Modern Man or Modern Myth?

Sakamoto Ryoma’s Slippery Legacy

by Ry Beville

What is the quintessential modern man? That of course depends on your definition of ‘modern.’ And with Japan having introduced a category of ‘herbivore men,’ perhaps we need to carefully scrutinize the definition of ‘man,’ too. Very carefully.

Sakamoto Ryoma was certainly not an herbivorous man. Letters indicate he had several love interests over his short life, the most famous of them, Oryo, a young woman whom Ryoma whisked away from poverty and human trafficking, and then married in 1864. Smoking hot, as an extant picture demonstrates, she also saved his life. He had secured her work and shelter at a friend’s inn in Kyoto, so he could traipse around Japan, as young revolutionaries have occasion to do. Two years later, when he was staying there, Oryo heard assailants break in and supposedly went dashing up the stairs from her bath, all skin, to warn him. Ryoma famously brandished a Smith & Wesson revolver, a souvenir gift from Shanghai, to aid in his escape. An expert swordsman since his teens, our young protagonist chose practicality over romantic samurai notions of death by the sword. He later wrote to his sister, “I would’ve been fucked without her.”

Ryoma and Oyro are celebrated in popular history, the two having soon set off for some hot springs in Kagoshima to convalesce, marking what many believe to be Japan’s first modern honeymoon. It’s surprising that some adult film studio hasn’t tried to reenact the scene yet with Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing” as the soundtrack. And why not? Everyone else in Japan has appropriated the man for profit or personal gain. His legacy grows by the day, whatever the fictitious proportions it has reached.

Supermarkets now have a Sakamoto Ryoma sake corner with products bearing his name and image (granted, he was from a sake brewing family). In Kochi, his hometown, a coffee shop makes Ryoma latte art. The Sakamoto Ryoma umbrella, folded up, looks just like a samurai sword. His tattoo has been inked on countless people. Travel agencies have special brochures for tours to the corners of the country where he lived and made history. Kochi (not to mention Kyoto and Nagasaki) are loving every minute—and yen—of the attention. Need we even mention the primetime TV drama based on his life, with pretty boy Fukuyama Masaharu playing the lead? A Japanese version of Andy Warhol’s famous painting of the Campbell Soup cans would be repeated images of Sakamoto Ryoma, he has so pervaded Japanese popular culture and consciousness.

Ryoma was a complex man with contradictions in a complicated time. His life and character seem ripe in countless ways for personal identification. He went from bullied child to bad-ass through martial arts. He was a loner, leaving the Tosa clan and traveling for years as a masterless samurai (and carnivorous man). The kenjutsu (sword-fencing) and samurai circles he ran in early in his life must have been reminiscent of Afghan tribes today: virulently xenophobic and full of hatred for the Western ‘barbarians.’ Right wingers adore him as a man who wanted a ‘pure’ Japan. He later envisioned a government that would reflect the will of all its equal subjects. Left-wing communist party members claim him. He had business acumen, running a huge trading company in Nagasaki (that smuggled weapons). CEOs like Softbank’s Son Masayoshi tremble in their exaltation of him. The man took the woman who saved his life on an exotic onsen vacation and praised her in a letter to his family, “She’s a pretty cool chick.” Women should love him. And yes, he died young in a country where for centuries youthful death has been associated with beauty. Japan loves him.

The details that don’t conform to popular public perceptions continue to characterize him in the most fascinating ways. A picture of him seated in his samurai garb reveals him wearing stylish modern shoes. Though he is one of Japan’s most famous samurai, his family members were merchants who bought into the bottom rung of that social class—he must have been conscious all his life of not being true pedigree. His letters to his sister were full of boasts and vulgarities. People call him a renaissance man, but he cared little for the past; in the eight-point plan he wrote up (which formed the basis of the Meiji-era constitution), he recommended expunging the old ways. A visionary? Absolutely, but Katsu Kaishu, whom Ryoma had originally set out to assassinate, fundamentally shaped his vision. Katsu had extensive contacts with the Dutch in the 1850s and, as commander of the Kanrin-maru, traveled to the US in 1860 for several months as a part of an official delegation. Western thought perhaps influenced Ryoma’s vision more than native or Confucian thought. Great statesman who helped thrust Japan into the modern age? Perhaps, but his greatest legacy is as a shadowy negotiator and intriguer, whose gun running strengthened opponents to the shogun, eventually intimidating him into abdication in 1867. Ryoma was assassinated about a month later in a hideout, before the Meiji emperor ascended to power and the Boshin War completed the ‘bloodless’ revolution.

Sakamoto Ryoma was indeed a great modern man. Like all of them, his public figure has been subject to the interpretations of historians, authors and fans. Fame breeds malleability. No doubt, he will continue to be recast for public consumption. Great men—and women—should expect their legacies to fall to the care of others. Being saved by a beautiful naked woman who loves you can’t hurt that legacy.

Sakamoto Ryoma photograph care of the Sakamoto Ryoma Museum in Koichi prefecture:








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