Shiba Ryotaro’s Masterpiece: “Ryoma ga Yuku”

shiba ryo with ryoma et al

Among my favorite Japanese writers is the prolific historical novelist Shiba Ryotaro (1923 – 1996), whose masterpiece Ryoma ga Yuku immortalized Sakamoto Ryoma in the psyche of the Japanese people. Originally published in serial form in the national newspaper Sankei Shimbun in 1962, this epic of the life and times of Sakamoto Ryoma comprises eight paperback volumes in its current printed form. My other favorite books by Shiba include Moeyo-ken, which focuses on Hijikata Toshizo, vice commander of the Shinsengumi; Yotte Soro, whose protagonist, Yamauchi Yodo, the flamboyant daimyo of Ryoma’s native Tosa, played an important role in this history; Hitokiri Izo, the haunting portrait of the notorious assassin Okada Izo; and Saigo no Shogun, about the life and times of the brilliant last shogun, Tokugawa Yoshinobu. Among these, Yotte Soro and Saigo no Shogun have been published in English under the respective titles of Drunk as a Lord (Yodo’s nom de plume was Geikaisuiko, “Drunken Lord of the Sea of Whales,” for the rich bounty of whales off the Tosa coast), and The Last Shogun: The Life of Tokugawa Yoshinobu.

I was introduced to Sakamoto Ryoma and the epic history of the Bakumatsu (i.e., the final fifteen years of the Tokugawa Shogunate: 1853 – 1868) through Ryoma ga Yuku, when a friend gave me a copy of Vol. 1, sometime around 1982. I owe my inspiration for my historical novel, Ryoma: Life of a Renaissance Samurai, to Shiba’s book.

The above photo from Ryoma Rekishikan, a museum in Kochi, Japan, shows one of 27 scenes of wax figures, some historical others personal, from the life of Sakamoto Ryoma. The fourth scene on the tour depicts Ryoma’s birth in Kochi in 1835. Scene 26 shows the gruesome assassinations of Ryoma and his friend Nakaoka Shintaro in Kyoto in 1867. The final scene, number 27, depicts four immortals, perhaps discussing the state of Japan and the world today: Shiba Ryotaro sits opposite Ryoma, joined by Mitsubishi founder Iwasaki Yataro (left) and Nakaoka.

Below is a photo of my set of Ryoma ga Yuku, the jackets long since worn out.

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“Now is the time to reread Ryoma’s letters.” Miyaji Saichiro

Sakamoto Ryoma

“Now is the time for us to act. Soon we must decide on our direction, whether it lead to pandemonium or paradise.” (Sakamoto Ryoma to Hayashi Kenzo, Keio 3/11/11)    実ハ可レ為の時ハ、今ニて 御座候やがて方向を定め、シユラ(修羅)か極楽かに御供可レ申奉レ存候。(坂本龍馬より林謙三宛、暗殺4日前の書簡)

During the volatile days just before the fall of the Tokugawa Bakufu, Sakamoto Ryoma wrote the above words to Hayashi Kenzo, a cohort in the revolution, in which he alluded to the great danger facing Japan under the Bakufu and urged him to be careful for his life. Four days later Ryoma was assassinated at his hideout in Kyoto.

Miyaji
These same words were quoted in a New Year’s card I received from Miyaji Saichiro in January 2002, just months after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Mr. Miyaji was a distinguished writer, who compiled and published two monumental, meticulously annotated volumes focused on the writings of Sakamoto Ryoma and Nakaoka Shintaro, respectively. After quoting Ryoma’s above-cited letter, Mr. Miyaji alluded to 9/11 and the war in Afghanistan, then wrote that he “felt that he had heard Ryoma’s voice many times” over those past few months. “We are on the brink of World War III,” Miyaji fretted, before conjuring up Ryoma’s voice: “All holy war is folly.” “We must not allow the destruction of mankind and the earth.” Mr. Miyaji concluded his New Year’s greeting with a terse admonition, though as if speaking to himself: “Now is the time to reread Ryoma’s letters.” (「龍馬の手紙を読み直す秋(とき)です。」宮地佐一郎先生)    (The above photo of Miyaji Saichiro was taken in Tokyo in December 1999.)
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Ryoma: Life of a Renaissance Samurai, the only biographical novel about Sakamoto Ryoma in English, is available on Amazon.com.

