Ryoma : Life of a Renaissance Samurai by Hillsborough, Romulus

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The Price of Freedom
Satsuma, aware of the ire of Aizu, Kuwana and the Shinsengumi, had not abandoned its war plans. "We must crush them while they're down, to be sure they can never rise again." Saigo and Okubo had concluded with Lord Iwakura. before leaving Kyoto with Komatsu two days after their meeting with Ryoma. First they would go to Choshu to plan with their allies the deployment of troops to the Imperial capital, after which they would return to Kagoshima to inform Lord Hisamitsu of the turn of events in Kyoto.

Before leaving for Fukui, Ryoma sent Sakutaro to Nagasaki. He had recently received a letter from Sasaki, summoning him there to collect the indemnity money from Kii Han, for the sinking of the Jroha Maru in the previous spring. It was through this money that Ryoma planned to "give the whole world to my Kaientai. " but since he had a government to form first. he sent Sakutaro in his place. "After we deduct the cost of the ship and rifles we lost at sea." Ryoma told Sakutaro just before the latter left for Osaka to board a westbound steamer, "we'll still have forty thousand ryo left. And that's more gold than the annual income of some the daimyo. "

The Lord of Fukui had had his own doubts about the wisdom of restoring the power to the court, not the least of which concerned the true intentions of Satsuma and Choshu. "He's worried that Satsuma and Choshu arc planning to control the new government," Goto told Ryoma just before the Kaientai commander and a minor Tosa police official, Okamoto Kcnsaburo, left Kyoto for Fukui on the afternoon of October 24.

Okamoto was an old friend of Ryoma's who had been active in the Loyalist movement under Takechi Hanpcita. His respect for Ryoma. who was seven years his senior, was no less than that of the men of the Kaientai. The two Tosa men traveled eastward from Kyoto, to the ancient town of Ohtsu on the southern shore of the scenic Lake Biwa, whose natural beauty has been the stuff of poetry through the ages. Having spent the night at Ohtsu. they walked northeastward along the western bank of the expansive lake, then continued north toward Fukui.

While Ryoma had no qualms about inviting Mitsuoka Hachiro to participate in the new government, he had been troubled as to how he would ask the same of Matsudaira Shungaku, who, despite their close rapport, was after all one of the most powerful lords in Japan. Furthermore, Ryoma respected the Lord of Fukui far too much to simply tell him that he had included him in the list of ministers. "That'll never do," Ryoma had told himself while still in Kyoto, and instead asked Goto to arrange for Lord Yodo to urge Shungaku by letter to come to Kyoto to participate in the government. It was the arrival of Yodo's letter from Kochi which had kept Ryoma waiting in Kyoto for two weeks after he had already decided to go to Fukui; and it was with this letter in hand that he reached Fukui Castletown early in the afternoon of October 28, the white-walled main tower of the great citadel rising in the cloudless sky.
After procuring lodging at the Tobacco Inn, where he had stayed during his last trip to Fukui several years before, Ryoma sent Okamoto to the administrative office to request an audience with Lord Shungaku.

"But Ryoma," Okamoto had said before leaving, an awkward grin on his face.

"What?" Ryoma muttered, half asleep, his head resting on the bare tatami floor.

"Dot:"! you think you should at least get cleaned up before you see Lord Shungaku?"

Ryoma raised his head from the floor. "On your way oul," he said gruffly, "tell the owner of this place lo heat up die bath."

This Okamoto did, and he also asked the owner's wife to lend Ryoma some clean clothes, and to comb and oil his hair and tic it in a topknot. When he returned to the Tobacco Inn a lew hours later, he found Ryoma bathed, groomed and dressed in a freshly laundered kimono and jacket, although he still had on the same dirty hakama he always wore.

"What's so tunny?" Ryoma growled,

"Nothing," Okamoto snickered.

"Then what arc you snickering about?"

"It's just that I've never seen you look so..." Okamoto paused.

