Ryoma : Life of a Renaissance Samurai by Hillsborough, Romulus

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Ryoma : Life of a Renaissance Samurai

by Hillsborough, Romulus

"...any life which merits living lies in the effort to realize some dream, and the higher that dream is the harder it is to realize."

Eugene O'Neill


The year was 1867 and Ryoma was beside himself with anxiety. The outlaw-samurai was waiting at his Kyoto hideout for an answer to the single most important question in Japan: Would the Shogun restore the Emperor to power, peacefully relinquishing his family s rule of two and a half centuries? Or would the great samurai clans of the southwest, Imperial edict in hand, declare war on the Shogun's military government at Edo, causing chaos throughout the nation, and possible attack from the foreign powers of the West?

Waiting with Ryoma were fellow ronin-outlaw-samurai who had abandoned their clans to fight for the Loyalist cause of overthrowing the Shogunate, restoring Imperial rule and fortifying the Japanese nation in the face of foreign subjugation. The atmosphere at Ryoma s hideout was tense. Should word arrive that the Shogun refused to relinquish power, Ryoma and his men were prepared to attack Nijo Castle, assassinate the Shogun, then cut open their bellies in defiance.

But why would the leader of a band of outlaws be among the first to hear of the Shogun's momentous decision? How could Sakamoto Ryoma, a petty samurai, command the respect of feudal lords throughout Japan?

Theirs was a bloody time of the arrival of "Black Ships" from the West, political intrigue, turbulence and assassination, in which Sakamoto Ryoma-outlaw-samurai, pistol-bearing swordsman, freedom-fighter, pioneering naval commander, entrepreneur and statesman, a youth ahead of his time with an imagination as boundless as the Pacific Ocean-was a leader in the revolution to overthrow the shogunate and form a unified democracy in Japan.
Part I

Forging the Dragon

Black Ships
The polished dark wooden floor of the Hineno Fencing Dojo reflected the late morning sunlight which filtered into the room through four small windows. The muscular youth wore a pair of wide trousers of dark blue cotton, a robe of the same material and color, and a quilted vest lined with pliant strips of bamboo. Protective gloves covered the backs of his hands, a shield protected his face. His long hair was disheveled after a hard practice session, his body covered with sweat.

At five feet, ten inches tall, the youth towered over the middle-aged sword master. Armed with a bamboo practice sword, he walked steadily to the center of the floor. The clean smell of sweat calmed him, and prepared him for a battle which he knew must end in death.

Master and pupil bowed to one another. The pupil slowly raised his sword to face-level, his dark brown eyes focused on his master's, his bare feet planted firmly on the wooden floor, his face devoid of expression. He broke the silence with a piercing guttural wail, as the master intercepted the attack a fraction of an inch above his right temple. Master Hineno countered with lightning speed, slashing downward across Ryoma s abdomen, then up the side of his chest to the base of his jaw. "That's all," the sword master firmly commanded, and the match was over.
Had Ryoma not been born into a samurai household, he might never have touched a sword, and certainly would not have been molded into an expert swordsman by age seventeen. Ryoma's family, in fact, derived from a prosperous sake brewer. In 1770 the sake brewer purchased the rank of merchant-samurai, which, although among the bottom rungs of the two-sworded class, was nevertheless included among the warrior caste. This distinction placed the Sakamoto family among the topmost of the four levels of feudal society: samurai, peasant, craftsman and merchant, in this respective order. The samurai Sakamoto Ryoma was born in the castletown of Kochi, capital of the great domain of Tosa, on the Japanese island of Shikoku, on the fifteenth day of the eleventh month of the sixth year of the Era of Heaven's Protection, or by Western reckoning, November 15, 1835.

According to one legend Ryoma's pregnant mother dreamt of a fire-breathing beast-half dragon, half horse-which came "flying into her womb." Another fantastic story tells that Ryoma was sired by his mother's pet torn cat, since the woman was accustomed to sleeping with the furry creature cuddled between her belly and thighs. A third story has it that Ryoma's father thus named the infant because he was born with a face full of moles, and hair covering his back. But as these accounts are mere legend, their validity remains an eternal mystery, while the name Ryoma, "Dragon-Steed," remains an eternal symbol of freedom.

Ryoma's closest companion during childhood was his elder sister, Otome. Though just three years older, Otome had raised Ryoma from his eleventh year, after the death of their mother. Otome was as large as her sizable younger brother, and skilled in the martial arts of fencing, wrestling, riding and swimming. She never despaired of Ryoma, who until the age of fourteen had the reputation among his peers as a "runny-nosed, bed-wetting crybaby." Ryoma's father and elder brother were embarrassed by his disposition, which was unbecoming of a samurai. When the family was informed by the local schoolmaster that Ryoma was not only constantly bullied by his classmates for his propensity to wet his pants and cry, but that he did not have the mental capacity for scholarship, both father and brother worried that Ryoma was mentally retarded.

