Review 96: Ryoma – Life of a Renaissance Samurai


Ryoma – Life of a Renaissance Samurai by Romulus Hillsborough

If he had been born in the US, Sakamoto Ryoma would have been an ideal model of the American Dream. He was born to a poor family that had bought its way into samurai status only a couple of generations before. When he was a kid, people thought he was kind of slow and useless, and never thought he’d amount to anything. He was terrible in school, and so his father enrolled him in a school for sword fighting, where he found his passion.

He was a damn good swordsman, and quickly became qualified to open his own dojo. By this point, it looked like Sakamoto Ryoma would have been simply another famous name in the annals of Japanese swordsmanship.

And then the Americans came, and all hell broke loose.

The shogunate, knowing it was outgunned by the Americans, agreed to let them in, a decision that sent shockwaves around Japan. A political world that had been fairly simple to live in – a hierarchical system in which the Shogun was at the top of one’s loyalty chain and the Emperor was someone about whom one did not even think – became so complex that “Byzantine” doesn’t even begin to describe it. Webs were spun, and within instants, there were factions who wanted a thousand different things for the future. The simplest of these, and the one that Ryoma and other lower samurai from his home region latched on to at first, was simple: Throw out the foreigners and throw down the Shogun.

Luckily for Japan, Ryoma was not stupid enough to follow that path for too long. He was a bright guy, who quickly saw what needed to be done. With the help of other progressive thinkers, both within and outside the Shogunate, Ryoma decided that the survival of Japan was more important than that of the Shogunate or any individual clan or region. And in order to save Japan, they’d have to let the barbarians in.

His plan was simple, really: learn from the West, build a navy, buy weapons, and form a western-style democracy. Only then, with Japan standing as a strong modern nation, would it be able to deal with the outsiders, to say nothing of avoiding subjugation by them. Ryoma had learned from the lessons of China and India, and knew that infighting within the various factions was a sure road to being invaded and colonized by France or Britain.

A simple plan. The only problem was that no one wanted any part of it. And so it became Ryoma’s job to run across the country, cajoling, convincing and reasoning with the country’s great powers, all while staying one step ahead of the law – he was a fugitive from his region, an executable offense, and he rose to the top of the Shogun’s most wanted with undue haste….

It’s a neat story, if really long. Hillsborough has used an interesting style, though, that I’m still not sure I really like. It’s a kind of novelized biography. While I’m sure that his facts are solid – countless books have been written about Sakamoto Ryoma and he’s considered one of the founding fathers of modern Japan – he tries to make the story more… story-like by dramatizing events. Writing dialogue with action and inflection that he could only have known by being there. Ryoma roars and pounds the floor with his fist a lot. In fact, pre-Meiji Japan seems like a very noisy place, what with all the yelling and roaring and pounding and high officials shouting, “Impertinence!” every time someone set a foot wrong….

Like I said, I’m sure he didn’t make up anything important, but it still gives me a lingering feeling of doubt. By turning Ryoma into a character for his novel, Hillsborough displays his bias, and nothing is more deadly to history than bias. He portrays Ryoma as a kind of genius puppetmaster, twitching strings here and there until he got what he wanted, which kind of demeans the contributions of many other people without whom Sakamoto Ryoma would have died years before he was finally assassinated.

He was a very intelligent, very resourceful man, and without him Japan’s history would have been drastically different. So if you want to know more about this man, a statesman who should be held up with the great statesmen of the world, check out this book.

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“A hero should go his own way!”
– Sakamoto Ryoma
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Filed under history, Japan, Romulus Hillsborough, Sakamoto Ryoma

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