"Look so what?" Ryoma said with a scowl.

"So clean," the younger man said, laughing. "But it's a good dting," he added quickly, as if lo appease, "because I've arranged for you to meet the daimyo this evening."

"Good. That'll give me time," Ryoma said.

'Time for what"

To have my picture taken." Ryoma was so impressed with the way he looked that he had arranged for a photographer in the castletown to take his picture in the garden behind the Tobacco Inn.

That evening Ryoma went to the castle, where Lord Shungaku received him in his drawing room. The daimyo, seated in a large wooden chair upholstered with red velvet, was flanked by two samurai attendants. "Welcome, Ryoma," Shungaku said with an amused grin. The last time they had met was in the previous summer at the Fukui estate in Osaka, when Ryoma asked him to write the letter to Lord Yodo advising self-restraint in dealing with the British over the Icarus Affair.

Ryoma dropped to his knees, bowed his head to the tatami floor.

"Get up, Ryoma," Shungaku said good-naturedly. "If I've said it once, I've said it a thousand times. That posture just doesn't suit you."

Ryoma sat up straight, haiKted Yodo's letter to Shungaku, then summarized the recent events in Kyoto, and, to the best of his knowledge, the intentions of Satsuma, Choshu and the Imperial Court.

When Ryoma had finished speaking, Shungaku read Yodo's letter, which urged that he come to Kyoto "for the all-important business of forming a new government" After some thoughtful hemming and hawing, but not without a look of self-satisfaction, Shungaku refolded the letter, handed it to one of his attendants and asked Ryoma his real reason for coming to Fukui.

"To request that Mitsuoka Hachiro be allowed to participate in the new government," Ryoma said bluntly.

Shungaku gave Ryoma a hard look. "You know that Mitsuoka's under house arrest."

"Yes. For expressing Loyalist views against the Bakufu," Ryoma said, but with a trace of sarcasm which drew harsh looks from Shungaku's attendants. "If you'll forgive me," Ryoma continued, "the Bakufu is a thing of the past. But now Japan needs Mitsuoka for the future."

It was no secret to Shungaku that the man who sat before him was one of the main reasons why the Bakufu was indeed a thing of the past, "Very well," he said, releasing a long sigh, and wearily rubbing his forehead. "You can see Mitsuoka, but it'll take a few days to arrange a meeting." Over the years this highest-ranking member of Katsu Kaishu's Group of Four had granted Ryoma several favors, and had never regretted any of them, including the letter of introduction to Kaishu and the loan of the 5,000 ryo for the naval academy in Kobe.

"Thank you." Ryoma said, bowing his head to the floor, before taking his leave and returning alone to the Tobacco Inn.

Mitsuoka was ecstatic to hear that night that Ryoma had come to Fukui. and that he would be allowed to meet him. His excitement was understandable: he had had few visitors during his four years under house arrest, and the news he received from them about national events was mostly piecemeal. But if Sakamoto Ryoma, one of the Bakufu's most wanted men, had actually been permitted into the Tokugawa-related domain of Fukui, this could only mean that the Loyalists were now in control of the nation.

Since Mitsuoka was indeed a political prisoner, he was not allowed to meet outsiders, particularly one of Ryoma's reputation, without official observation. This was why two police officials from the Fukui Han Administrative Office accompanied him to Ryoma's room at the Tobacco Inn. at eight o'clock on the freezing morning of November 2.

"Ryoma!" Mitsuoka called, as he entered the inn ahead of his two guards. "It's me, Mitsuoka!" he hollered, as if it had not been over four years since the two men had met.

"Mitsuoka," Ryoma called back, smiling at the top of the stairs, "come up." Although diey had only met once before, they enjoyed a close camaraderie for the ideals they shared and their mutual friendship with Yokoi Shonan.

