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Top>Opinion>The Controversy over the New Theory about Ryoma Sakamoto and the Satsuma-Choshu Alliance


Masahito Matsuo

Masahito Matsuo [Profile]

The Controversy over the New Theory about Ryoma Sakamoto and the Satsuma-Choshu Alliance

Masahito Matsuo
Professor of Japanese History, Faculty of Letters, Chuo University

The "New Theory": a Satsuma-Choshu Alliance without Ryoma

When one mentions the Satsuma-Choshu Alliance (Pact) which was formed in the last days of the Tokugawa Shogunate, the Tosa clan's Ryoma Sakamoto immediately springs to mind. Followers of the Sonno-Joi movement (to overthrow the Tokugawa Shogunate) from the Choshu clan had instigated the Rebellion at the Hamaguri Gate in Kyoto. This resulted in them fighting against members of the Satsuma clan, who were complicit with the Shogunate side. It is said that it was Ryoma Sakamoto who then mediated the reconciliation of these former-adversaries, the Choshu and Satsuma clans, and thus made a significant contribution to the transformation of the political situation in what came to be the last days of the Tokugawa Shogunate.

There are many points of controversy regarding the issue of the Satsuma-Choshu Alliance and the role of Ryoma Sakamoto. Some decades ago, a new theory regarding the question of Was the mediation of Ryoma Sakamoto in the Satsuma-Choshu Alliance just a fiction? was introduced in a major newspaper. Newspapers carried sensational headlines such as Diary of a Chief Retainer from the Satsuma Clan Attracts Attention, and Ryoma Did Not Attend the Saigo-Kido Meeting. The content of the new theory was that Ryoma did not attend the critical meeting held in Kyoto between the Satsuma clan's Takamori Saigo and the Choshu clan's Takayoshi Kido at which the Alliance was finalized.

The historical document upon which this new theory was founded was the diary of Hisatake Katsura, a Chief Retainer from the Satsuma clan, who was based in the Satsuma clan residence in Kyoto. In his diary entry for January 18, 1866, he wrote that Takamori Saigo and Toshimichi Okubo had had a long meeting with Takayoshi Kido to discuss matters of state. He said that on January 20, Okubo had been ordered to return to Satsuma, and a farewell party was also held for Kido. Because of this, the new theory argued that the Satsuma-Choshu Alliance had been finalized on January 18. This refuted the previous theory that it had been completed on January 21. Ryoma had arrived in Kyoto on January 20, by which time the Alliance had already been established, it was argued. Therefore, the conclusion of the new theory was that Ryoma was not present at the critical meeting, and only at a later date endorsed the written agreement of the Alliance as represented in a letter written by Kido.

This new theory led to considerable debate as it began to be described as The New Truth about the Satsuma-Choshu Alliance on the covers of books in bookshops. Norimasa Kanbashi's "Ryoma Sakamoto and the Satsuma-Choshu Alliance (Sakamoto Ryoma to Sa-cho Domei)," (Takagi Shoten) investigated the content of the long meeting on matters of state, and shed doubt upon the argument of the new theory that the Alliance was finalized on January 18. Subsequently, many other titles which contradicted the Theory of January 18 were published, including Tadamasa Aoyama's "The Meiji Restoration and State Formation (Meiji Ishin to Kokka Keisei)," (Yoshikawa-Kobunkan) , Hidenao Takahashi's "The Emperor and the Politics of the Last Days of the Tokugawa Shogunate and the Meiji Restoration (Bakumatsu Ishin no Seiji to Tenno)," (Yoshikawa-Kobunkan), and Tsugunobu Miyake's "The Historical Significance of the Satsuma-Choshu Pact (Sa-cho Meiyaku no Rekishiteki Igi)," (in the journal "Japanese History", Vol. 647).

Takayoshi Kido's Personal Statement relating to the Pact between the Satsuma and Choshu Clans

Moreover, this new theory also argued that the commonly accepted theory of Ryoma's mediation in the Satusma-Choshu Alliance was in fact just an anecdote that had been fictionalized in later years by former members of the Tosa clan. It argued that people from Tosa had created this fiction based upon Takayoshi Kido's memoirs and other sources in order to emphasize the meritorious contribution of Tosa clan members to the Meiji Restoration. Here Kido's memoirs refers to the Personal Statement relating to the Pact between the Satsuma and Choshu Clans, which is included in the Documents relating to Takayoshi Kido (Volume 8) published by the Japan Book Publishers Association. This personal statement by Kido describes how he made it into the Satsuma clan residence in Kyoto, and how he had just decided to leave in his dissatisfaction at the response of the Satsuma clan side, when Ryoma appeared. Then, he also describes how Ryoma talked to the Satsuma side about Kido's state of mind, and he clearly states how Ryoma attended the meeting in which the Satsuma-Choshu Alliance was finalized sitting alongside him, by mentioning that "Ryoma attended the meeting with me."

