleaning up Japan "once and for all" proved to be too long a period of time, even for a genius like Ryoma. This is why, amidst rampant corruption in Japanese business circles today, many people in Japan have expressed their wish that a leader of Ryoma's caliber would somehow miraculously emerge. A couple years ago executives of 200 Japanese corporations were asked by Asahi Shimbun, an national daily newspaper, question: "Who from past millennium of world history would be most useful in overcoming Japan's current financial crisis?" Sakamoto Ryoma received more mention than any other historical figure, topping such giants as Thomas Edison, Leonardo da Vinci, Saigo Takamori, Oda Nobunaga and founders of NEC and Honda. Evidently many Japanese people today think their country needs a good scrubbing once again.
Copyright(c)2002 Romulus Hillsborough
Romulus Hillsborough is a writer of Japanese historical biography, focusing on the Meiji Restoration. His widely acclaimed RYOMA – Life of a Renaissance Samurai (Ridgeback Press, 1999) is the only biographical novel in English of Sakamoto Ryoma (1835 – 1867), founder of Japan’s first corporation, key player in the overthrow of the Tokugawa Shogunate and one of the most revered men in Japanese history. More info: http://www.ridgebackpress.com.