Otome, however, decided that if Ryoma was not suited for scholarship, then he would take up the study of swordsmanship. She soon enrolled him at the Hineno Dojo, a local fencing academy. At first, Ryoma seemed no more inclined for kenjutsu than he had been for intellectual pursuit. He was constantly getting hit with a practice sword on the backs of his hands and the side of his head, and thrown to the hard wooden floor, at which time he would inevitably cry. After a few months of training, however, a big change began to appear in Ryoma. He thrived on the rigorous practice. No matter how hard he was hit, he would not let loose his grip on his sword; no matter how hard he was thrown, he would not cry. Eventually Ryoma began developing muscles on parts of his body which had previously been covered with baby fat. By his third year of kenjutsu training, Ryoma had become one of the toughest and most skilled swordsmen at the dojo.

The Japanese island of Shikoku, meaning "Four Provinces," consisted of just that, with Tosa being the largest of the four. Tosa was a fan-shaped mountainous province of temperate climate, which comprised the entire southern portion of the smallest of the four main Japanese islands. Kochi Castletown was situated in the vicinity of Kochi Castle, along the southern border of the domain, just inland from the Pacific.

Tosa was one of some 260 feudal domains, or han, into which Japan was divided. Each han was overseen by samurai, and ruled by a feudal lord, or daimyo. The Shogun, head of the Tokugawa family, was the mightiest daimyo of all. He dominated the Japanese nation from his military government at Edo, which was known throughout the land as the Tokugawa Bakufu.

In the spring of 1853, Ryoma left his native Kochi for Edo. The Shogun's distant capital was the home of the top fencing academies in Japan, and it was at Edo that the young samurai would further his study in the way of the sword. Beside his long and short swords which he wore thrust through his sash at his left hip, Ryoma carried with him his father's written words of admonition: "Do not forget for an instant that loyalty and filial piety are the most important elements of your training. Do not become attached to material things and squander gold and silver for them. Do not give yourself up to sensuality, forget the importance of your country, or allow your heart to become corrupted."

Two weeks after leaving home, Ryoma reached the last stage of the Tokaido Road. The Tokaido was the main thoroughfare which stretched some 300 leagues along the east coast of the main Japanese island of Honshu, between the Imperial capital of Kyoto and the Shogun's capital of Edo. From here he got his first sight of the sprawling city, and the towering white keeps of Edo Castle, the stronghold of the Tokugawa Bakufu.

Ryoma was overwhelmed by the sheer energy of the city: the crowds, the two-storied merchants' shops of black tile roofs lining the streets, the outdoor tea shops, numerous food stalls, restaurants and taverns. Here a daimyo was being carried through the streets in a luxurious palanquin of lacquered wood and split bamboo; there a young woman emerged from a shop, elegantly dressed in brightly colored silk; a Buddhist priest, in a black clerical robe and conical basket hat, stood nearby begging for alms; a dignified samurai, perhaps a government official, walked down the street, his swords thrust through his sash, his topknot neatly tied and folded over his cleanly shaven pate. Here was a well-to-do merchant, swordless of course; but dressed in a fine silken kimono. A peddler pulled a two-wheeled cart loaded with myriad household items. Wicker brooms, straw baskets, wooden ladles, and small bamboo pails stuck out from the top and all sides of the cart, which passed by a musical quartet of three gaily costumed men and one woman. One of them, an old man wearing a long pointed cap, sang passionately to the music of a flutist, a shamisen player and a pounder of wooden blocks.

Protocol compelled Ryoma to report directly to the official Tosa headquarters, located at the center of the city near Edo Castle. Each of the 266 feudal lords maintained official headquarters in Edo to house official representatives at the Shogun's capital. The size, scale and number of these headquarters differed according to the wealth and rank of the individual daimyo. The larger han, including Tosa, maintained more than one official headquarters, each large enough to house hundreds, and in some cases thousands, of samurai. The maintenance of han headquarters was required by the Law of Alternate Attendance, whereby all feudal lords were obligated to reside in the capital in alternate years. During their absence from Edo, the lords were required to leave their wives and heirs at their Edo residences as virtual hostages, a protective measure used by the central government against possible insurrection in the provinces.

Due to Ryoma's low social standing in the Tosa hierarchy, he was little concerned with official matters. Accordingly, after reporting his arrival at Tosa headquarters, he went directly to the academy of the celebrated sword master Chiba Sadakichi, one of the top fencing schools in Edo.

Ryoma practiced fencing daily during his first several weeks in Edo. He soon earned a reputation as a promising young swordsman, and developed a close friendship with the sword master's son, Chiba Jutaro. Then an event occurred one sweltering afternoon in the sixth month of the sixth year of the Era of Long Happiness which was to change not only the life of Sakamoto Ryoma, but the fate of the entire Japanese nation.

On June 3, 1853, Commodore Matthew Perry of the United States Navy led a flotilla of four "Black Ships" into Sagami Bay, to the Port of Uraga, just south of Edo, sparking the greatest uproar in the two and a half centuries of Tokugawa rule. Perry carried a letter addressed to the Shogun from President Millard Fillmore, demanding a treaty between the United States and Japan. When a Bakufu official informed the Americans aboard ship that Japanese law required all foreign affairs to be handled at the port city of Nagasaki in Kyushu, he was told in no uncertain terms that the President of the United States had ordered Perry to deliver his message directly to the Shogun in Edo. Perry had nothing more to say, but rather anchored his four heavily armed warships just off the coast, as if to prepare for an attack on the Japanese capital.