Mitsuoka and his escort joined Ryoma in his room. Despite his years under house arrest, Mitsuoka had not lost his strong features and heavyset build, but Ryoma noticed that his formerly ruddy complexion had paled. "I have a million things to talk to you about," Ryoma said, his breath coming out white in the cold air. "But as you can sec, I'm being watched," he lied, pointing at Okamoto and introducing him as a "police inspector ofTosa Han." Okamoto, an avid Loyalist, was genuinely embarrassed by the situation; but as Ryoma had warned him that he would introduce him in this manner, the "police inspector" remained silent, and even assumed a haughty air. "I want to make Mitsuoka feel as comfortable as possible," Ryoma had explained beforehand. "Since he'll most likely be accompanied by guards, let's make it look like I'm in the same predicament."

"So am 1," Mitsuoka said, rubbing his hands together and returning Ryoma*s wide smile.

"Let's sit down," Ryoma said, pointing to the leg-warmer at [he center of the room, atop of which was a wooden table draped by a heavy quilt. "Over there where it's warm," he said, then called for a maid to bring hot sake.

The official position of Mitsuoka's guards obliged them to sit in front of the alcove, despite the cold. And since Ryoma had insisted on introducing Okamoto as his own observer, he sat with the Fukui officials, constantly rubbing his hands together in a (utile attempt to keep warm.

Sake was soon served, and Ryoma spent the entire morning informing Mitsuoka in detail of the events leading up to the restoration to power of the Imperial Court. He told him of the positions and attitudes of the leading clans, particularly Satsuma, Choshu and Tosa, and of everything he himself knew about the present situation at court and among the men of the former Bakufu. They talked about Yokoi Shonan. still under house arrest in Kumamoto Han. about Katsu Kaishu and about the road Japan must follow in the future. "So, now that we've come this far, we need your help," Ryoma said, then produced a copy of his plan for the new government.

Mitsuoka studied the plan for several minutes, then asked mattcr-of-factly, "Are you ready to fight a war?"

"Not if one can be avoided." Ryoma replied firmly.

"What about Aizu? What do you intend to do if Aizu should start a war?"

"That's why I'm here," Ryoma said.

"I don't follow you."

"We don't have the people or the money to fight a war." Ryoma took a sip of sake, and said, "We need someone to help us raise money to finance the new government."

The future financial advisor to the Japanese government nodded, put both hands into the leg-warmer under the table, and summarized a plan he had devised while under house arrest. "It doesn't matter that die government has no money of its own. What does matter is that the Imperial Court obtains the trust of the people. Because once it has this trust, there is no reason that the new government should not be able to finance a war." Mitsuoka paused, took a sip of sake. "If the Imperial Court has the trust of the people, it will also have the trust of the wealthy merchants. Which means it will be able to get the merchants to finance the issuance of gold certificates. By so doing, the government will have no shortage of funds, and the merchants involved will be able to profit from the investment. In short, the most important thing is to first make the Japanese people understand tiiat they are the subjects of the Emperor, and that die Emperor is the natural and rightful ruler of Japan."

Ryoma slapped his thigh, then clapped his hands loudly. "Fantastic!" he shouted. "Absolutely fantastic!"

"Our entire discussion took a very long time" Mitsuoka would recall years later, "We talked from eight in the morning until twelve midnight. Since I was tinder house arrest. I didn t know when I'd be able to come to Kyoto, so instead I explained to Sakamoto in great detail all of my ideas on how to go about building the economy."

After so many hours of discussion Mitsuoka was exhausted, the three officials who had not moved from their places at the alcove were cold and drained, but Ryoma showed no signs of tiring. In fact, he was so engrossed in the subject matter that he quite forgot that poor Okamoto had been waiting the entire time in the cold room without anything to eat or drink, while he and Mitsuoka sat at the leg-warmer, their discussion complimented by an occasional flask of hot sake and food.

