Sakamoto Ryôma (1835-1867) was a low-ranking Japanese samurai popularly credited with negotiating the alliance between Satsuma and Choshu domains that overthrew the Tokugawa shogunate and initiated the Meiji Restoration. In recent years, Ryoma has become extremely popular in Japan due to his starring role in several manga, anime, and television series, but his true contribution to Japanese history is difficult to discern.
Ryoma was born in Kochi in Tosa domain in 1835 to a merchant family who had used their wealth to purchase samurai status. In his youth Ryoma trained in swordsmanship in Edo, where he first became introduced to anti-shogunate ideology and actually witnessed the arrival of Perry's Black Ships in 1853. Upon returning to Tosa, Ryoma joined the Tosa Loyalist Party, which was dedicated to overthrowing the shogunate, and became increasingly involved in anti-shogunate agitations, until he finally fled Tosa without domain permission at the age of 28 to continue his revolutionary activities in Edo.
Ryoma soon met and fell under the influence of Katsu Kaishu, the shogunate's naval commissioner, who became Ryoma's mentor and a major influence on his thought and politics. Kaishu was a dedicated supporter of the shogunate, but was equally dedicated to the idea that Japan must modernize and westernize, an idea which the shogunate largely resisted. Ryoma came to share this ideology, and worked with Kaishu to build a strong modern navy.
But whereas Kaishu worked to modernize the shogunate from within, Ryoma became increasingly convinced that Japan could not become a strong, modernized nation under the shogunate, and increasingly became involved in anti-shogunate activities. Through Kaishu, Ryoma met a number of major dissident leaders, including Yokoi Shonan, Katsura Kogoro, and Saigo Takamori. In 1865, Ryoma established the Kameyama Shachu, one of Japan's first international trading companies and the precursor to Mitsubishi, in Nagasaki with Saigo's aid. The company quickly evolved into private navy, whose purpose was running guns to Satsuma and Choshu domains in support of their revolutionary activities.
Ryoma soon became involved with lobbying Saigo and Katsura for a Satsuma-Choshu alliance against the shogunate, and such a pact was indeed ultimately concluded secretly between the two domains in January of 1866, but it would be difficult to argue that Ryoma made any truly essential contribution, as shogunal policy had been driving the two domains closer together for several years. Ryoma was more essential in forging a Satsuma-Tosa anti-shogunate alliance in the summer of 1867, and was actually present at a meeting between Saigo and high ranking Tosa leaders in which the pact was finalized, but the alliance did not hold, and it was ultimately the earlier Satsuma-Choshu alignment that teamed up to overthrow the shogunate the following year.
That same summer, Ryoma put his dreams for a modern Japan into concrete form with his 8-point plan calling for the shogunate to relinquish power to the Imperial House and for the establishment of a vaguely democratic government, consisting of upper and lower houses of councilors who would formulate policy by interpreting the will of the people. This was perhaps Ryoma's most influential act, as his proposal was submitted to the shogunate by Yamauchi Yodo, the influential lord of Tosa, as if it were his own plan. This proposal coming from Yodo, who was previously a staunch supporter of the shogunate, represented a reversal that helped persuade the shogun to except fate and abdicate in favor of Imperial restoration.
Ryoma did not live to see his dreams come true, however. He and fellow Tosa patriot Nakaoka Shintaro were assassinated at their residence in Kyoto on November 15, 1867 (according to the lunar calendar) by members of the Shinsengumi, a group of vigilantes loyal to the shogunate. He was 31 years old.
Ultimately, the exact character of Ryoma's contributions to the Meiji Restoration are very difficult to assess. While he certainly did all within his powers to bring about his dreams of a modern Japan freed from the shackles of fuedalism, his low rank meant that the scope of those powers was severely circumscribed. Moreover, his efforts came in the final stages of a long, gradual revolution, at a time when the overthrow of the shogunate had probably already become inevitable. Nevertheless, Ryoma's patriotism and forward thinking have never been in doubt. Today he is honored with a monumental bronze statue and a memorial museum at Katsurahama in his hometown of Kochi, as well as a statue of himself and Nakaoka Shintaro in Kyoto's Maruyama Park.