The Bakufu was perplexed. There had been several incidents in the past of foreign ships appearing off the Japanese coast, but this was the first time that a fleet of warships had threatened Edo. The Japanese capital, in fact, had never seen such magnificent ships. Two were steamers, which could move about freely, independent of sails or the winds. All four ships were mounted with great guns along both sides, totaling eighty in all-enough firepower to devastate the wooden city.

Until now, the Bakufu had been more concerned with preserving its rule than competing technologically with the rest of the world. As long as the government could keep the foreigners out, the rest of the nation would have to abide by the laws it dictated. To prevent would-be insurgents from secretly traveling overseas, the Bakufu had for centuries banned the building of large ships. As a result, Japan had become so technologically backward that it was now unable to defend itself from the Western powers that threatened to dominate Asia.

Perry's demands for a treaty presented the Bakufu with the greatest dilemma in its history. Acquiescence, it reasoned, would lead to subjugation by the West; rejection, it worried, might lead to a war which it could not hope to win. But the central government also realized that samurai throughout Japan would demand a war against the "evil barbarians who dared to invade the sacred land." Reports of the Opium War in China during the previous decade, by which the British now dominated the great Middle Kingdom, served as an omen of dire consequence to the Japanese.

The Shogun's Senior Council, to be sure, was scared out of its wits. From now on, it would gradually adopt an official stance of Opening the Country, while samurai throughout Japan would scream for Expelling the Barbarians. Ryoma, for his part, displayed his own contempt for the foreign intruders in a letter to his father. "It looks like we 're going to have a war soon," he wrote. “If so, I'll be cutting off some foreign heads before returning to Tosa."

Before Ryoma could fulfill his vow, however, the Americans suddenly raised anchor and departed, just six days after their first appearance off the Edo coast, but not before Perry had received the Bakufu's promise to answer the demands for a treaty during the following year. A treaty between the United States and Japan was completed in March 1854, ending over two and a half centuries of Japanese isolation. Although the treaty made no provision for foreign trade, it entitled American ships to purchase food and other necessities from the Japanese, and assured them amicable treatment in case of shipwreck off the Japanese coast. Two Japanese ports were opened; one at Shimoda, just a short distance from Edo; the other at Hakodate, on the distant northern island of Ezo.

While marking a turning point in the history of Japan, the treaty also aroused in the heart of the eighteen-year-old Sakamoto Ryoma his first feeling of resentment toward the Bakufu, which had been humiliated by the Americans. Ryoma, like most samurai throughout Japan, resented the intrusion of the unwanted foreigners, and deplored the Shogun's government for having become too weak to keep the foreigners out. Until now, Ryoma's personal development had been focused solely on the forging of his draconic spirit through intense training in the way of the sword. Now, with the coming of the Black Ships, he was beginning to formulate his first political outlook on the world, albeit his was still one which needed a great deal of refinement.

* * *

Ryoma made great progress at the Chiba Dojo, receiving intermediate rank within a year. Rank in the Hokushin-Itto Style was divided into three levels:

basic, intermediate and senior. The attainment of senior rank was tantamount to mastering the art, thus qualifying a swordsman to establish a fencing dojo of his own. But Ryoma's official permission to remain in Edo expired

in the summer of 1854, when he returned home. At Kochi Castletown he could not keep his mind off the great American warships he had seen in the previous year. He fantasized that one day he might command his own Black

Ship. Then one day, in hope of finding a sympathetic ear, he paid a visit to Kawada Shoryo, an artist and scholar of Western studies who lived in the castletown.

Aside from his many drawings in Chinese ink-dragons were his specialty-Shoryo, whose name meant "Little Dragon," was a prolific writer. Among his works was An Account of an American Castaway, about a young Tosa fisherman, Nakahama Manjiro, who had been shipwrecked off an uninhabited Japanese island in 1841. The fourteen-year-old boy was rescued by an American whaling ship, befriended by the captain, and taken to the United States for an education. Upon Manjiro's return to Japan in 1852, he was ordered by the Lord of Tosa to report his American experiences to Shoryo, who wrote a fascinating account of Western technology, society and culture, which, since the coming of Perry in the previous year, had become an object of extreme interest not only to the local Tosa government, but to the Edo Bakufu as well.

When Ryoma first appeared at the front gate of Shoryo's house, the

sophisticated scholar showed no interest in the uneducated young swordsman. Ryoma was dressed sloppily in a pair of faded gray wide trousers, or hakama, and a wrinkled black jacket. Displayed in white on the front of the jacket was the Sakamoto family crest: a Chinese bellflower enclosed by overlapping squares which formed an eight-pointed star. Through his sash, at his left hip, hung his long and short swords. On his broad forehead, just above the left brow was an unsightly wart. His large tanned face was spotted with moles, and, as usual, his hair was unkempt. "My name is Sakamoto Ryoma. I've heard about your interest in Western culture," he said, in short, abrupt spurts, his right hand tucked into the breast of his kimono.

"What do you want?" Shoryo asked impatiently.

"I've just returned from Edo. I've seen the Black Ships with my own eyes."

"So what?"

"So..." Ryoma paused momentarily, before blurting, "I've come to ask what you think ought to be done about the barbarians."