"By the time I left, it was past midnight." Mitsuoka recalled. "I felt that I had told Sakamoto enough for him to be able to handle things with the Imperial Court, and so I went home." As Mitsuoka was leaving, Ryoma gave him something that resembled a


"What is it?" Mitsuoka asked.

"A picture of myself." This was one of the photos he had taken in the garden behind the inn. "Keep it as a memento of our friendship," Ryoma said with a touch of melancholy. "We can never know for sure if we'll meet again."

As Mitsuoka put the photograph into his kimono he fell a strange chill pass through his body, the significance of which would haunt him for the rest of his life.
The next morning Ryoma and Okamoto left Fukui, arriving in Kyoto on the afternoon of November 5. While Okamoto reported directly to Tosa headquarters in Kawaramachi, Ryoma returned to his nearby hideout in the storehouse of the soy dealer, where his servant Tokichi was wailing for him.

All of the other men of the Kaientai were in Osaka or Nagasaki preparing for future business, but Ryoma was obligated to remain in Kyoto a while longer. The Bakufu toppled, the power restored to the Emperor and the blueprint for the new government completed, Ryoma still had to explain Mitsuoka's financial ideas to Saigo and Okubo. He had already discussed them with Lord Iwakura. who agreed to Ryoma's request to write a letter to the Fukui authorities urging that Mitsuoka be released from house arrest immediately, so that he could take part in the new government in Kyoto.

"Then I'll be free to sail around the world with my Kaientai." Ryoma told Nakaoka Shinlaro, as the two sat in the room atop the soy storehouse on the afternoon of November 13. Ryoma no longer shared the goals of Nakaoka and the other leading actors of the Great Play. For while Saigo, Okubo. Komatsu. Katsura, Iwakura, Nakaoka and even Goto were preoccupied with political events in Japan, and the prospects of war with Aizu, the Dragon's


mind soared beyond Ihe national barriers. Shotlly after returning to Kyoto, Ryoma had summoned Yonosuke from Osaka, because, as he had written him, "/ want to talk to you about the world." and future business plans.

"When is Saigo due back to Kyoto?" Ryoma asked Nakaoka.

"Sometime this month."

Just then the door slid open. "Sakamoio-scnsei," Tokichi said nervously, "there are two men downstairs to see you. They say their names are Ito Kashitaro and Todo Heisukc." Then in a frantic whisper, "You must get out of here. Quickly, both of you out the back window."

"Relax," Ryoma said, reaching for his sword which was leaning against the wall behind him.

Ito and Todo were well-known swordsmen who had formerly practiced at the Chiba Dojo in Edo, but Ryoma felt no sense of camaraderie for either. Until recently Ito had been a staff officer of the Shinsengumi, and Todo one of its (op swordsmen. Having foreseen the downfall of the Bakufu, both men had quit the Tokugawa police force in the previous June, and formed their own corps which sided with the Loyalists, was secretly supported by Satsuma and which the Shinsengumi was intent on destroying.

"I wonder what they want," Ryoma muttered, because he had never met either of them.

"Who knows," Nakaoka said, placing his hand over the hilt of his sword. Then turning to Ryoma's servant, "But send them up anyway," he said.

Tokichi left the room, and returned momentarily with the two armed visitors. One of them, about Ryoma's age, bowed his head slightly upon entering. "My name is Ito," he said in an accent that was unmistakably of downtown Edo, as another, younger man, followed behind. "We've come to warn you dial your life is in danger," Ito said. "I advise you to move to Tosa headquarters right away."

While Nakaoka assumed die formal sitting position, Ryoma sat with his legs crossed, sword on his lap, arms folded at his chest, and a scowl on his face. "Who die hell arc you to advise us to do anything?" he sneered with exaggerated condescendence.

"Ryoma," Nakaoka whispered out of the comer of his mourn, "fJiesc men have come to warn us for our own good."

