“The Ryoma Phenomenon” (15): Ryoma and Nietzsche (2)


As I wrote in No. 1 of this series, Ryōma began living dangerously when he rejected Confucian-samurai values and the discriminatory class structure in Tosa, fled Tosa, and became an outlaw.

Ryōma’s rejection of certain Confucian-samurai values (by no means did he reject them all) resembles Nietzsche’s rejection of Christian values, just as the philosopher’s famous announcement of the death of God is comparable to Ryōma’s heralding the death of Tokugawa feudalism. According to Nietzsche, once a person rejects society’s old values, he is left with nothing but himself to rely on. This fundamental Nietzschean idea is reflected in an often-cited poem by Ryōma, which, I think, sums up the latter’s philosophy very nicely: “It matters not what people say of me, I am the only one who knows what I must do.” (世の人はわれを なにともゆはゞいへわがなすことはわれのみぞしる)


“The Ryoma Phenomenon” (14): Ryoma and Nietzsche (1)



I began studying the life of Sakamoto Ryōma in the mid-1980’s to research my novel Ryoma: Life of a Renaissance Samurai. It was during that time that I discovered the underlying theme of his life: a relentless quest for freedom. Immediately following the scene in which he flees Tosa, I wrote that “abandoning Tosa was Ryoma’s giant leap across the border which had separated him from freedom,” and that he “had chosen to throw himself into a cauldron of political and social chaos” for freedom. “Freedom was what Ryoma had longed for, and it was for freedom that he had sacrificed both country and home. The freedom to act, the freedom to think, the freedom to be: these were the ideals that drove him on the thorny road toward salvation, the salvation of Japan.”

It wasn’t until much later that I delved into the works of Nietzsche, another famous lover of freedom. I discovered that despite their vastly different historical, cultural, and ideological backgrounds, Ryōma and Nietzsche were kindred spirits. I perceived an uncanny resemblance between the provocative German thinker whose ideas resonate throughout the twentieth century and beyond, and the audacious samurai who changed history. Ryōma and Nietzsche were contemporaries, though the latter lived many years longer than the former; and both were modern thinkers. But while Nietzsche was a philosopher, Ryōma was a man of action who lived some of Nietzsche’s fundamental ideas, including the exhortation to “live dangerously.”

“I welcome all signs that a more virile, warlike age is about to begin, which will restore honor to courage above all. For this age shall prepare the way for one yet higher, and it shall give the strength that this higher age will require some day—the age that will carry heroism into the search for knowledge and that will wage wars for the sake of ideas and their consequences. To this end we now need many preparatory courageous human beings. . .” .And so, Nietzsche exhorts courageous human beings who are “seekers of knowledge” to “live dangerously!” [Nietzsche, Friedrich. Walter Kaufmann, trans. The Gay Science, sec. 283. New York: Vintage-Random, 1974. The philosopher R. J. Hollingdale points out that here Nietzsche is not inciting people to arms, as he is often misunderstood to do. His gist, rather, is seen in an earlier line of Nietzsche’s: “Strife is the perpetual food of soul.” (Hollingdale, R. J. Nietzsche: The Man and His Philosophy, p. 144. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1999)]

Ryōma was indeed a seeker of knowledge; and though he was a warrior, he was also a peacemaker. The knowledge he sought included Western military science, and modern business and governmental systems to develop a modern navy, establish Japan’s first modern trading company, and write the blueprint for the modern Meiji government. Commanding a Chōshū warship in 1866, he waged war for the sake of ideas and their consequences against Tokugawa forces at Shimonoseki. In arranging for a military alliance between Satsuma and Chōshū against the Bakufu, and composing a plan for the shōgun’s peaceful abdication and restoration of Imperial rule, even while running guns for the revolution, he proved to be a preparatory courageous human being, even in defiance of his allies, Satsuma and Chōshū, who were determined to crush the Bakufu by military force, and his enemies in the Bakufu who opposed the shōgun’s decision to abdicate.

Ryōma began living dangerously when he rejected Confucian-samurai values and the discriminatory class structure of his native Tosa, fled Tosa, and became an outlaw. In 1865, as he worked to broker the Satsuma-Chōshū Alliance, he wrote a letter to his sister Otomé, in which he dismissed men who stayed behind in Tosa as “truly very stupid” for “spending their days in a place like [Tosa] without any ambition at all.” In the following year, he wrote to Otomé, “Rather than staying home . . . and receiving a stipend of rice, it is much more fun to be working for the nation, if only one is prepared to lay down his life.” Ryōma perceived the Bakufu’s Confucian-based social and political systems as a threat to Japan’s sovereignty in an age of Western imperialism; and resolved to live dangerously, he was determined to overthrow the Bakufu.