"I'm just an artist. I have no opinion on the matter," Shoryo lied.

But Ryoma was persistent, and eventually convinced the scholar to invite him inside to discuss Western culture. Ryoma was a good listener, and Shoryo, once he began speaking, poured forth his knowledge of the West. He told of the leaps and bounds by which Western countries were progressing in the fields of science and industry, the practical use to which technology was being put, both militarily and industrially, and of the concept of the joint-stock company.

"As for all the recent talk of Expelling the Barbarians," Shoryo said, "we simply don't have the means by which to enforce it. You said you've seen the Black Ships. Well, those are only the beginning of what's to come in the near future. Narrow-minded men who nowadays are inclined to rant and rave about keeping the foreigners out are simply ignorant of the technological power of the West. But that doesn't mean that we should run blindly into a policy of Opening the Country either. Before opening the country-and that's what we must do if we expect to protect ourselves from foreign subjugation-we must first prepare ourselves militarily. To do so, we must import the advanced military methods and technologies of the West.

"Being an island nation, Japan is first going to have to develop a navy. But before we can do that, we must increase our knowledge of navigation. To do so, we will need to purchase foreign ships. The little junks we have now are like children's toys compared to the great warships of Europe and America. The Americans have built roads made of iron rails that span a distance much greater than the entire length of Japan. On these rails they run steam-powered locomotives to transport men and cargo."

'Locomotives?" Ryoma interrupted. "What's a locomotive?" "A locomotive is a self-propelled vehicle made of iron, which runs on steel rails and pulls other cars behind it. But what we need more than locomotives are steamships, with which we could transport passengers and cargo along the coast of Japan. In the process we could raise funds to buy more steamships, until we had developed a small navy. All the while we could be improving our navigation skills. But unless we get started very soon, it's going to be too late." Shoryo paused to take a deep breath. "This is the only way to save our nation from foreign subjugation," he grimly concluded. "We don't have the luxury of time to argue among ourselves whether we must open Japan or keep the foreigners out."

Ryoma left Shoryo's house fascinated by what he had heard, but in his heart still felt that Expelling the Barbarians was the only policy that a man of integrity could support. Yielding to the foreign demands would be cowardly, he thought, unbecoming of a samurai. But Ryoma realized that Shoryo was right: Japan simply did not have the military means by which to defend itself from foreign invasion.

* * *

It was pouring rain when Takechi Hanpeita returned to Tosa Han headquarters in Edo. His hakama was drenched, but a wide conical basket hat kept his face and upper body dry. At six feet tall, Hanpeita carried his tightly knit frame with the dignity of a highly polished swordsman, as he proceeded calmly through the iron-studded oaken double outer gate of Tosa headquarters.

"Takechi-sensei," called a voice from the guardhouse at the gate. Inside were several young men who had been waiting for Hanpeita to return. These lower-samurai of Tosa idolized the charismatic swordsman at whose fencing dojo in Kochi most of them had trained before coming to Edo.

"What's the matter?" Hanpeita asked, sensing something wrong.

"A samurai named Sakamoto Ryoma has just arrived today," one of the men said. "He's been assigned to your room, Sensei."

Hanpeita entered the guardhouse to get out of the pouring rain. "So, Ryoma has finally arrived," Hanpeita said, removing his basket hat. "I've been expecting him. His older brother wrote me that he'd be coming."

"But Sensei, Sakamoto has referred to you in the most insulting way. He's been calling you..." the man paused.

"Well, say it."

'"Fish chin.'" The man grimaced.

"We can't forgive the outrage," insisted another man angrily.

"Never mind," said Hanpeita, shrugging.

Takechi Hanpeita was a model of samurai temperance. He was known throughout Tosa as a skilled swordsman and accomplished Confucian scholar. He had been initiated in the Itto Style of fencing three years ago at the age of twenty-four, when he had established his own academy in Kochi Castletown. It wasn't long before this petty samurai had attracted some eighty followers from among his social peers, all of whom referred to him: with the honorable title of "sensei."

Since coming to Edo in the previous summer, Hanpeita had been practicing at one of the three greatest fencing academies in the capital. This was the dojo of the renowned sword master Momonoi Shunzo. Likewise, Ryoma, who had returned to Edo in the fall of 1855, continued his practice at the Chiba Dojo throughout the first half of 1857. One afternoon in late summer of that year Ryoma returned to his barrack room to find Hanpeita waiting for him. Despite the great contrast in their natures, the two had developed a close friendship over the past year. Hanpeita wore a light cotton robe; his hair was combed neatly, and tied into a topknot which was folded over his shaven pate. He was sitting on the floor in the formal position, back straight, powdering the blade of his sword. "A samurai must always be ready for battle," he told Ryoma. His pale face was expressionless, save his powerful dark eyes.

"Don't you ever relax?" Ryoma said, leaning back against the wall.

"Powder your sword," Hanpeita demanded, handing Ryoma a small box of powder.

"Later," Ryoma muttered. "I'm too tired now."

"Ryoma, we must prepare for war. Haven't you heard that the barbarians in Shimoda are pressuring the Bakufu to sign another treaty?"

