Ryoma Sakamoto (1835-1867), among Japan’s most beloved heroes, came of age when U.S. Commodore Matthew Perry’s Black Ships arrived demanding trade relations and ending the country’s closed-door foreign policy. The old Japan ruled by the feudal Tokugawa shogunate was giving way to the modern nation state.

Ryoma is partly credited with roles in two major triumphs. The first was his so-called selfless mediation of an alliance between the embattled southwest domains of Satsuma and Choshu with a view to restoring imperial rule. The second was negotiating the peaceful transfer of governance to the Imperial Court.

According to the catalog to the “Sakamoto Ryoma: Japan’s Favorite Hero” exhibition at the Kyoto National Museum, Ryoma is widely thought of as possessing “a truly sensitive mind and heart.” His spectacular assassination by unknown assailants in Kyoto fulfilled the romantic myth of a hero in the service of his nation. The legend, however, is under humanizing amendment at this 150th commemoration exhibition, through 60 of his 130 or so extant letters.

Ryoma was born in Kochi, Shikoku, to a family that had acquired low-ranking samurai status in 1773 and served the Tosa domain (present-day Kochi Prefecture) through to the time of Ryoma’s father, Hachihei. As the youngest of five children, with an elder brother 20 years his senior and three sisters, Ryoma was the apparent crybaby.

In adult life, one letter from 1866 includes a drawing of Mount Kirishima in Kyushu, popularly known as Ryoma’s honeymoon spot. It was here that he spent time with O-Ryo, a doctor’s daughter who was working as a maid in the Teradaya, a Kyoto inn, where Ryoma was staying. O-Ryo warned Ryoma of an impending attack by Shogunate agents, and though he was wounded, he recuperated with her while fishing and enjoying the hot-springs of Kyushu. In “Letters to Teradaya Tose and Isuke” (1866-67), Ryoma thanked Tose, the Teradaya proprietress, signing his missive cryptically as the “one who was surrounded but escaped.”

Other letters go from humor to what might today be called body-shaming. In one to Ryoma’s sister, Otome, he toyed with the idea of her becoming a Buddhist nun, instructing her to travel and learn sutras. “Be so energetic that you even break wind,” he says. Otome ended up marrying a scholar-physician.

In 1866, Ryoma was simply nasty to his niece Harui. “Your face is so uneven, it makes your feet stumble,” she was told. “Consult the old woman who runs the candy store,” he goes on, telling her to ask how the confectioner presses sugar into the molds and spreads it so smooth. That technique, Ryoma suggested, may ameliorate his niece’s pock-marked face. He also later promised to send her imported cosmetics.

The exhibition is filled out with historical prints and news broadsheets, and Ryoma’s important possessions, including his swords, as well as marginalia, like a rice bowl. It also features the macabre, such as the blood-spotted hanging scroll that decorated the room in which he died.

“Sakamoto Ryoma: Japan’s Favorite Hero — 150th Year Commemorative Special Exhibition” at the Kyoto National Museum runs until Nov. 27; 9:30 a.m.-6 p.m. ¥1,300. Closed Mon. www.kyohaku.go.jp/eng/special/index.html

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