Even though he was assassinated more than 140 years ago, the name of Sakamoto Ryoma continues to pop up today, most recently as an inspiration behind the NHK drama “Ryoma-den” and as the historical figure favored by lawmakers of all ideological stripes.

But the craze over the Edo Period figure surged last month when Japan Mint announced that Sakamoto’s likeness would appear on commemorative ¥1,000 coins to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Local Autonomy Law. Each coin will be sold for ¥6,000 but are expected to trade for much more as fans try to get ahold of the limited edition collectibles.

Following are some questions and answers about Sakamoto Ryoma and his legacy, and how he continues to win over modern Japanese:

Who was Sakamoto Ryoma?

Born Jan. 3, 1836, Sakamoto was a key figure in Japan’s modernization and contributed to overthrowing the Tokugawa Shogunate. Spending his youth in what is now modern-day Kochi Prefecture, Sakamoto demonstrated exceptional talent as a swordsman, but he also had a flare for business.

He is known to have founded Kaientai, an entity that became one of the first modern Japanese trading companies but which also served as his private navy.

Sakamoto was a pro-Emperor, anti-Tokugawa activist who had a vision of ending feudal reign and swiftly modernizing a country that had isolated itself from the rest of the world. He played an important role in uniting what were then Japan’s two most powerful local governments: the Satsuma and the Choshu. The union eventually became the driving force that ended more than 260 years of Tokugawa reign.

How did he die?

Sakamoto was assassinated together with his close friend Nakaoka Shintaro in 1867 during their stay at an inn in Kyoto. Pro-Tokugawa assailants were believed behind the assassination, but the true killer remains a mystery to this day.

Sakamoto is among those enshrined at Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo.

What was his biggest contribution?

Hiroki Ochiai, a professor of Japanese history at Meiji University, says Sakamoto played a pivotal role in uniting the Satsuma and Choshu governments, which were on bad terms. The two groups, which had gone to war at one point, formed an alliance after Sakamoto bridged the gap between them.

“Ryoma was able to coordinate a pact between the two powerful governments, because at the time he was not affiliated with any third party and was operating on his own,” Ochiai explains. “These two governments were on the verge of fighting each other and it would have been impossible for them to negotiate directly.”

Ochiai adds that Sakamoto was not working for personal gain but solely for Japan’s future.

How popular is he today?

Upon defecting from the Liberal Democratic Party last month, former Justice Minister Kunio Hatoyama said he wanted to “play the role of Sakamoto Ryoma” in getting other lawmakers to unite in a new political party. He also went on TV to reveal he was distantly related to the historical figure. Apparently, Hatoyama’s cousin’s wife’s cousin is the great grandson of Sakamoto’s older sister.

Asked to comment on Hatoyama’s statement, land minister Seiji Maehara said he felt “extremely displeased” as he is a huge Sakamoto Ryoma fan.

But lawmakers claiming to be a fan of the Edo Period hero are ubiquitous in politics today.

During a Lower House session in February, Your Party chief Yoshimi Watanabe said his group “is playing the role of Sakamoto Ryoma,” telling lawmakers that those seeking the restoration of Japan should join forces with him.

Former LDP Secretary General Hidenao Nakagawa’s Web site used the catchphrase, “Let us all play the role of Ryoma,” while Ichiro Ozawa, the DPJ’s current secretary general, said in a 1996 speech that he would “like to follow Ryoma’s example” and work toward government restoration.

In a survey by the Mainichi Shimbun of 54 candidates who ran in the general election last August, Sakamoto was chosen as the second most respected political figure, trailing only Abraham Lincoln.

What kind of a future did he seek for Japan?

Sakamoto’s letters were often critical of the bureaucratic nature of the Tokugawa Shogunate. “I am strongly determined to fight the bureaucrats who are traitors to their country and clear them away. . . . I intend to wash down Japan once again,” he wrote to his older sister Otome in August 1863.

“Ryoma envisioned a country where the public can unite under an impartial power, hoping to create a state in which the opinion of the masses is stronger than a single figure,” Meiji University’s Ochiai says. “In other words, despite living under the shogunate, he already foresaw the prospect of creating a national assembly.”

What makes him so popular?

In a survey conducted by Lifenet Insurance Co. in January, 14.2 percent of the 1,000 people polled said Sakamoto Ryoma is most fit to be described as “Japan’s version of Barack Obama” because he was innovative and displayed strong leadership that changed the country.

Ochiai says Sakamoto’s passionate intent to build a new country and his free-spirited acts are what continue to resonate with young and old alike.

“Ryoma was acting mostly on his own without taking orders from his superiors. He also remained true to his beliefs, while never acting for personal gain or fame,” Ochiai says. “It’s unusual that a person can do that, and it is a characteristic that is very attractive to many modern Japanese.”

But the history expert also warns against taking away too much from the Ryotaro Shiba novel “Ryoma ga Yuku,” which fawned on Sakamoto’s achievements and omitted some key facts.

“The novel is a story about a lone wolf who single-handedly sets off a fundamental shift in Japan, but obviously things weren’t that simple,” Ochiai says, explaining that many of Sakamoto’s comrades also played key roles in the Meiji restoration.

The Weekly FYI appears Tuesdays (Wednesday in some areas). Readers are encouraged to send ideas, questions and opinions to National News Desk

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.