Sakamoto Ryoma, Superstar

Sakamoto Ryoma

Sakamoto Ryoma, founder of Japan’s first trading company, was a swaggering swordsman who packed a Smith & Wesson, an outlaw, and leader in the “samurai revolution” at the dawn of modern Japan. And now, in the 21st century, he’s a superstar.

Ryoma’s 180th birthday is being celebrated this year through a series of events at his hometown of Kochi, including the annual gathering of “Ryoma fans” from around the country to be held November 14 and 15.

Ryoma’s grave is in the old cemetery at Ryozen Gokoku Shrine, in the hills of Higashiyama on the east side of Kyoto, where he was assassinated on his 32nd birthday in 1867. The narrow, well-trodden pathway leading up to the grave is always lined with tiles inscribed with handwritten messages to Ryoma; and his grave is adorned with fresh flowers, incense, cups of sake, sweets and more handwritten notes. Each time I have visited the gravesite I’ve been struck with awe at the testimony of reverence and adoration—even love—by people of all ages come from all parts of Japan to pay their respects.

With the geopolitical and economic challenges facing Japan today, many people express their wish that a leader of Ryoma’s caliber would emerge. “Who from the past millennium of world history would be most useful in overcoming Japan’s current financial crisis?” a national newspaper once asked executives of 200 Japanese corporations. Ryoma received more mention than any other historical figure, topping such giants as Thomas Edison, Leonardo da Vinci, Saigo Takamori, Oda Nobunaga and the founders of NEC and Honda.

So why does Ryoma command such respect and adoration? I think the answer lies, in part, in his charismatic personality, his love of freedom, and the ways he lived and died. Read about his life in my Ryoma: Life of a Renaissance Samurai, the only biographical novel about him in English.

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