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Sakamoto Ryoma's Biography

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Who was Sakamoto Ryoma?

Sakamoto Ryoma was born in 1835 in Kochi Prefecture (formerly referred to as Tosa), the second son of Sakamoto Hachihei Naotari, a goshi (low ranked samurai).

He lived only until his 33rd birthday but is credited with being a crucial force in transforming the feudal Japan of the Tokugawa Shogunate into a more outward looking modern unified nation.

Although, some people argue that Ryoma's fame exceeds his actual contribution during the restoration period.

In 1868, the year after Sakamoto Ryoma's death the modern age of Japan commenced with the Meiji period, taking over the Edo period.

It is all the more extraordinary as Sakamoto Ryoma was originally a somewhat xenophobic nationalist.

As a child Sakamoto was bullied, but he took up swordsmanship at 13 and would eventually achieve the highest standards of swordsmanship.

In 1853 he moved to Edo (now known as Tokyo) for further training in swordsmanship at the Chiba exercise hall under Sadakichi Chiba.

His sojourn in Edo coincided with the historic arrival of American ships trying to open up Japan's markets to trade.

On July 8, 1853 four black ships led by USS Powhatan, commanded by Commodore Matthew Perry, anchored at Edo Bay.

The Japanese had never before seen ships steaming with smoke and were shocked by the size of the guns on board the ships.

The following year Japan signed a treaty with the USA. Many in Japan were against making what they saw as concessions to the foreigners.

Against this backdrop Sakamoto Ryoma joined the Tosa Loyalist Party, a group led by Takechi Zuizan, who wanted to overthrow the Tokugawa Shogunate with violence.

Having gone back to Tosa, Sakamoto Ryoma, in 1862, returned to Edo to work towards expelling all foreigners from Japan, and restoring the status of the Emperor as the real ruler of Japan.

Because Sakamoto Ryoma had left Tosa without the permission of officials, he became a ronin, i.e. a 'masterless samurai'.

December 1862 saw a remarkable turnaround in Sakamoto Ryoma's beliefs and therefore a change in the direction of Japanese history.

That month, Sakamoto Ryoma was going to assassinate Katsu Kaishu, the admiral of the shogunate, the commander of the ship "Kanrin-maru", and a pivotal player in the Japan-U.S.A treaty.

Amazingly Katsu talked round Sakamoto Ryoma, who not only spared his life, but joined his cause, becoming his pupil.

Sakamoto Ryoma then worked strenuously to gain a coalition between two traditional enemies, the Satsuma clan (Kagoshima Prefecture) and the Choshu clan (Yamaguchi Prefecture).

Eventually he got Saigo Takamori of the Satsuma clan and Kido Takayoshi of the Chushu clan to make a pact that would pave the way for power to return peacefully to the Emperor.

Sakamoto Ryoma had also established the "kaientai" - a cross between a shipping firm and a naval force.

In November of 1867, Sakamoto Ryoma and his friend Nakaoka Shintaro were assassinated in Kyoto.

Ryoma was 33. His death came just before the bloodless Meiji revolution which he had been working towards.

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