“A man of consequence”

ryoma and takechi screen shot

After the assassination of the shogun’s regent, Ii Naosuke, in the Third Month of the Japanese year corresponding to 1860, the revolution was led by samurai of Satsuma, Choshu, and Tosa. Around this time in Tosa emerged two men who would inform the revolution—both charismatic swordsmen originally from the lower rungs of Tosa society.

Takechi Hanpeita was a planner of assassinations and stoic adherent of Imperial Loyalism and bushido, whose political agenda led to his downfall and eventual death. Sakamoto Ryoma, one of the most farsighted men of his time, had the guts to throw off the old and embrace the new as few men ever have—and for his courage, both moral and physical, he was assassinated on the eve of a revolution of his own design. And while Hanpeita and Ryoma were close friends, they had contrasting personalities, as indicated in the following anecdote taken from my Samurai Tales:

[begin excerpt] Known for their ability to consume vast amounts of sake at a single sitting, the young men of Tosa were wont to drink a potent local brew as a condiment to political discourse. One day, upon leaving a political meeting at Hanpeita’s home, Ryoma, as was his habit, relieved himself in his friend’s front garden, so that after he had left the stench of stale urine remained. When Hanpeita’s wife complained about Ryoma’s “sickening habit,” he turned to her and sternly said, “Ryoma is a man of consequence to the nation. I think you can tolerate that much from him.” [end excerpt]

[The above portrait of Takechi Hanpeita is on exhibit at the Sakamoto Ryoma Memorial Museum in Kochi. The statue of Ryoma is at Katsurahama in Kochi.]

Read more about the lives of both men in Samurai Tales and my historical novel, Ryoma: Life of a Renaissance Samurai.

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Ryoma: Life of a Renaissance Samurai, the only biographical novel about Sakamoto Ryoma in English, is available on Amazon.com.


Kaishu and Ryoma: The Indispensable Relationship (Part 4)

今にてハ日本第一の人物勝憐太郎殿という人にでしになり (“I have now become the disciple of Katsu Rintaro, the greatest man in Japan”)

Kaishu Ryoma screen shot 2

The outlaw Sakamoto Ryoma first met Katsu Kaishu, a high-ranking officer of the shogun’s nascent navy, at the latter’s home in Edo, some time during the final few months of the Japanese year corresponding to 1862. During the following spring, while Kaishu moved forward with plans to establish an official Naval Training Center at Kobe, Ryoma, as Kaishu’s right-hand man, recruited his friends from Tosa and elsewhere, most of them renegade samurai (i.e., ronin) like himself, to study under Kaishu. Following is a slightly edited excerpt from my historical novel, Ryoma: Life of a Renaissance Samurai:

[begin excerpt] While Kaishu used his close relationship with the seventeen-year-old shogun, Tokugawa Iemochi, to gain permission to establish an official Naval Training Center in Kobe, Ryoma used his influence among the Imperial Loyalists in Kyoto to recruit nearly one hundred of them for Kaishu’s private school. The Bakufu’s [i.e., shogunate’s] institution and the private academy would share the costly facilities supplied by the Edo government. Under Kaishu, Ryoma, at age twenty-eight, was on the verge of realizing his dream of establishing a navy. He drolly expressed his excitement in a letter to his sister, Otome:

“Well, well! In the first place, life sure is strange. There are some men who are so unlucky that they die by breaking their balls just trying to climb out of a bathtub. Compared to that I’m extremely lucky: here I was on the verge of death but I didn’t die. Even if I tried to die I couldn’t, because there are too many things which compel me to live. I have now become the disciple of Katsu Rintaro, the greatest man in Japan, and I am spending every day on things I have always dreamed about. I don’t intend to return home until I’m around forty.” [“Rintaro” was Katsu Kaishu’s given name, “Kaishu” being his pseudonym.]

Part 3 of this series was posted on November 23, 2015.

[The above photo is from Sakamoto Ryoma Zenshu, Miyaji Saichiro, ed. Katsu Kaishu is in the middle, with Ryoma on the right.]

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Ryoma: Life of a Renaissance Samurai, the only biographical novel about Sakamoto Ryoma in English, is available on Amazon.com.


Kaishu and Ryoma: The Indispensable Relationship (Part 3)

Sakamoto Ryoma & Katsu Kaishu

Sakamoto Ryoma & Katsu Kaishu

The outlaw samurai Sakamoto Ryoma first met the shogun’s vice commissioner of warships, Katsu Kaishu, some time between the Tenth and Twelfth Months of the Japanese year corresponding to 1862. In light of Ryoma’s background as a leader of Takechi Hanpeita’s seditious Tosa Loyalist Party, whose members had been assassinating officials and sympathizers of the shogun’s government over the past several months, it would not be unreasonable to assume that Ryoma had at least entertained the notion of killing Kaishu. “Sakamoto Ryoma came to kill me,” Kaishu recalled in 1896, more than thirty years later. But Kaishu tended to exaggerate and embellish past exploits; and anyway, based on Ryoma’s behavior during those bloody times (he is known to have killed only once, in self-defense), it is hard to believe that he intended to kill Kaishu.

