In June 1853, Commodore Matthew Perry of United States Navy led a squadron of four heavily armed warships into Sagami Bay, to Port of Uraga, just south of shogun's capital at Edo. What Americans found was a technologically backward, though intricately complicated, island nation, under rule of House of Tokugawa, that had been isolated from rest of world for two and a half centuries.
Whether or not Americans realized far-reaching effects of their gunboat diplomacy, they now set into motion a coup de theatre which fifteen years hence would transform conglomerate of some 260 feudal domains into a single, unified country. When fifteenth and last shogun, Yoshinobu Tokugawa, abdicated his rule and restored emperor to his ancient seat of power in November 1867, Japan was well on its way to becoming an industrialized nation, rapidly modernizing and Westernizing in a unique Japanese sense.
Quite a transformation in just fifteen years, and much of credit goes to a lower ranking samurai from Tosa domain named Sakamoto Ryoma. When Ryoma fled his native Tosa in spring 1862, he was a "nobody." Although he was a renowned swordsman who had served as head of an elite fencing academy in Edo, and was also a leader of young samurai in Tosa who advocated radical slogans Expelling Barbarians, Imperial Reverence and Toppling Shogunate, in eyes of power that were he was a "nobody." He had never held an official post, and he never would. When in following October "nobody" met Katsu Kaishu, enlightened commissioner of shogun's navy, it might have been with intent to assassinate him. But, of course, Ryoma did not kill Kaishu. Instead, this champion of samurai who would overthrow shogunate and expel barbarians became devoted follower of elite shogunal official. Kaishu opened Ryoma's eyes to futility of trying to defend against a foreign onslaught without first developing a powerful navy; and to this end Japan desperately needed Western technology and expertise.
Ryoma now worked with Kaishu, whom he called "the greatest man in Japan," to establish a naval academy in Kobe, where he and his comrades studied naval arts and sciences under their revered mentor. But certain of his hotheaded comrades called Ryoma a turncoat for siding with enemy, which, of course, was not true. As if to belie false accusation, in following June Ryoma vowed, in a letter to his sister, to "clean up Japan once and for all." What he was talking about was overthrowing military government, which Kaishu loyally served. Earlier in same month, ships of United States and France had shelled radical Choshu domain in retaliation for Choshu's having recently fired upon foreign ships passing through Shimonoseki Strait. News of attack deeply troubled Ryoma, who was concerned about possible designs among Western powers, particularly France and England, to colonize Japan as latter had China. When Ryoma learned that foreign ships that had bombarded Choshu were subsequently repaired at a Tokugawa shipyard in Edo, he was fighting mad. "It is really too bad that Choshu started a war last month by shelling foreign ships," he wrote his sister. "This does not benefit Japan at all. But what really disgusts me is that ships they shot up in Choshu are being repaired at Edo, and when they're fixed will head right back to Choshu to fight again. This is all because corrupt officials in Edo are in league with barbarians." But, now, through good offices of Katsu Kaishu, Ryoma too was in league with some very powerful men. "Although those corrupt shogunal officials have a great deal of power now, I'm going to get help of two or three daimyo and enlist likeminded men so we can start thinking more about good of Japan, and not only Imperial Court. Then, I'll get together with my friends in Edo (you know, Tokugawa retainers, daimyo and so on) to go after those wicked officials and cut them down."
Ryoma was not opposed to boasting, and he had a big ego, declaring to his sister: "It's a shame that there aren't more men like me around country." For all his boasting, however, Ryoma was also a realist. "I don't expect that I'll be around too long. But I'm not about to die like any average person either. I'm only prepared to die when big changes finally come, when even if I continue to live I will no longer be of any use to country. But since I'm fairly shifty, I'm not likely to die so easily. But seriously, although I was born a mere potato digger in Tosa, a nobody, I'm destined to bring about great changes in nation. But I'm definitely not going to get puffed up about it. Quite contrary! I'm going to keep my nose to ground, like a clam in mud. So don't worry about me!"
It seems that Ryoma was also an incredible visionary who foresaw his own destination. Four years later "nobody" from Tosa forced peaceful abdication of Shogun Tokugawa Yoshinobu, and restoration of emperor to power - event that historians call Meiji Restoration.
But how could Ryoma - who had plunged from status of "nobody," to that of outlaw, and one of most wanted men on a long list of Tokugawa enemies - be of sufficient consequence to force abdication of generalissimo of 267-year-old samurai government? And what were his reasons for doing so, even at risk of his own life? To answer second question first, and to put it quite simply, Ryoma was a lover of freedom - freedom to act, freedom to think, and freedom to be. These were ideals that drove Ryoma on his dangerous quest for freedom - which, of course, was nothing less than salvation of Japan. But greatest obstacle to this freedom, and to salvation of Japan from foreign subjugation, was antiquated Tokugawa system, with its hundreds of feudal domains and suppressive class structure, which men like Katsu Kaishu and Sakamoto Ryoma meant to replace with a representative form of government styled after great Western powers, and based on a free-class society and open commerce with rest of world.