A Samurai Reformer Inspires a Nation Adrift

From Prime Minister Naoto Kan to Sapporo Beer executives, many in Japan are invoking the legacy of Ryoma Sakamoto, the 19th century samurai who helped modernize the nation's government and economy. It's hard to imagine what Ryoma (known in Japan by his given name) would make of his country's present-day challenges, ranging from a stagnated economy, recently overtaken by China as the world's second biggest, to a political system that produces short-lived governments.

Yet that hasn't stopped Japanese leaders from co-opting the much-admired maverick, who helped pave the way for the overthrow of the Tokugawa shogunate in 1868. Kan mentioned Ryoma in a speech on June 8, the day he became Premier, drawing comparisons between his new Cabinet and the militia groups of the samurai era. Facing an economy saddled with falling consumer prices, rising debt, and an aging population, Kan pledged that his party would "take on issues with fearless courage."

The Ryoma mystique, which has inspired at least eight TV series, is especially alluring today given that "Japan is suffering from many problems," says Masaaki Noda, a professor at Kwansei Gakuin University. "Ryoma has been exploited over and over again in society, for Japan's militarism, and his ghost still remains."

Ryoma mania is also a big business. Visitors to Ryoma's birthplace of Kochi prefecture, on the southern island of Shikoku, rose 71 percent in the first half of this year, to 2.4 million, from a year earlier after broadcaster NHK started airing its popular Ryoma Den drama in January. Interest in the samurai has added 40.9 billion yen ($502 million) to Kochi's economy, or about 1.8 percent of the surrounding region's gross regional product, the Bank of Japan said in June.

Sapporo Holdings, Japan's fourth-biggest brewer, in September started nationwide sales of a beer called Oi! Ryoma. It sold all 480,000 cans of the limited edition of its black-label beer featuring a cartoon depiction of Ryoma, says company spokesman Katsuhito Ogawa. Nationwide, the company hopes to sell 1.2 million cans of the beer this fall. Daihatsu Motor (TM) has used an actor playing Ryoma in a commercial for its Tanto Exe car.

Born the son of a samurai in 1835, Ryoma's efforts to modernize Japan included his Eight-Point Program, which outlined plans to transform it into a constitutional monarchy, institute a foreign policy, and regulate trade. That formed the basis for the Charter Oath, the framework for Japan's first constitution in the Meiji Restoration, according to the Ryoma Sakamoto Memorial Museum website.

"Almost the entire Restoration program is contained within this program of Ryoma's," writes Marius B. Jansen, author of Sakamoto Ryoma and the Meiji Restoration. "Its language would be echoed in the Charter Oath of 1868." Before he was murdered at age 33 by still-unknown assassins loyal to the shogun, Ryoma established Japan's first trading company, which led to the creation of the Mitsubishi Group. He is also regarded as the father of the imperial navy.

"Ryoma said that if Japan didn't unify as one country, it couldn't respond to the West," says Kenshiro Mori, the director of the Ryoma Memorial Museum in Kochi. "There are parallels between the confusion of that period and what's happening today."

The bottom line: Meiji era reformer Ryoma Sakamoto has become a source of inspiration to Japanese in tough economic and political times.

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