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Kondo Isami’s Embroidered Skull

 

Kondo's robe screen shotKondo Isami
Shinsengumi Commander Kondo Isami was a peasant by birth, a warrior by nature. He was a man of traditional values and a martial mind-set, whose black training robe was embroidered in white on the backside with a large human skull – a symbol of his resolve to die in battle whenever he entered the dojo. He had enlisted in the Roshi Corps [precursor to Shinsengumi] with aspirations of becoming a samurai in the service of the shogun. As leader of the shogun’s most lethal samurai corps he secured a vehicle into the top strata of the Tokugawa hierarchy and indeed historic immortality. (excerpt from Shinsengumi: The Shogun’s Last Samurai Corps, p. 22)
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 Shinsengumi

Takasugi Shinsaku’s Indomitable Spirit

Takasugi Shinsaku

Recently I’ve been posting a lot of material about Sakamoto Ryoma. One of Ryoma’’s closest cohorts in the revolution to topple the Tokugawa Bakufu was Takasugi Shinsaku, the leader of Choshu’s revolutionary army. Aside from a bout of the smallpox that nearly killed him at age nine, Takasugi reportedly spent a relatively uneventful childhood as the only son of a high-ranking samurai in Hagi, the castle town of Choshu. Not much is known about his childhood, although a few anecdotes have been passed down.

One day during the New Year holiday of his fifth year, as he flew a kite near his home in observance of a New Year tradition, a visitor appeared. The visitor, a samurai, was dressed formally for the occasion in fine clothes–hakama and haori displaying his family crest–a gift from the Choshu daimyo. He had come to exchange New Year’s greetings with the Takasugi family. Just as he passed by the boy, the kite fell to the ground near a muddy patch of melting snow. The visitor accidentally stepped on the kite, crushing it. Since nobody was present but a small boy, he disregarded the incident and continued toward the house. But the boy was angry and picked up a handful of mud, with which he threatened to soil the visitor’s clothes unless he apologized. The visitor begged the small boy’s pardon and continued on his way.

Another episode indicative of Takasugi Shinsaku’s indomitable spirit involves the custom among the samurai of Hagi to send their young sons to the local execution grounds to witness the beheadings of criminals—which was supposed to nurture bravery. One day his mother prepared a boxed lunch and told him to go and watch the beheadings with other samurai boys. After the first beheading some of the boys ran home in horror. But not Shinsaku, who ate his boxed lunch and remained until the end of the day to watch the entire series of executions.

(source: Furukawa, Kaoru. Takasugi Shinsaku. Osaka: Sogensha, 1986; pp. 14-16)

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Read more about Takasugi Shinsaku in my historical narrative, Samurai Revolution, and my biographical novel, Ryoma: Life of a Renaissance Samurai.


ryoma

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

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Kaishu and Ryoma: The Indispensable Relationship (Part 5)

“[He] had a cool head, and a certain power about him that was hard to penetrate. He was a good man.” (なんとなく冒しがたい威権があって、よい男だったよ。) (Katsu Kaishu about Sakamoto Ryoma)

Sakamoto Ryoma & Katsu Kaishu

Sakamoto Ryoma & Katsu Kaishu

In Part 4 of this series (Nov. 24, 2015), I quoted Sakamoto Ryoma’s assessment of Katsu Kaishu as “the greatest man in Japan.” The respect between the two men was clearly mutual. During the months after the two had first met, Kaishu mentioned Ryoma numerous times in his journal, including in an entry dated Bunkyu 3/5/16 (16th day of the Fifth Month of the Japanese year corresponding to 1863), when Kaishu, then-vice commissioner of the shogun’s navy, wrote that he would send Ryoma to Fukui to solicit financial support for the private school in Kobe which Kaishu was about to establish for the sake of Ryoma and other renegade samurai (ronin) who had enlisted to study under him. In all of these journal entries Kaishu refers to Ryoma, who was twelve years younger than him, as “Ryoma-shi.” The character for “shi” (子), which when pronounced “ko” means “child,” is in this sense used as an honorary and indicates that Kaishu perceived in Ryoma an element of greatness or at least extraordinary ability, as Matsuura Rei explains in his biography of Katsu Kaishu. And in the future, three decades after Ryoma’s death, Kaishu had nothing but praise for him. In an interview with the Yomiuri Shinbun, a national newspaper, given on April 3, 1896, Kaishu said that Ryoma “had a cool head, and a certain power about him that was hard to penetrate. He was a good man.”

Read more about the indispensible relationship between Kaishu and Ryoma in my historical narrative, Samurai Revolution and my biographical novel, Ryoma: Life of a Renaissance Samurai.

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ryoma

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

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