"I don't need Uieir damn warning," Ryoma roared, glaring at me two visitors. Perhaps it was because Ito and Todo were former members of me Chiba Dojo that Ryoma was less forgiving of their pasts than was Nakaoka. But whatever die reason, Ryoma could not forget that until recently they had been killing his comrades to defend the Tokugawa; then, when the downfall of die Bakufu seemed inevitable, tticy were quick to jump on die Loyalist bandwagon.

"In dial case, do as you will," Ito said coldly, before the two men took dieir leave. Five days later, Ito and Todo were assassinated by men of the Shinsengumi.

The night of November 15 was extremely cold. Ryoma bad come down widi

a fever die day before, and had moved from the back storehouse of the soy dealer into a second-story room at the rear of the main house. Not only was this room warmer and closer to the latrine, but it had an alcove built into one of its walls where Ryoma hung a scroll he had received from a friend this evening. The scroll was a present for Ryoma's thirty-second birthday, on which his friend, a well-known artist of Kyoto, had painted in black Chinese ink winter camellias amidst plum blossoms. In the alcove, bencadi the painting, was Ryoma's sword, and in me opposite comer stood a large folding screen, whose gold-painted background was adorned widi poems and paintings. On the upper left portion of die screen was a landscape of a snow-covered Mount Fuji, by a famous artist of die Kano School. At the bottom of the screen was the disturbing likeness of a cat, standing on all fours next to a blossoming peony bush.

Ryoma was pale with fever, and to keep warm wore a cotton vest under a short coat with a thick cotton lining, and over diis a heavy black jacket of soft silk. Sitting next to Ryoma was a boy by the name of Minekichi, the son of a local bookshop owner, who idolized him. Okamoto had come from the nearby Tosa headquarters, having heard that Ryoma was down with a cold. Nakaoka had also stopped by earlier in the evening to discuss the matter of taking custody of a certain Tosa man who had recently been arrested by the Shinsengumi. The four men sat around a brazier, next to which stood a paper lantern, casting a dim light on die cat which stared curiously at Ryoma.

"It looks like that cat's trying to tell us to get out of its room," Okamoto quipped.

"He's right. Ryoma," Nakaoka said grimly. "You ought to be in the back storehouse. It's dangerous for you to be in the main part of the house."

"I'm hungry," Ryoma said, as usual ignoring the warning, and instead reluming the cat's stare. "No wonder." Minekichi said. "It's after nine o'clock, Sakamoto-sensei, and you haven't eaten anything."

"Go out and get me some chicken." Ryoma told die boy.

"I'll go widi you," Okamoto said, and got up to leave.

"Okamoto." Nakaoka laughed, "off to sec that pretty girl at the drugstore again, huh?" The pretty girl was the daughter of a local druggist, whose beauty had made her popular among the samurai of the nearby Tosa headquarters. It seemed that recently Okamoto and the girl had become quite friendly, at least that was Nakaoka's deduction as he took this opportunity to rib his younger comrade. .

Okamoto turned red in the face. "No, no," he said, "I have some business to take care of." Getting up and dirusting his long sword through his sash, he said to the boy, "Let's go, Minekichi."

The attack came shortly after Okamoto and the boy had left. Tokichi, who was in the next room, heard someone calling at the front door. When the former sumo wrestler went downstairs to see who it was, he found a man who introduced himself as a samurai from Totsugawa? presented his calling card and asked. "Is Saitani-sensei here?" Since the men of Totsugawa were noted for their Imperial Loyalism, and since Tokichi knew that both Ryoma and Nakaoka had several acquaintances from that locale, he didn't suspect that this was actually a member of the Patrolling Corps, one of several die-hard Tokugawa police forces intent on reaping vengeance on those responsible for toppling the Bakufu. Tokichi took the calling card, which indicated to the stranger that Sakamoto Ryoma, alias Saitani Umetaro, was indeed in the house. Then, just as Tokichi turned around to ascend the stairs to inform Ryoma, he was attacked from behind, his back sliced wide open. Tokichi's loud scream and the crash of his heavy body to the floor, then the subsequent rumbling of footsteps racing up the wooden staircase at the end of the long corridor, must have sounded like horseplay to the two men who were talking upstairs, because Ryoma's immediate reaction was simply to holler from behind the closed door, "Be quiet!"

