Ryoma Sakamoto: The Kochi-born samurai who fought for modern Japan
One of the most beloved historical figures in Japan, Ryoma Sakamoto (1835-1867) was born in the Tosa Domain (modern-day Kochi Prefecture).
In Kochi there are still many places to visit that have a connection to Ryoma’s childhood. Discover what made this samurai so special and learn about his achievements, that helped bring Japan out of the feudal age and transform into the world power it is today.
Japan in Ryoma's Day
Starting in the 12th century, a feudal military government supported by samurai controlled most of Japan. Ryoma was born during the reign of the Tokugawa shogunate (also known as the Edo Bakufu), which had seized political power and created a strict class hierarchy system. Furthermore, the shogunate instituted a national isolation policy to prevent foreign influences from entering Japan. A few, heavily controlled ports were allowed to have contact with ships from the Netherlands and China, but beyond that Japan’s borders were closed and trading with foreign countries was banned for over 200 years.
However, this all changed in 1853, when United States Navy steam ships captained by Commodore Matthew C. Perry suddenly arrived on Japanese shores, demanding the country open its borders. Looking upon the military power of the United States and daunted by Perry’s aggressive approach, the shogunate yielded and agreed to their demands. This act led to an eruption of deep distrust towards the shogunate, and precipitated political confusion and eventually civil war.
The Life of Ryoma Sakamoto
Despite being born into a samurai family himself, Ryoma ended up playing a major role in ending the era of samurai and shogunate control.
He was a key figure in creating the opportunity to overthrow the Tokugawa shogunate. At the time there were many groups wanting to take down the shogunate by military force, but Ryoma proposed a more peaceful option for political reform. This proposal was eventually accepted by the shogunate, ending over 650 years of military reign. In 1867 power was restored to the Meiji Emperor, making way for the formation of the Meiji government whose aim was to create a more modern Japan.
During his short life Ryoma was active in many different fields. He established the first Japanese trading company, Kameyama Shachu, while living in Nagasaki. He is also thought to be the first person in Japan to have gone on a honeymoon!
While he was a famed swordsman, it was through his ability to connect with others and negotiation skills, rather than brute force, that he helped bring Japan into a new era. Ryoma was ahead of his time, having a rather global perspective and ideology in a time of internal conflict within Japan. He traveled all over Japan during the final years of the Tokugawa shogunate, until he was sadly assassinated at only 33 years old.
Ryoma Sakamoto is still an inspiration to many people in Japan today and is one of the most famous “last samurai” of the country’s history.
Visiting Ryoma’s Birthplace
Ryoma was born in the Kamimachi area of Kochi City, 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.
●Memorial Museum at Ryoma's Birthplace
Here you can find out about Ryoma Sakamoto’s childhood and the town where he was born and raised. Through displays and illustrations, learn how this shy child became a strong and confident leader through the art of swordsmanship. There are 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 with figures of Ryoma and his elder sister, Otome.
●Ryoma Sakamoto'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 the famous samurai, and the staff will stamp your card with images of the Ryoma statue and birthplace monument. There’s a large Ryoma statue at the entrance and a smaller one on top of the post box.
Address: 1-8-18 Kamimachi, Kochi City
Hours: 9:00 - 17:00
Closed on weekends and public holidays
Ryoma Sakamoto is said to have loved Katsurahama Beach. The contrast of the brilliant blue Pacific Ocean against the white sand and thick grove of pine trees make it one of Kochi’s most iconic scenic spots.
●Statue of Ryoma Sakamoto
A 13.5m-tall statue of Ryoma sits on high ground looking down over Katsurahama. Between early April to late May and early October to late November, a temporary observation deck is often set up next to the statue so that you can look down and see the same view as Ryoma himself. If you’re in Kochi around this time, be sure to see if the deck is set up!
●The Sakamoto Ryoma Memorial Museum
This museum showcases Ryoma’s achievements 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 languages that will read the exhibit explanations out loud, so non-Japanese speakers can fully enjoy the museum too.
Kochi Castle was built in 1601 by Katsutoyo Yamauchi, the lord of the Tosa Domain (the former name of Kochi). It is the only castle in Japan to still have all the original buildings within the honmaru , the castle’s innermost circle of defense. It has stood the test of time, and you can still spot holes made by bullets and arrows in the gates and castle walls! Several architectural features created to help protect the castle from the enemy are also still intact, so keep an eye out as you explore the castle grounds.
The must-see spot of the castle is the keep (tenshu ), an area which only people of the highest rank could once enter. Kochi Castle is one of only 12 castles in Japan that still has an original keep.
As a low-ranking samurai Ryoma was not allowed 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.