Who Is Sakamoto Ryoma?

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Further confirmation, if any were needed, that we all have a firm sense of our own place in the world is the release of “History’s 100 Most Influential People, Hero Edition,” a survey conducted by the Nippon Television Network, Japan’s largest broadcast system. Thirteen of the top 20 slots on the list, and about half overall, are occupied by Japanese people, an impressive—if somewhat ethnocentric—sprinkling of samurai, daimyo, and shoguns.

In the place of honor, at number one, is Sakamoto Ryoma, a revered samurai who helped negotiate the resignation of the Tokugawa shogunate in 1867, which led to the Meiji Restoration. Ryoma’s plum position sets a pattern; many of the revered Japanese figures seem to have a rebellious and certainly warlike bent, and many who had a hand in toppling the high and mighty appear to have sturdier reputations than even the emperors. Oda Nobunaga, at number three (Napoleon managed to grab the second slot), was the son of a 16th-century minor warlord who almost managed to unify Japan. On the cusp of achieving his goal, though, he was forced to commit seppuku, many believe by one of his own generals, Akechi Mitsuhide (No. 10).

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