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One of the joys of reading about history is the way in which each generation interprets the past through its own perspective. This isn’t simply new facts coming to light or official documents being unsealed — rather, it’s the historian’s equivalent of “the observer effect” in physics: It’s impossible to completely remove yourself from your own context and perspective. There is no such thing as objective history. This, in part, helps explain the position Sakamoto Ryoma (1836-67) holds in the pantheon of Japanese greats — every generation creates him anew.

Sakamoto Ryoma and the Meiji Restoration, by Marius B. Jansen
423 pages
COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY PRESS

For some he was a patriot, a man who saw a threat to Japan from outside interference and felt compelled to act. For others he’s the embodiment of an egalitarian spirit: the younger son from a family of upwardly mobile merchants, and a man who, through sheer talent and determination, had a hand in bringing about the Meiji Restoration, which remade Japan from a feudal realm into an industrial nation. What jumps out most when reading about Sakamoto from a modern perspective is his willingness to listen to his enemies, debate ideas and change his mind.

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In 1862, Sakamoto, who was at this point a rōnin (masterless samurai) and in some sense an outlaw after illegally leaving his home in Kochi, decided to assassinate Katsu Kaishu (also referred to by his given name, Katsu Rintaro), a statesman who was pushing to open Japan to foreign trade, a move Sakamoto and his comrades were set against. Sakamoto, a trained and skilled swordsman, visited Katsu in Edo (present-day Tokyo) with one goal in mind: murder. Within a few days, however, Sakamoto was guarding Katsu’s house from other would-be assassins.

What brought on this about-face? Katsu explained his thinking to Sakamoto, who was willing to debate his views and became “deeply impressed” by the statesman. After that encounter, Sakamoto was converted from an angry young man set on a path of violence to a thinker whose ideas in the document “Eight Proposals While Shipboard” formed the basis of Japan’s parliamentary system, simply because he took the time to listen.

Marius B. Jansen’s excellent biography of Sakamoto and history of the Meiji Restoration brings the man and his time to dramatic life. The book embeds Sakamoto in his context, exploring 19th century Japan from a number of perspectives, using private correspondence to bring contemporary color to a story that is too often monochrome. In doing so, Jansen shows how the ideological waters of the day were much more fluid and dynamic than they are typically presented. Jansen also positions the Meiji Restoration as an internal Japanese conflict in which the arrival of Commodore Matthew Perry and other “barbarians” from abroad was merely a spark dropped on centuries of accumulated tinder.

Perhaps it’s time for modern day leaders to learn from figures like Sakamoto and listen, rather than just going straight for the kill. His life shows how conversation can change the fate of nations.

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