It is true that this personal statement is written from the perspective of Kido, and no mention is made of the issue of the "Punishment of Choshu," and the like, which he had discussed at length with the Satsuma clan side before Ryoma's arrival. Even so, it seems that Kido's state of mind as being one of dissatisfaction at having spent an "empty period of stay" and the fact that Ryoma did attend the critical meeting with him are basically beyond dispute. This is quite a large leap from the suggestion that Ryoma's role was a fiction. In particular, the fact of Ryoma's attendance with Kido at the meeting is also supported by a famous letter that was written to Ryoma by Kido immediately afterwards. In the letter to Ryoma, Kido writes of "your attendance [at the meeting]." In his letter of response (his endorsement), Ryoma also states that he attended the meeting in question. And he writes that, "Tatewaki Komatsu and Takamori Saigo and others also attended the meeting, and participated in the discussions, and unanimous agreement was reached."

If one compares memoirs and diaries as historical sources, on the whole, it is fair to say that diaries are more likely to be true. Even so, it is necessary to subject them to serious scrutiny and objective investigation of supporting evidence. Hisatake Katsura's diary entry for January 18 may have mentioned that they held discussions on matters of state, but that does not necessarily mean that this instantly led to the Alliance as the new theory argues. Even if discussions relating to matters of state were held between Satsuma and Choshu on January 18, the fact probably is that what was discussed at that point was not anything like the sort of Alliance that Kido had expected.

Takayoshi Kido had risked the fate of the Choshu clan in entering the Satsuma clan residence in Kyoto. Because of this, other representatives of the Choshu clan, such as Yajiro Shinagawa, as well as others such as the Tosa clan's Mitsuaki Tanaka (who was close to Shintaro Nakaoka, who also worked with Ryoma in acting as mediator) also accompanied him. It was written several years later, but nonetheless according to the "Recollections of Yajiro Shinagawa (Shinagawa Yajiro no Jukkai-dan)," recorded by Kunihira Nakahara, Shinagawa (who accompanied Kido) stated that the discussions about the Alliance made progress on January 21, after Ryoma had arrived in the Satsuma clan residence. Kido's personal statement may only be a memoir, but as a record of Kido's state of mind in working toward the Alliance and of Ryoma's attendance with him at the critical meeting, it has weight as a historical document which cannot be ignored.

Ryoma Sakamoto stands out among the figures of his time for his free spirit and freedom in his actions. There is endless debate in this evaluation of the man. In recent years, the Satsuma-Choshu Alliance and Ryoma's assassination in the Oumi-ya incident, etc. have been attracting attention in various publications, such as Isao Inoue's "Ryoma Sakamoto (Sakamoto Ryoma)" (Yamakawa Shuppan) and Suguru Sasaki's "Ryoma Sakamoto and His Times (Sakamoto Ryoma to Sono Jidai)" (Kawade Shobo Shinsha). This year's Taiga Drama (the NHK Annual Period Drama Series), "The Legend of Ryoma (Ryoma-den)," is also creating the opportunity for Ryoma to be discussed anew. It is this author's hope that this discussion will lead to further developments in research into this area.

Masahito Matsuo
Professor of Japanese History, Faculty of Letters, Chuo University
The author was born in 1948, and graduated with a degree from the Faculty of Letters at Chuo University in 1971. He completed his PhD in History after leaving the Doctoral course in the Graduate School of the Faculty of Letters at Chuo University. He was a full-time Lecturer and then Assistant Professor on the Faculty of Letters at Tokai University, before becoming Assistant Professor on the Faculty of Letters at Chuo University, and being appointed to his current position as Professor at Chuo University. He has held the positions of Director of Studies on the Faculty of Letters and Assistant Chancellor of Chuo University. He is currently President of the Hachioji City Deliberative Committee for Historical Compilation, as well as President of the Tama City Deliberative Committee for the Protection of Cultural Assets, and President of the Aikido Association of Chuo University. His area of research is Modern Japanese History, and in particular he researches the political history of the period from the last days of the Tokugawa Shogunate to the Meiji Period. His major published works include "The Abolition of the Han System and the Establishment of the Prefecture System (Haihan Chiken)," (Chuo Koron-sha, 1986), "The Political Administration of the Meiji Restoration (Ishin Seiken)," (Yoshikawa-Kobunkan, 1995), "Research into the Abolition of the Han System and the Establishment of the Prefecture System (Haihan Chiken no Kenkyu)," (Yoshikawa-Kobunkan, 2001), "Takayoshi Kido (Kido Takayoshi)" (Yoshikawa-Kobunkan, 2007), "The Meiji Restoration and 'Civilization and Enlightenment' (Meiji Ishin to Bunmei Kaika)" (Editor; Yoshikawa-Kobunkan, 2004), "The Making of Modern Japan and Regional Society (Kindai Nihon no Keisei to Chiiki Shakai)" (Editor; Iwata Shoin, 2006), among others.