During the previous summer, the American envoy, Townsend Harris, had set up the first United States Consulate in Japan in the port village of Shimoda to negotiate a commercial treaty. However, before the Bakufu could sign such a treaty, protocol demanded that it obtain sanction from the Imperial Court in Kyoto. The Imperial Court, however, had been excluded from the business of government for two and a half centuries. The founders of the Bakufu had designed measures to prevent contacts, both politically and socially, between the feudal lords and the court. Through the years, however, Bakufu supervision of the Imperial Court had waned. Meanwhile, the principal "outside lords" (descendants of those daimyo who became retainers of the first Tokugawa Shogun only after he had defeated his enemies some two and a half centuries before)-namely Tosa, Choshu and Satsuma-had formed matrimonial alliances with families at court. These alliances would prove important during the revolutionary years of the 1860s, when the Bakufu would begin to crumble.

With internal trouble weighing heavily upon the nation, the fencing academies in Edo developed into centers of anti-foreign, and consequently anti-Bakufu, sentiment. The men training at these schools resented the Bakufu its weakness in dealing with the foreigners. As the commercial treaty with Harris began to materialize, samurai throughout Japan assumed an increasingly hostile attitude toward the Bakufu, their moral support now focused on the Imperial Court at Kyoto.

Emperor Komei himself harbored blind hatred for things foreign. When the Bakufu petitioned for Imperial sanction for a commercial treaty with the Americans, they were flatly refused. Although the Emperor held no political power, his prestige of ancient times had not diminished. The first Tokugawa Shogun, in fact, had only obtained his rank after being conferred by the Emperor with the official title of "Commander in Chief of the Expeditionary Forces Against the Barbarians."

"Alright, Fish Chin," Ryoma said, making fun of Hanpeita's protruding chin, "I'll powder my sword." Ryoma drew his sword from its black lacquered sheath, and began applying the lubricating powder.

"This is no laughing matter, Ryoma," Hanpeita admonished. "We must

prepare for war."

In the autumn of 1857 Ryoma was appointed head of the Chiba Dojo. In the following January, five years after entering the dojo, he received the coveted senior rank in the Hokushin-Itto Style. He was still only twenty-two.

This was the fifth year of the Era of Peaceful Rule-1858 by Western reckoning-one of great difficulty for the Tokugawa Bakufu. The military government faced two critical problems: dealing with increased foreign demand to open the country to commercial trade, and deciding on an heir to the present Shogun. After signing the first treaty with the United States in 1854, Japan had been pressured into similar treaties with Great Britain, France, the Netherlands and Russia. None of these five nations, however, were satisfied with the initial treaties, which did not provide for trade with


Concerning the problem of shogunal succession, the Bakufu was in desperate need of a new leader in these extremely critical times. The present Shogun, Tokugawa Iesada, was mentally retarded. One of the favorite pastimes of the Commander in Chief of the Expeditionary Forces Against the Barbarians was stewing potatoes with women in the inner-palace of Edo Castle. And since Shogun Iesada had no interest in the opposite sex, he was childless at the age of thirty-five, presenting the Bakufu with the difficult problem of deciding on an heir to his rule.

Within the Bakufu arose two opposing positions concerning succession. On one side were the 145 hereditary lords, direct retainers of the Shogun, whose ancestors had supported the first Tokugawa Shogun during the great wars at the turn of the seventeenth century. These lords, who occupied all the important governmental posts, were most concerned with maintaining the existing order of things to protect themselves. They argued that shogunal succession must be decided according to tradition, and thus be given to the child-Lord of Kii, a close relative of the Shogun. Opposing the hereditary lords was a small group of practical daimyo who argued that succession be given to the more able Lord Yoshinobu, the son of the Lord of Mito.

The clans of Mito, Kii and Owari-the elite Three Tokugawa Branch Houses-descended from the three youngest sons of the first Tokugawa Shogun. In the event that a Shogun failed to produce an heir, succession came from one of these elite houses. Mito, however, had been traditionally excluded from succession. The Lord of Mito, Tokugawa Nariaki, was nevertheless determined that his son should succeed the Shogun.

The Mito faction argued that although the Lord of Kii was indeed a close j relative of the Shogun, at age twelve he was simply too young to rule. After the death of the present Shogun, these lords hoped to modify the Bakufu i through the selection of an able heir. They would unify the nation through the formation of a political coalition within the Bakufu, which would consist of the lords of the greatest domains in Japan. The conservative hereditary lords, who advocated maintaining the two-and-a-half-century-old Tokugawa hegemony, bitterly opposed them.

The Lord of Mito was a staunch exclusionist, who supported the policy of Expelling the Barbarians. Opposing him was a powerful man by the name of li Naosuke, Lord of Hikone, the largest of the hereditary han. Lord Ii advocated a period of trade with the West in order to allow Japan to strengthen itself financially and technologically. He argued that this was the only way that the nation would be able to perfect its defenses and avoid subjugation.