“The Ryoma Phenomenon” (13): Ryoma Books at Teradaya


I visited the Teradaya inn in Fushimi, Kyoto, last week for the first time in many years, since before publishing Ryoma: Life of a Renaissance Samurai. I don’t remember if I sent it to the Teradaya when it was published or what,


but I was pleasantly surprised to see it with four of my favorite books about Sakamoto Ryoma in the library at the storied inn. The four books are:

Hirao Michio, Sakamoto Ryoma: Kaientai Shimatsuki, Tokyo: Chuokoronsha, 1976 (坂本龍馬 海援隊始末記);

Miyaji Saichiro, ed., Sakamoto Ryoma Zenshu, Tokyo: Kofusha, 1982 (坂本龍馬全集) [second shelf, first book on left in bookcase below]; teradaya-books-miyaji

Matsuoka Mamoru, Teihon Sakamoto Ryoma-den, Tokyo: Shinjinbutsu Oraisha, 2003 (定本 坂本龍馬伝) [right below]; and Omino Kiyoharu, Sakamoto Ryoma to Token, Tokyo: Shinjinbutsu Oraisha, 1995 (坂本龍馬と刀) [left below].



“The Ryoma Phenomenon” – 龍馬現象 (12): Ryoma’s Killers


It is almost certain that these two men, Imai Nobuo (left) and Watanabe Atsushi (right), had a direct hand in the assassination of Sakamoto Ryoma. Ryoma’s assassination is the subject of Part III of my forthcoming Samurai Assassins: “Dark Murder” and the Meiji Restoration, 1853-1868, to be published by McFarland in 2017.

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“The Ryoma Phenomenon” – 龍馬現象 (11): My Five Favorite Books About Ryoma


There are lots of books about Sakamoto Ryoma.* There are more than thirty volumes in one of the bookshelves in my personal library. And there are a lot more to be found in bookstores, and public and university libraries. During the thirty years that I’ve been researching and writing about Ryoma, my favorite books about him are the five mentioned below. I have chosen them for their originality, scholarship and overall readability, and also for their great value to me as a writer.

Miyaji Saichiro, ed. Sakamoto Ryoma Zenshu. Tokyo: Kofusha, 1982. (坂本龍馬全集): The collection of Ryoma-related documents, including letters written and received by him, letters written by others concerning him, other documents either written by or attributed to him, and much, much more, all of which is meticulously annotated. A must for all researchers and students of the life and times of Sakamoto Ryoma, compiled, edited and annotated by my revered late mentor and friend.
Matsuoka Mamoru. Teihon Sakamoto Ryoma-den. Tokyo: Shinjinbutsu Oraisha, 2003. (定本 坂本龍馬伝): Of the many biographies I have read or referred to, this fairly recent one is the most comprehensive and perhaps most painstaking. As indicated by its title, it is the definitive biography, and a truly remarkable work of scholarship and writing by a Tosa historian whom I am proud to call a personal friend.
Omino Kiyoharu. Sakamoto Ryoma to Token. Tokyo: Shinjinbutsu Oraisha, 1995. (坂本龍馬と刀剣): A scholarly collection of extremely interesting essays focusing on the significance of the Japanese sword in Ryoma’s life. As with other works by this fine author and Ryoma scholar, who is also an accomplished sword appraiser and polisher, this penetrating study of Ryoma is exceptionally original, and written in concise, easy-to-read language. I am proud to call Mr. Omino a personal friend.
Hirao Michio. Sakamoto Ryoma: Kaientai Shimatsuki. Tokyo: Chuokoronsha, 1976. (坂本龍馬 海援隊始末記): This exceptional biography is standard reading for all students of the life and times of Sakamoto Ryoma. It must be one of the most widely read books by an important and prolific writer who might be called the “godfather” of Tosa historians during the 20th century.

Shiba Ryotaro. Ryoma ga Yuku (vols 1-8). Tokyo: Bungei Shunshu, 1975. (竜馬がゆく) This masterpiece by a prolific historical novelist 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.

*Almost all books about Sakamoto Ryoma are in Japanese. The only two that I know of which are not are my novel, Ryoma Life of a Renaissance Samurai, and Marius B. Jansen’s biography, Sakamoto Ryōma and the Meiji Restoration. I should mention, however, that I have written extensively about Sakamoto Ryoma in other books as well, including Samurai Tales, Samurai Revolution, and my forthcoming Samurai Assassins (to be published by McFarland in 2017).