The next instant the door slammed open, and two men, their swords drawn, burst into the room, with several others following. "You son of a bitch!" one of them screamed, before cutting Nakaoka about the head, as another sliced open Ryoma's forehead. Blood covered the Dragon's face as he lunged toward the alcove for his sword, and felt his back cut open from his right shoulder to the left side of his spine. "Shinta, where"s your sword?" he screamed, grabbing his own sword, before standing up to meet another assailant, and blocking the third attack with his blade still in the scabbard. As the force of the blow sent the tip of his scabbard crashing into the ceiling, Ryoma took another attack on the forehead and the room went black. When he regained consciousness moments later he drew his sword in the light of the lantern, but the assassins had already gone, and Nakaoka lay face down in a pool of blood.

"Shinta!" Ryoma gasped. "Shinta, can you move?**

"! think so," Nakaoka wheezed in pain. "But how stupid 1 was to keep my sword behind the screen." Unable to get to his long sword. Nakaoka had fought with his short blade until, after being cut in nine different places, he passed out. Before Nakaoka Shinlaro died two days later, he told his friends who had found him mortally wounded, "Not having my sword at hand was the mistake of my life. Be sure that none of you do the same."

"Can you move?" Ryoma asked again, but before Nakaoka could answer, slid himself to the door to call for help. "Get a doctor!" Ryoma gasped, because his voice would not come out any louder. Then realizing that he too was drenched in blood. Ryoma wiped his head with his hand, and discovered bits of gray matter among the red. "Shinta," he gasped. "I've had it! Shinta, my brains are coming out."

On the same night, at the home of Ito Kuzo in Shimonoseki, Oryo had a dreadful nightmare. She dreamt that Ryoma. covered in blood, was standing dejectedly by her bedside, holding his bloody sword at his side. At around the same time, in Fukui Castletown. Mitsuoka Hachiro. on his way home from a meeting with one of Lord Shungaku's ministers, realized that he had just dropped his photograph of Ryoma into the river, and had the strange feeling that something horrible had happened. Indeed, Sakamoto Ryoma died on this very night, his thirty-second birthday, just one month after toppling the Tokugawa Bakufu. in what he believed was a peaceful revolution. Had he lived, the war may never have broken out in the following January between forces loyal to the Bakufu and the combined Imperial forces of Satsuma. Choshu and Tosa; and perhaps Katsu Kaishu, recalled to head the Tokugawa Navy, would not have been obliged in the following March to spare the city of Edo from the torch by personally surrendering the Shogun's castle to Saigo Kichinosuke, commander of the Imperial forces. These things Ryoma would never know, just as he would be spared the knowledge that izu would continue to resist until September, when its castle would fall to the Imperial Army, and that war would not end until the last Tokugawa forces finally surrendered on the far-northern island of Ezo. in May 1869.

But all of this had less to do with Ryoma's life than did the circumstances of his death, which were indicative of the way he lived—optimistic to the extent of recklessness, and convinced that he could never die. until at least, he had accomplished the great tasks for which he had been born. Indeed, the Dragon was too occupied with life to worry about death. Perhaps this was why he refused to heed the warnings of friends- and even ersfivhile enemies—of the danger to his life. Perhaps this was why he never replaced the pistol he had left in Kochi. Perhaps this was why he moved from his hideout behind the shop of the soy dealer to the more accessible main house. And perhaps this was why the expert swurdsman hadn t kept his sword within arm s reach when he was well aware that he was being hunted. But most of all. perhaps this was the price Ryoma was destined to pay for having achieved his lifelong goal of freedom.
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