Sakamoto Ryoma: Historic national hero and innovator at the end of the shogunate regime
Sakamoto Ryoma (1835 to 1867), born in what is now Kochi Prefecture, is one of the most popular historical figures in Japan.
Here we’ll take a look at why he is still such a popular historic figure today by introducing some of the achievements he made during that turbulent era.
There are many places to visit that have a connection to Ryoma’s childhood! Embark on a journey to discover what makes this samurai so special.
What was Japan like in Ryoma's day?
From the 12th Century, warriors known as samurai established a feudal military government in Japan. Sakamoto Ryoma was born in a period when the Tokugawa shogunate (also known as the Edo Bakufu) had seized political power over Japan and created a strict class hierarchy system. Furthermore, with the exception of the Netherlands and China, Japan’s borders were closed and trading with foreign countries was banned for more than 200 years under the shogunate’s national isolation policy.
However in 1853, steam ships captained by Matthew C. Perry* suddenly arrived on Japanese shores, demanding Japan’s borders be reopened. Looking upon the military power of the United States and daunted by Perry’s assertiveness, the shogunate yielded and agreed to the demands. This act led to an eruption of further distrust towards the shogunate, and saw the beginning of political confusion and civil war.
Living in these turbulent times, Sakamoto Ryoma, who was himself a samurai, played a major role in ending the samurai era.
*Matthew Perry was a Commodore of the United States Navy.
The History of Sakamoto Ryoma
Sakamoto Ryoma was the key figure in creating the opportunity to overthrow the Edo Bakufu (shogunate). Among the many groups wanting to take down the shogunate by military force, Ryoma proposed a more peaceful political reform. This proposal was eventually accepted by the shogunate, ending over 650 years of samurai reign. In 1868, power was restored to the Emperor, making way for the formation of the Meiji Government whose aim was to create a more modern Japan.
Amongst his many works in various fields, Ryoma is also said to have established the first Japanese trading company called Kameyama Shachu in Nagasaki, and is also said to be the first person in the country to have gone on a honeymoon.
While Sakamoto Ryoma was a famed swordsman, it was through his humanity and conversational prowess, not military strength, that brought Japan into a new era. Ryoma was ahead of his time, having a more global perspective and ideology in a time of internal conflict within Japan. He traveled all over Japan during the final years of the Edo Period, until he was assassinated at only 33 years old.
Sakamoto Ryoma is still an inspiration to many Japanese today, and is one of the most famous “last samurai” in Japanese history.
Visiting the birthplace of Ryoma
Ryoma was born in a town to the west of Kochi Castle. The area is dotted with places that have a connection to the famous samurai, so it's the perfect place to get acquainted with the Ryoma’s roots.
●Kochi Municipal Ryoma's Birthplace Memorial Museum
Here you can find out about Sakamoto Ryoma’s childhood and about the town that he was born and raised in.
Learn interesting facts, like how he was a bit of a crybaby as a child, but became strong through sword training. Illustrations and descriptions on display introduce these facts in an easy to understand manner. There are also audio guides available, for those who don’t understand Japanese. The museum has been set up to look like the Sakamoto Family’s cottage, and you can take a picture together with figures of Ryoma and his elder sister, Otome.
●Sakamoto Ryoma's Birthplace
The place where Ryoma’s house was said to have stood. A stone monument now stands in its place, and every year on Ryoma’s birthday (November 15th), many bouquets of flowers are left as offerings.
Address: 1-7 Kamimachi, Kochi City
●Ryoma Post Office
Ryoma fans from all over the country come to this post office. Here you can buy postcards featuring Ryoma, and the post office has a contour stamp with a Ryoma statue and the Ryoma birthplace monument design that they will press onto your postcard if you make a request at the counter.
There’s a large Ryoma statue at the entrance and a small Ryoma statue on top of the post box.
Address: 1-8-18 Kamimachi, Kochi City
Closed on weekends and public holidays
Sakamoto Ryoma is said to have loved Katsurahama. The contrast of the brilliant blue Pacific Ocean against the white sand beach and luscious pine trees make it one of Kochi’s famous scenic spots.
●The Statue of Sakamoto Ryoma
There’s a large 13.5m statue of Ryoma that sits on high ground looking down over Katsurahama. From early April to late May and early October to late November, at temporary observation deck is often set up next to the statue so that you can look down and see the same view as Ryoma. If you’re in Kochi around this time, be sure to check it out!
(Please be aware that there are years when the observation deck is not set up or the set-up period changes.)
Address: Urado, Kochi City
●Sakamoto Ryoma Memorial Museum
This museum introduces the great accomplishments Ryoma achieved through valuable documents, images and videos. You can gain insight into the kind of person Ryoma was through replicas of letters he wrote to his wife and his older sister. The museum has a tablet set up in several foreign languages that will read the exhibit explanations out loud, so non-Japanese speakers can fully enjoy the museum and learning about Ryoma's life as well.
To the south of JR Kochi Station is the Ryoma-den: Bakumatsu Heroes Pavilion. A replica of Ryoma’s house has been built inside, and features a living room, kitchen, Ryoma’s bedroom and even a garden. Easy to wear male and female kimonos are free to try on, so dress up and be completely transported back to the end of the Edo Period. There is a small shop inside, so you can enjoy a light meal or some sweets in the living room of the replica house!
Connected to the Ryoma-den is the Tosa Terrace tourist information center. The center has loads of tourist information on all the different places to see across Kochi Prefecture, and the staff are happy to share information on sightseeing spots and accommodation.
Get a sense of what Ryoma's Japan was like at Kochi Castle
Kochi Castle was built by the then Lord of Kochi, Yamauchi Katsutoyo, in 1601. Kochi Castle is known as the number one castle in Shikoku and is the only castle in all of Japan to still have all of its original buildings in the *honmaru. You can even see holes made by bullets and arrows in the gates and castle walls! Devices created to help protect the castle from the enemy are also still in tact, so be sure to have a good look around the castle grounds.
The must-see spot of the castle is the keep (called a tenshu), a place where only the highest ranking people were allowed into. Only 12 castles in all of Japan still have their original tenshu, and Kochi Castle is one of them. Ryoma was a low-ranking samurai so was unable to enter the castle, however these days everyone is welcome to come in and take a look around. From the very top of the tenshu you can get a 360 degree view of Kochi City. Head up and take a look out over the lands where Ryoma once lived.
*A honmaru is the main central area of activity in a Japanese castle.