Sakamoto Ryoma (1836-1867) was a leader of the movement to overthrow the Tokugawa shogunate during the Bakumatsu-era in Japan.
Ryoma was born in Kochi, of Tosa han (present day Kochi Prefecture, Shikoku). His family in previous generations had acquired enough wealth as sake brewers to purchase the rank of merchant samurai, which was the lowest rank in the samurai social hierarchy. After he was bullied at school, his older sister enrolled him in a sword school. By the time he reached adulthood he was a master swordsman. In 1853, he was in Edo as a disciple of Chiba Sadakichi, a master swordsman of the Hokushin Itto-ryu style of kenjutsu when Commodore Perry of the United States arrived with a fleet of ships to force Japan out of its centuries-old national isolation policy. Ryoma was drawn to patriotic elements within the samurai-class who supported the Sonno Joi (‘revere the Emperor and expel the barbarians’) political philosophy. He was recruited into an anti-Tokugawa, pro-Emperor party within the Tosa domain by Takechi Hanpeita, but was forced to flee into exile as a ronin when their plot to seize control of the domain was revealed
While a ronin, Ryoma decided to assassinate Katsu Kaishu, a high-ranking official in the Tokugawa shogunate and a supporter of both modernization and westernization. However, Katsu Kaishu persuaded Ryoma of the necessity of a long-term plan to increase Japan’s military strength. Instead of killing Katsu Kaishu, Ryoma started working as his assistant and protégé.
In 1864, as the Tokugawa shogunate started taking a hard line, Ryoma fled to Kagoshima in Satsuma domain, which was developing as a major centre for the anti-Tokugawa movement. Ryoma negotiated the secret alliance between Choshu and Satsuma provinces. Satsuma and Choshu historically had been absolute enemies, and Ryoma's position as a "neutral outsider" was critical in bridging the gap in trust.
Ryoma is often regarded as the "father of the Imperial Japanese Navy", as he worked under Katsu Kaishu's direction toward creating a modern naval force (with the aid of western powers) to enable Satsuma and Choshu to hold their own against the naval forces of the Tokugawa shogunate. Ryoma founded the private navy and trading company Kameyama Shachu in Nagasaki City by the help of Satsuma. Later Kameyama Shachu became Kaientai or Ocean Support Fleet.
Chushu’s subsequent victory over the Tokugawa army in 1866 and the impending collapse of the Tokugawa shogunate made Ryoma a valuable commodity to his former masters in Tosa. Ryoma was recalled to Kochi with honours. The Tosa domain was anxious to obtain a negotiated settlement between the Shogun and the Emperor, which would prevent the powerful Satcho Alliance from overthrowing the Tokugawa by force and thus emerging as a new dominant force in ruling Japan. Ryoma played a crucial role in the subsequent negotiations that led to the voluntary resignation of the Shogun Tokugawa Yoshinobu in 1867, thus bringing about the Meiji Restoration.
Ryoma was assassinated at the age of 33 (according to the old lunar calendar he was born on 15 November 1835 and killed on his birthday in 1867) at the Omiya inn in Kyoto, not long before the Meiji Restoration took place. Initial reports accused members of the Shinsengumi for Ryoma and Nakaoka Shintaro's deaths (and Shinsengumi leader Kondo Isami was allegedly executed on that pretense), but another pro-Shogun group, the Mimawarigumi's Imai Nobuo confessed to the murder in 1870. Although Sasaki Tadasaburo and Imai Nobuo carry the blame, the true assassin has never been proven in a court of law.
Ryoma was a visionary who envisioned a Japan without any feudal trappings. He read about and was inspired by the example of the United States where "all men are created equal". He realized that in order to compete with an industrially and technologically advanced outside world, the Japanese people needed to modernize. He has also been seen as an intriguing mix of the traditional and modern, symbolized by his preference for samurai dress while favoring western footwear.