Monday, January 04, 2010

Ryoma Sakamoto, Renaissance Samurai

My wife is a very happy woman, thanks to NHK, Japan's version of the BBC and the Domo-kun people. Every year the television network produces one gorgeous high-budget historical period drama called the Taiga Drama, and this year's is to be about one of the most respected historical persons in recent history, Ryoma Sakamoto (1836-1867). Ryoma was a versatile "renaissance samurai" who was responsible for organizing the domains of Choshu and Satsuma (now Yamaguchi and Kagoshima Prefectures) to work together to overthrow the Tokugawa Shogunate and form a modern government centered around the Japanese Emperor, who had been nothing more than a figurehead ruler for a millennium or so. He knew that if Japan were to experience a protracted civil war, it might find itself colonized by the European powers of the age, and he cleverly engineered a nearly bloodless change of government. The reason my wife is happy is that the new drama about Ryoma's life stars Masaharu Fukuyama, the popular actor and singer who is one of her favorites.

I happened to catch an interesting TV show about Ryoma's life, which featured several television personalities sitting on the floor of the room Ryoma had been in when he was assassinated by Shinsengumi-allied samurai at the age of 32, which has become as famous to the Japanese as the Dallas Book Depository and the Grassy Knoll are in the U.S. They discussed many aspects of Ryoma's life, including his role as an "idea man," able to apply some of the ideas he learned from John Manjiro (a fisherman who was rescued by an American vessel and spent several years in the U.S.) to the strict world of the Edo Period Japan. He was fascinated with the technology of the West, and was the first samurai to wear Western-style boots instead of traditional geta sandals, and he also carried a Smith & Wesson pistol, as innovative a gadget in his age as the iPhone is today. He's also credited with founding Japan's first modern corporation, a trading company that would eventually grow into the Mitsubishi conglomerate of companies. All around, a pretty amazong person, and worthy to be thought of as the George Washington of modern Japan.

The Kyoto inn where Ryoma was assassinated is part of history; Ryoma was famous for wearing western-style boots.