Amid this turmoil, Edo's fencing schools continued to attract samurai from all over Japan. The pending problems of shogunal succession and the Western threat were the topics of the day, with anti-foreign seclusionism being passionately embraced by these young swordsmen. At the center stage of political discourse were three of Edo's top fencing schools: the Chiba Dojo (Sakamoto Ryoma, head), the Momonoi Dojo (Takechi Hanpeita, head) and the Saito Dojo (Katsura Kogoro, head). Ryoma took little interest in the complicated affairs of state, but rather continued to dedicate himself to kenjutsu. Having recently been officially initiated in the Hokushin-Itto Style, Ryoma now enjoyed a reputation as one of the leading young swordsmen in the capital.
One evening in late April 1858 Hanpeita was reading a book titled A History of Japan, and waiting for Ryoma to return to their barrack room. Upon Ryoma's return, Hanpeita closed the book, and placed it on his desk. Hanpeita's face was typically void of expression. "Ryoma," he said, "have you heard what's happened today?"


"You haven't heard about the biggest disaster of our time?"


"The Lord of Hikone, Ii Naosuke, has been named Bakufu regent."


"Is that all you can say?" Hanpeita was annoyed at Ryoma's lack of concern for political affairs. "Ryoma, you'd better start educating yourself. As head of the Chiba Dojo, you have a special duty to be aware of what's going on in our nation. The Bakufu is too weak to oppose foreign demands. Lord Nariaki of Mito is one of the few men in Edo with the nerve to stand up to the Bakufu. He calls for absolute refusal of the foreign demands to open our nation."

'Hanpeita," Ryoma interrupted, "I've been thinking about all this talk of Expelling the Barbarians. How does anyone expect to be able to do that with just a bunch of talk? I've seen the Black Ships. Those guns could do a lot of damage. We'll need a lot more than just philosophy to stop them."

'That's true. But with the Bakufu giving in to the demands of the filthy barbarians, Lord Nariaki has decided to seek support from the Imperial Court at Kyoto, which has been completely cut off from governing for centuries." "The Imperial Court?" Ryoma repeated with a puzzled look.

"Yes, because the Imperial Court shares Lord Nariaki's views."

The Lord of Mito had become a natural leader of the samurai who were perfecting their skills in the traditional martial arts. Unfortunately, however, most of the proponents of exclusionism, though educated in Japanese history, literature and traditional Confucian philosophy, remained ignorant of the West, and consequently had no idea what they would be up against in case of war. The same was true of the court nobles, and even Emperor Komei himself.

"But the Bakufu has also requested Imperial support," Hanpeita continued.


Hanpeita explained that the Bakufu had recently panicked upon hearing i reports of continued Western advances into China. Edo was consequently persuaded by the United States to agree to a commercial treaty before Japan would meet a similar fate. "But," Hanpeita continued, "since it is required by law that the Bakufu secure Imperial sanction for foreign treaties, Edo has turned to Kyoto for support."

"Why does the Bakufu need Imperial sanction?" Ryoma asked.

"Because of the law requiring Imperial sanction. Without such sanction the Bakufu would have trouble getting support for treaties from the daimyo throughout Japan. "But," Hanpeita's eyes lit up, "this means that Kyoto is in the process of replacing Edo as the center of national politics."

The Mito faction now claimed that the Shogun was merely an Imperial agent, who at the beginning of the seventeenth century had been commissioned by the Emperor to protect Japan from foreign invasion. The Imperialists insisted that true political authority still belonged to the Emperor in Kyoto. They argued that since the Shogun was no longer able to keep the foreigners out, the Emperor and his court must be restored to power to save the nation. As a result, the national government was gradually developing into a twofold structure: while the Bakufu continued to rule at Edo, the ancient Imperial Court was undergoing a political renaissance at Kyoto. With this came the political education of young court nobles in Kyoto, who throughout the entire reign of the Tokugawa had been completely excluded from national affairs. Even the Emperor himself was a political novice. He harbored no anti-Bakufu designs, and his chronic xenophobia was due to a fear of things Western brought on by ignorance of the outside world. A look of disdain flashed in Hanpeita's eyes. "Word has it that His Imperial Majesty has been deeply grieved over the course of recent events."

Since its establishment, the Tokugawa Bakufu had justified its rule by claiming to ease and protect the Emperor, handling all governmental affairs for him. However, things had suddenly taken a drastic turn: the Imperialists now held the Shogun responsible for dishonoring and upsetting His Sacred Majesty, through failure to deal firmly with the foreigners.

"This is a crime that cannot be forgiven," Hanpeita said. He paused, took a long, thin wooden-stemmed pipe from his desk, filled its small brass bowl, with tobacco. Reaching into the nearby brazier with a pair of wooden sticks, he picked up a burning coal, lit the pipe and resumed speaking. "At first, some of the senior officials at court were persuaded by conniving Bakufu officials to issue Imperial sanction to open the country to foreign trade. But then, some of the younger nobles organized a protest meeting, and the sanction was recalled. The court instructed the Bakufu to continue being faithful to the existing Tokugawa institutions. It argued that violation of the sound laws handed down by the first Shogun would disturb the people and make it impossible to preserve lasting tranquillity." Hanpeita paused again to smoke his pipe. "Being forced into further treaties with the barbarians would be a disgrace to our national honor," Hanpeita continued bookishly. "And thanks to the wisdom of His Sacred Majesty, Edo's devious request for Imperial sanction has been refused. But," Hanpeita pounded his fist on the desk, "just today Lord Ii was appointed regent, the most powerful post in the Bakufu."