Far from it. In fact, Ryoma became Kaishu’s devoted student, learning from him the naval arts and sciences, most significantly how to operate and navigate a state-of-the-art steamship toward developing a modern Japanese navy. It was only natural, then, for Ryoma to be protective of his teacher. Which was why a few months after first meeting him, Ryoma recruited one of the most notorious assassins of the time, fellow Tosa samurai Okada Izo, who bore the nom de guerre “Hito-kiri” (literally, “Man-Cutter”), to protect Kaishu on the dangerous streets of Kyoto, the Imperial capital. Following is a slightly edited excerpt from my Samurai Revolution (without footnotes):

[begin excerpt] “The situation at that time was extremely dangerous,” Kaishu later wrote. “I had arrived [to the region] by ship, and come to Kyoto. It was a bad time to travel because all the inns [in the city] were completely full.” Okada Izo accompanied him that night, probably assigned to bodyguard duty by Ryoma. Kaishu and Izo were each armed with the two swords. As they walked down the street called Teramachi-dori, running north and south just below the east side of the Imperial Palace, “three samurai suddenly appeared. Without uttering a word, they came at me with swords drawn. I was startled. Okada Izo of Tosa, walking beside me, drew his long sword and immediately jumped in and cut one of them in two. ‘Coward,’ Izo screamed. ‘What do you think you’re doing?’ The other two, completely surprised, fled without looking back. I was amazed by his [Izo’s] technique and lightening speed.

But Kaishu was bothered by Izo’s attitude after the incident. “‘You shouldn’t take pleasure in killing people,’ I told him. ‘Bloodshed is extremely bad. You’d best mend your ways.’ He acknowledged my words, then faintly murmured, ‘If I hadn’t been with you the other day, Sensei, you would have lost your head.’ He stood there smiling. There wasn’t a thing I could say.”

(Part 2 of this series was posted on October 31, 2015.)

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[Read more about the assassinations committed by Okada Izo on the streets of Kyoto, and about the relationship between Ryoma and Kaishu, in my novel, Ryoma: Life of a Renaissance Samurai and my historical narrative, Samurai Revolution.


Ryoma: Life of a Renaissance Samurai, the only biographical novel about Sakamoto Ryoma in English, is available on Amazon.com.


Takechi Hanpeita’s Seppuku

Takechi portrait screen shot
Takechi Hanpeita, leader of the Tosa Loyalist Party whose objective was overthrowing the Tokugawa Bakufu (Shogunate) and restoring Imperial rule, was ordered by the Tosa authorities to commit seppuku on the evening of the 11th day of the intercalary Fifth Month of the Japanese year corresponding to 1865, after languishing in prison for nearly twenty-two months. He had been sentenced to die by his own hand based on trumped up charges of political crimes. But he took solace in the fact that he was at least given the honor of dying as a samurai, rather than be beheaded as a common criminal. The following account of Takechi’s seppuku, cited from my Samurai Tales (originally published as Samurai Sketches), is based on the memoirs of Tosa Loyalist Igarashi Bunkichi. Igarashi based his account on the eyewitness oral account of Shimamura Jutaro, younger brother of Takechi’s wife, and one of two “seconds” who assisted in the seppuku. (Besides being an expert swordsman, Takechi was also an accomplished poet and artist. Zuizan, as he is referred to in the following passage, was his pseudonym.)
[begin excerpt] In preparation for his seppuku, Zuizan bathed, because, as he told his guards, “it would be unsightly to have dirt on the dead body.” Next he shaved his face and pate, oiled and combed his hair, and tied his topknot. He dressed himself in special attire sent him by his wife: a thin kimono of pale blue hempen cloth adorned with the Takechi family crest, and a stiff ceremonial robe bound by a silken sash. Thus prepared, he returned to his dark, dank cell to wait to be called upon to die.

At dusk he was brought to the nearby courthouse garden, where he had been interrogated in the past. The scene this evening, however, was different from that which he had known. The ground was specially covered with sand to absorb Zuizan’s blood. Several men in formal dress were seated in a semicircle, facing an area on the north side of the garden furnished with two tatami mats. Two candles burning in two tall stands cast a dim pallor over the grim scene, and Zuizan recognized among the witnesses the two chief interrogators. Suppressing a sudden desire to throw himself upon them, he calmly seated himself upon the tatami.

