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Letters illustrate Ryoma’s short, eventful life

Kochi Prefectural Museum of History

A photograph of Sakamoto Ryoma (ca 1866-1867), a replica of which is currently on display

The Yomiuri ShimbunA major player in the 1867 return of political power from shogun Tokugawa Yoshinobu to the emperor, Sakamoto Ryoma was assassinated in Kyoto just a month later. An exhibition is now on tour to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the death of Ryoma — one of the most popular figures from the nation’s tumultuous transition.

The exhibition is currently showing at its third venue, the Edo-Tokyo Museum, through June 18.

Ryoma was born in 1835 to a family that belonged to a lower samurai class in the Tosa domain, or what is now Kochi Prefecture. The main part of the exhibition, titled “Sakamoto Ryoma: Japan’s Favorite Hero,” comprises about 30 letters written to members of his family and those working with him.

All the letters evoke the short but eventful life of a man who was killed at just 33, under the traditional Japanese method for calculating people’s age.

According to Kyoto National Museum senior researcher Teiichi Miyakawa, who curated the show, “the highlight” of the letters is one estimated to date from August 1863. Ryoma wrote in the letter to one of his older sisters, Otome, about Chiba Sana, with whom he was believed to have been in a relationship. Sana was the daughter of Chiba Sadakichi, who was teaching Ryoma swordsmanship in Edo (now Tokyo).

Ryoma wrote that the 26-year-old woman had “greater physical strength than regular men.” When he described her appearance, he referred to Hirai Kao, the younger sister of Hirai Shujiro, one of Ryoma’s samurai acquaintances in Tosa — he said Sana was “a bit more beautiful” than Kao.

Miyakawa said this is “the only letter in which Ryoma referred to Sana” among the about 140 letters that have been confirmed. Ryoma eventually chose to marry a different woman named Oryo.

In 1866, he was injured at the Teradaya inn in Kyoto when officials from the shogunate stormed the premises trying to capture him. Following the incident, Ryoma headed for what is now Kagoshima Prefecture to heal, traveling with Oryo to make the trip their honeymoon.

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  • Kyoto National Museum

    A letter from Ryoma to his elder sister Otome, dated the fourth day of the 12th month of Keio 2 (1866), on show from May 23 to June 4

  • Kyoto National Museum

    The sword signed “Yoshiyuki” and used by Ryoma

  • Kyoto National Museum

    The hanging scroll “Plum Blossoms and Camellias,” stained with blood from Ryoma’s assassination (1867). The authentic one will be on show from May 23 to June 4, a replica at other times.

The couple climbed the Takachiho no Mine sacred mountain, a visit that Ryoma wrote to Otome about with illustrations. This letter will be on show from May 23 to June 4.

“I can imagine how avidly Ryoma was trying to convey his happy memories [to his sister],” Miyakawa said.

Other Ryoma letters tell us he visited many places with the aim of building a new Japan for a new era.

“Ryoma is still living in his letters,” Miyakawa said.

Assassination

Ryoma was assassinated on the second floor of the Omiya soy sauce shop in Kyoto. He is said to have defended himself from the attack with a sword signed “Yoshiyuki,” which is on display at the exhibition.

The authenticity of the sword was long under suspicion because it did not have the distinctive hamon patterns usually created on the blade through the hardening process. However, it was discovered last year that the sword was sharpened after a fire caused the blade to lose its shape during the Taisho era (1912-26). A special device helped confirm that the sword had actually belonged to Ryoma — the device revealed the sword’s hamon had become faint during the sharpening process.

Also on display are a hanging scroll and byobu screen that were in the room at the time of the attack. Bloodstains on the items illustrate how gruesome the assassination was. The authentic hanging scroll will be on display from May 23 to June 4, a replica at other times.

The byobu, on show from June 6 to 18, was kept by Omiya’s descendants, before being donated to what is now the Kyoto National Museum before the Pacific War.

Some may be surprised there are so many surviving items associated with Ryoma, despite his short life. “They haven’t just survived,” Miyakawa said. “They still exist today thanks to the efforts of those around Ryoma to preserve [mementos of his life].”

“Sakamoto Ryoma: Japan’s Favorite Hero” runs through June 18 at the Edo-Tokyo Museum in Sumida Ward, Tokyo. The museum is closed on Mondays except for May 15. The exhibition will then move to the Shizuoka City Museum of Art from July 1 to Aug. 27. Visit ryoma2017.com/ for more information.Speech

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