Hanpeita tapped the ashes out of his pipe into a short wooden ashtray. "And so," he said, his dark, penetrating eyes seething, "although the Bakufu would like to open the country, the Imperial Court has courageously called for absolute refusal to the demands of the barbarians."

Ryoma reached over the desk, and grabbed Hanpeita's wrist. "Men like you and I must stick together," he said, the sudden passion in his voice surprising his friend. "We must seize some of the barbarian warships, and drive them out by force."

"Be serious!" Hanpeita shouted, apparently irritated by Ryoma's simplicity. "You must start educating yourself."

Ryoma spent the following months training at the Chiba Dojo, where he was living most of the time. He hadn't returned to his room at Tosa headquarters for nearly a month, partly in order to avoid Hanpeita. While he admired his friend, Hanpeita had lately become a nuisance by taking it upon himself to educate Ryoma. Then, one evening in the middle of July Ryoma returned to his barrack room, exhausted after a particularly strenuous practice.

"Ryoma," Hanpeita said, "I want you to come with me to meet a couple of men from Choshu. It will be an opportunity to exchange ideas."

"If this is another one of your schemes to educate me, Hanpeita, forget it. I've heard about Regent Ii, the treaty and the shogunal succession."

"So, you've heard about Ii's blasphemy," Hanpeita said, surprised at Ryoma's apparent knowledge of current events.

"Blasphemy?" Ryoma repeated with a puzzled look. "Why do you call it blasphemy?"

Unlike the studious Hanpeita, Ryoma was not interested in politics. Having been told since childhood that he was intellectually inept, he had avoided study. After all, the "runny-nosed, bed-wetting crybaby" had been obliged to leave school when the headmaster informed his father that he was not suited for scholarship. It had been then that he discovered kenjutsu practice. This was an area in which he naturally excelled. It was through kenjutsu that he acquired unwavering self-confidence. The way of the sword, he determined, was the road he would continue to follow.

"Ryoma, you must be more aware of what is going on in the nation," Hanpeita urged. Then in a low voice he added, "The Bakufu is no longer to be trusted."

Regent Ii had recently authorized a commercial treaty with the Americans without obtaining Imperial sanction. His action was considered nothing short of lese majesty by the proponents of Imperial Reverence and Expelling the Barbarians, a new battle cry among radical samurai. Ii was compelled to act quickly when American Consul Townsend Harris threatened that if the Bakufu did not have the authority to sign a treaty without Imperial con sent, the United States would have no alternative but to stop negotiations with Edo, and deal with the ruler which could indeed authorize a treaty. In short, Harris seemed prepared to go to Kyoto to negotiate directly with the Imperial Court. The Bakufu panicked at the sudden ultimatum. If the United States went through with its threat, Edo would lose its authority, and every foreign country which sought a treaty with Japan would naturally follow the American example of dealing directly with the inept Imperial Court. This, reasoned the regent, would spell disaster for the entire nation.

"Then, less than one week after signing the commercial treaty which has laid our sacred nation bare to the wicked barbarians," Hanpeita continued in a seething tone, "and as if to add insult to injury, the Bakufu proclaimed the f child-Lord of Kii heir to the Shogun. The treacherous regent has not only double-crossed His Imperial Majesty, but he has destroyed Lord Yoshinobu's chances for succession."

Shortly after the twelve-year-old Lord of Kii was selected to succeed his cousin as commander in chief of the Tokugawa regime, the imbecilic Shogun Iesada conveniently died, and was enshrined among his ancestors. The young daimyo, meanwhile, became the fourteenth Shogun, Tokugawa Iemochi.

"Ryoma, I'm asking you to come with me this evening as a personal favor. The Choshu men are expecting to see Sakamoto Ryoma, the head of the Chiba Dojo. One of them is Katsura Kogoro, head of the Saito Dojo."

"Katsura Kogoro will be there?" Ryoma, who had heard of Katsura's great skill with a sword, was suddenly more interested. "Alright, Hanpeita. I'll go."

Two samurai walked through the low wooden front gate of a restaurant near Tosa headquarters. Takechi Hanpeita was immaculately dressed in a black kimono, hakama of royal blue cotton, and a gray jacket displaying the Takechi family crest. His hair was oiled and combed, and his topknot folded neatly over his shaven pate. In contrast, Ryoma was sloppily clad in a faded black kimono, and a jacket so worn that his family crest was barely visible, and as usual, his long hair was uncombed. Both men wore their long and short swords thrust through the sash at their left hip.