Set directly in front of him was an untreated, pale wooden stand, on top of which had been placed a piece of clean white cotton cloth and a dagger in a plain wooden sheath. Earlier in the day he had chosen his two seconds, both former kenjutsu students and adept swordsmen, who now sat at either side of him. One of them was the younger brother of his wife, the other Zuizan’s nephew. One of the chief interrogators now read in a loud clear voice the death sentence, after which Master Zuizan bowed deeply. “Thank you for your troubles,” he said to his seconds, taking the dagger in his hand and drawing the blade.

Master Zuizan would now perform his seppuku with meticulous precision. He believed that there were only three proper ways to cut — one straight horizontal line, two intersecting lines, or three horizontal lines. He chose the latter, which was the least common, because it was the most difficult to perform properly. But so weak was his physical condition after one and a half years in jail, that it had been a struggle for him to even walk to the courthouse garden. Over these past several days he had continuously suffered from chronic diarrhea, abdominal pain, fever, and a palsy that numbed his entire body. He worried that he would not have the physical strength to slice through the resilient abdominal tissue three separate times. He feared that if he should fail to perform his seppuku beautifully his name would be slandered in death, and his enemies would laugh and call him a coward who was unable to die like a samurai. He had therefore informed one of his guards of the cutting method he had chosen, making him swear to publicize his noble intent in the case that his physical strength should fail him.

“Don’t cut me until I give the command,” he told his seconds. He stared hard at the blade, and then gently replaced the dagger on the stand. He cast a steely gaze at the several witnesses, who, in spite of their exalted positions, were daunted by the superior strength radiating from the eyes of the man with the emaciated body. Master Zuizan now removed both arms from his kimono, baring his pale shoulders, then loosened the sash around his waist, exposing his lower abdomen. He tightened his mind as he summoned all of his mental power into his hands, again took up the bare dagger, wrapped the hilt with the piece of white cloth, and plunged the blade into the left side of his abdomen. Blood gushed from the wound, but without uttering a sound he sliced across to the right side, pulled out the blade for an instant, and plunged it in again, repeating the process in the opposite direction. With the third slice, he released a guttural wail, his only means to summon a final burst of strength. But his seppuku was not complete until he deliberately placed the bloody dagger at his right side, and fell forward with both hands extended directly in front of him. The next instant the seconds drew their long swords, piercing the heart of their beloved sword master. Takechi Zuizan was dead at age thirty-six; and so nobly did he perform his seppuku, displaying his inner purity, that his enemies were left speechless. [end excerpt]

Takechi monument 2

[The monument, located at the edge of a bustling shopping district of Kochi, formerly the castle town of the Tosa daimyo, marks the spot where Takechi Hanpeita committed seppuku 150 years ago. The portrait of Takechi is on exhibit at the Sakamoto Ryoma Memorial Museum in Kochi.]

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Samurai Tales

Samurai Tales is an updated edition of Samurai SketchesSamurai Tales contains a Forward to the New Edition, and three vignettes at the end of the book which were not published in Samurai Sketches.


Saigo’s Letter to Kaishu

In Third Month of the Japanese year corresponding to 1868, around three months after the fall of the Tokugawa Bakufu (Shogunate), the forces of the new Imperial government were set to launch a general attack on the shogun’s capital of Edo (modern-day Tokyo). Meanwhile, Katsu Kaishu, commander-in-chief of the fallen shogun’s military, appealed to Saigo Takamori of Satsuma, the commander of the Imperial forces, to call off the attack, which would have resulted in a bloodbath in that city of well over one million people. Kaishu asked Saigo to meet to discuss terms for a peaceful surrender of Edo and its mighty castle that would be acceptable to both sides. The two commanders met twice, once each on the 13th and 14th of that month.

saigo's letter to kaishu screen shot

This letter from Saigo to Kaishu, dated 3/14, was in reply to a letter from Kaishu informing Saigo that he was waiting to meet him a second time at Satsuma’s warehouse facility (kurayashiki) in the Tamachi district of Edo. Replying that he would arrive shortly, Saigo asked Kaishu to wait for him. Saigo arrived as promised, and as a result of the ensuing “Meeting of the Two Heroes” the attack was called off.

[The letter from Saigo to Kaishu is exhibited in the Edo-Tokyo Museum in Tokyo, Japan.]

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Katsu Kaishu of course is the “shogun’s last samurai” of my book Samurai Revolution, in which I wrote in detail (Chapters 27-30) about his role in averting civil war, including his talks with Saigo.