About Romulus Hillsborough: Think big! Create! Persevere!—and feel with the mind

Here I explain how I got into the business of writing books about the Samurai Revolution. It’s not simple, so please bear with me.

I grew up in Los Angeles but came of age in Tokyo where I lived for sixteen years after graduating from a California State University with a degree in English. Literature and writing have been my passion since college. My first “favorite writer” was Salinger. I read The Catcher in the Rye for the first time during the summer of my thirteenth year. I read it multiple times that summer — I’ve been reading it occasionally ever since.

After discovering The Hobbit in high school I read Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings over and over again until one fine day Hemingway walked into my life and changed it forever. I couldn’t get enough of him. (Actually, I had read A Farewell to Arms while still in junior high school, but I was too young to understand it.) In college I read everything Hemingway wrote — multiple times. I was sure that after graduating I would live in Paris and write as he did (à la A Moveable Feast). I did not live in Paris; instead I moved to Tokyo. But long before that, I had a chance encounter with someone who knew Hemingway that I will never forget: It was during my last year of college, when I flew from Los Angeles to Las Vegas to visit my mother. The plane had two rows of two seats separated by a narrow aisle. I was sitting in an aisle seat, reading a book of Hemingway’s short stories. An elderly woman in the seat on the other side of the aisle looked over and said, “I knew his wife. I was her maid. I heard the shots that morning and saw the sheriffs running up the hill.” She was referring to the morning Hemingway committed suicide at his home in Ketchum, Idaho, with a shotgun blast to the head. I was blown away. Truly blown away.

After Hemingway I read Dostoevsky, who introduced me to existentialism through Crime and Punishment, The Brothers Karamazov and the terrifying pages of Notes from Underground. Then I read Sartre and Camus, through whom existential angst reared its ugly head, before I ran smack into Hesse, whose Steppenwolf became my Bible. At the time I was living alone in a squalid one-room apartment, working the graveyard shift in the mailroom at the Los Angeles Times, and writing lots of deep, dark poetry — and for a while I imagined that I had become the Steppenwolf himself.

Then everything changed when I moved to Tokyo in February 1978. But before I get into my Japan experience, I should explain why I went there in the first place. I had graduated college and was still working in the mailroom, hardly a fascinating job. And I think I was suffering from existential angst – as I’ve said, I took the Steppenwolf stuff to heart! In short, I needed a change. I chose Japan because I had been studying a Japanese martial art (Shotokan Karate of America, chief instructor Tsutomu Ohshima) since my senior year in high school and so I had a natural inclination toward that country. The year before I left for Japan I had earned first-degree black belt (shodan). Since I was a black belt, Ohshima-sensei told me that I could practice with the Karate Club at his alma mater, the prestigious Waseda University, where Ohshima-sensei had been a top student of Master Gichin Funakoshi, the founder of Shotokan Karate.

I’d never even been out of the country before, and when I landed at Tokyo’s Haneda Airport one very cold night, took a train to Shibuya, a major station in the city, walked the crowded streets alone, rooftop neon signs flashing strange characters I’d never seen, then checked into a small business hotel and sat down at the bar and had a beer, and placed a tip on the counter, the bartender panicked and refused to take it. He must have thought I was out of my mind, or at least that I was just another “stupid foreigner.” People don’t tip in Japan, as I learned that night. But it took a little longer for me to figure out that the 100-yen bill (bearing the image of a bearded Itagaki Taisuke) that I left on the bar was a rarity. I guess the government had stopped printing 100-yen bills long before that; but somehow I’d gotten several of them at a bank in Los Angeles when I exchanged dollars for yen shortly before leaving for Japan.

From the get-go I was determined to learn the Japanese language. I enrolled in the Modern Japanese Language School in Shibuya, where Mrs. Tae Moriyama, one of the finest people I’ve ever known, served as head instructor. Under Moriyama-sensei’s tutelage I studied on my own an average of five or six hours a day as many days a week. I was able to spend so much time on my studies because I only had to work evenings — teaching English to Japanese businessmen (“salarymen,” as they were and still are called), who were forced into it by their employers. Since most of them really didn’t want to sit in a classroom for two hours after a long day’s work, much of my “teaching” time was spent at various and assorted “drinking establishments,” so that I inevitably took off my teaching hat (that I didn’t deserve anyway, since I didn’t have a credential), and learned how to cavort like the Japanese.

To practice reading Japanese, I got a couple of history books for Japanese grade school kids. It was my first taste of Japanese history and I liked it. Soon I was reading Yoshikawa Eiji’s famous biographical novel Musashi (before the English translation was published by Kodansha). One day while I was carrying the book around, a drinking buddy of mine saw it. “Musashi’s interesting,” he said. “But this is even better.” He handed me the first paperback volume of an 8-volume biographical novel entitled Ryoma ga Yuku, Shiba Ryotaro’s masterpiece about Sakamoto Ryoma. I took the book, thanked my friend, went home, put it in the bookshelf and there it sat for a couple of years. When I finally picked it up again and started reading it, I couldn’t put it down. Not only had I discovered my new “favorite writer,” but I became acquainted with a samurai of the mid-19th century who changed my life.

At first I thought about translating it into English so that people all over the world could learn about Ryoma and his fascinating story. But translation is a tedious job and I’d done my share of it by then. And besides, since Shiba’s book was written for a Japanese audience, I knew that a straight English translation would never work. When a Japanese writer writes for a Japanese audience he doesn’t have to explain certain cultural, historical and linguistic nuances that are common knowledge or otherwise readily understood. But if Shiba’s book were to be translated into English, the translator would either have to use lots of annotation or take poetic license with the text, neither of which appealed to me. And so I decided to write my own book, and began the six-year process of researching and writing Ryoma: Life of a Renaissance Samurai, the only biographical novel about the great man in English.

My research included all of Ryoma’s extant letters and other documents attributed to him, as well as definitive biographies of Ryoma and certain of his cohorts and enemies in the revolution. I was lucky enough to make the acquaintance of Miyaji Saichiro, whose annotated collection, Sakamoto Ryoma Zenshu (“The Complete Works of Sakamoto Ryoma”), was my most important source for the novel. Miyaji-sensei, who lived in Tokyo, was a native of Kochi, Ryoma’a hometown. I traveled to Kochi and other cities and towns where Ryoma was most active, including Kyoto, Nagasaki, Kagoshima, Hagi and the picturesque fishing village of Tomo on the Inland Sea.

A few years earlier, I gave up teaching salarymen to work as a writer at the world’s biggest ad agency before landing a job at a popular weekly magazine, and later working as a contributing writer for a number of other Japanese publications. When I moved back to California in 1994, after spending sixteen years in Japan, I settled in San Francisco. I published Ryoma in 1999, then spent a year writing Samurai Sketches, which was published in 2001, and later republished as Samurai Tales. In 2003 I started writing Shinsengumi, which took me a year to complete. It was published in 2005. Shortly after completing the Shinsengumi manuscript I began working on Samurai Revolution. It was published ten years later in 2014. Thus far, my books have been published in seven foreign languages: Japanese, Spanish, Czech, Romanian, Indonesian, Polish, and Thai.