The proprietress of the restaurant escorted the two men to a private room on the second story, where two other samurai sat on the floor, drinking at a low wooden table. "Takechi-sensei, thank you for coming," one of them said. This was Katsura Kogoro, suave of speech and gentle of manner. He was dressed formally in a dark blue jacket and black hakama; his hair was tied neatly into a topknot. His intelligent face was pale, his features almost effeminate; but his grand demeanor and dark, piercing eyes betrayed a great strength of character. The adopted son of an upper-samurai, Katsura, age twenty-five, had come to Edo five years before to practice kenjutsu at the famed Saito Dojo. He was soon appointed head of the dojo, and with the coming of Perry began studying Western shipbuilding, artillery and infantry to prepare for war against the foreigners. His recent promotion to an official post in the Choshu government was due to his superior ability as both scholar and swordsman. "And this must be Sakamoto-san, whom I've heard so much about," Katsura said. Sitting next to Katsura was a sullen youth of just nineteen, his face badly pocked from the smallpox which had nearly killed him in his childhood. This was Takasugi Shinsaku, the future revolutionary commander of the Choshu Army. "Takechi-sensei, Sakamoto-sensei," Takasugi bowed to the two well-know Tosa swordsmen, "it's an honor to meet you." Takasugi's courtesy was pure protocol. Mere proficiency in the way of the sword was not sufficient to earn the true respect of such men as Katsura and Takasugi. Both were disciples of the celebrated revolutionary teacher Yoshida Shoin, from the great southwestern domain of Choshu, which, like Mito, held some extremely radical ideas concerning the Bakufu, the Imperial Court and the foreigners.

Ryoma and Hanpeita returned the formalities, then sat down at the table, placing their long swords at their right sides. The Choshu men had already been drinking before the Tosa men arrived, and they were anxious to discuss the issues which had come to possess their very souls. Katsura poured a round of drinks. "Sakamoto-san, what are your ideas concerning Imperial Reverence and Expelling the Barbarians?" he asked, feeling out the Tosa swordsman. By now the slogan had captured the heart and soul of samurai throughout Japan. Its mere utterance could heat the blood of almost every spirited man in the land. There were few men considered to be of any worth who were not willing to lay down their lives for the cause of Imperial Reverence and Expelling the Barbarians.

Takechi Hanpeita was gradually becoming the leader of the Tosa radicals; Katsura Kogoro and Takasugi Shinsaku were dedicated disciples of Yoshida Shoin, the leader of the Choshu radicals. These champions of things Japanese shared with the Confucian scholars of Mito a deep reverence for the Emperor of Japan. Ryoma, however, was different. His strange way of thinking had recently become an enigma to his comrades who trained in the way of the sword. Holding the rim of his sake cup against his mouth, Ryoma stared hard into Katsura's eyes.

"Revering His Imperial Majesty and expelling the wicked barbarians from the sacred soil of Japan is the only way to save our nation," Hanpeita answered for his friend, as Ryoma silently drained his cup.

"Takechi-sensei," Katsura said, "I'm sure we share the same ideas and reelings in our mutual dedication to the cause." Then refilling Ryoma's cup, Katsura repeated his question.

"Well," Ryoma said nonchalantly, replacing his cup on the table, "Imperial Reverence and Expelling the Barbarians is a good cause. But what are you going to do with it?"

"You don't seem to understand," said Takasugi. "The Son of Heaven is the only rightful ruler of Japan. His ancestors ruled from the dawn of the Japanese nation, until the House of Fujiwara gained control of the political power one thousand years ago," Takasugi explained bookishly. "The Fujiwara ruled on the Emperor's behalf for the next five hundred years, until the formation of the first Bakufu. After that the Emperor remained politically powerless in Kyoto, while the military regimes of four successive families ruled the empire. To assure that the Emperor would remain powerless, the first Tokugawa Shogun, the founder of the present Bakufu, drastically decreased the allowance granted to the Emperor by his predecessors, and made laws prohibiting the Emperor from leaving Kyoto, forbidding the feudal lords from visiting the Imperial capital for personal reasons, and declaring that the Emperor dedicate himself to scholarship and poetry. In order to see that his laws were obeyed, the Shogun sent one of his ministers to Kyoto as his official representative to oversee the Imperial Court."

With the newfound peace under Tokugawa rule, came an unprecedented flourishing of scholarship among the samurai, including the study of national politics. To ensure that the samurai would learn how to serve their feudal lords and govern the commoners, the Bakufu and the individual lords encouraged the study of Confucianism. A school of thought eventually developed which professed that the true ruler whom all Japanese must serve was the Son of Heaven, in the Imperial capital at Kyoto. And ironically, the group most responsible for establishing this school of thought-the very foundation fox Imperial Reverence and Expelling the Barbarians-was Mito, one of the elite Three Tokugawa Branch Houses.

Ryoma, who rarely read books, had trouble grasping what Takasugi had told him, but nevertheless declared in perfect calm, "Until we can devise a way to combat the cannon that are mounted on the foreign warships, I'm afraid that we aren't going to be able to keep the barbarians out."

"How do you propose fighting them?" Takasugi asked.

"By developing a fleet of warships of our own."

"I agree entirely," Katsura said. "But first things first. Before we can fight the barbarians, we are going to have to get rid of the poisonous elements in Japan." Lowering his voice, the Choshu radical added, "Ii and his lackeys must be dealt with." Katsura shared the outrage of samurai all over Japan toward the regent's recent completion of a commercial treaty without Imperial sanction. "If things are allowed to remain as they are in the Bakufu, the barbarians will subjugate Japan, as they have China."

"Let's make a pledge here tonight," Ryoma pounded his fist on the table, "that we never allow that to happen."

"Let's drink to that!" Katsura raised his cup.

"Down with the barbarians," Takasugi roared.

"To His Sacred Majesty," Hanpeita said, and the four men drank deeply.

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