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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.

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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