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FEB 6, 2012

Great Men at the End of the Edo Period and We in This Era

By Tomoya Nakamura, Photographer Katsuo Sugano

In April 2009, GLOBIS began its International MBA Program which is conducted entirely in English. When we held a new student orientation and asked each student to give a self-introduction, many students brought up the example of Sakamoto Ryoma as the one person they respect.

As many of you know, in the Edo Period Sakamoto Ryoma brought about the alliance between the Choshu clan and Satsuma clan, which created the basis for the restoration to the emperor and opened the way for the new era called Meiji. In the annals of history this person is an immensely popular figure. I believe this is because students who may be suffering from a stagnating Japanese society are sympathizing with Ryoma to find a way to open the new era.

The Life of Ryoma, the Man who Created a New Era

Ryoma’s name was pushed up into fame with the publication of Shiba Ryoutarou’s masterpiece, “Ryoma ga Yuku” (published by Bungeishunju), which describes Ryoma’s life as in the example below.

Ryoma Sakamoto was born in Tosa (the present-day Kochi prefecture in Shikoku) in 1836. The Tosa clan was a hierarchical society strictly divided into upper-class and lower-class samurai. Ryoma was in the lower class of samurai, as he came from a country samurai family. He is known to have been a crybaby as a child, but when he was 17 he went to Edo to study the Hokushin Ittō-ryū style of kendo (swordsmanship), and later was admitted as the full master. Furthermore, he studied about the West from the painter Kawada Shoryo.

In 1862, Ryoma escaped from the Tosa clan and became a ronin, or a masterless samurai. He then met and studied as an apprentice under Katsu Kaishu, a renowned statesman at that time. When Katsu opened the Kobe Naval School (kobe kaigun sourenjo), Ryoma became its headmaster, and also assumed the office of ship’s captain, achieving one of his dreams. In 1865, he founded the Kameyamashachu (later known as Kaientai), a ship chartering and trading company in Nagasaki. In 1866 he formed the alliance between the Satsuma clan and Choshu clan, which had historically been enemies. He did this by bringing together the clan leaders Saigo Takamori and Kido Takayoshi (also called Katsura Kogorou in his youth), representatives of their respective clans. And, in 1867 as he was dreaming about the birth of the Japanese nation, he was assassinated.

When one looks comprehensively at Ryoma’s life, some key words come to my mind. These are rationalism, the pursuit of equality and freedom, democratic organizational management, encounter with master teachers, a good sense of timing, and creating one’s personal mission in relation to society. These key words, in my view, resonate well with Ki.

Ryoma,Trained in Swordsmanship and Steeped in Western Learning

First of all, Ki is something that must be prepared over time. Just as with clay in making pottery and dough in making bread, this preparation requires a substantial amount of time and energy. Ryoma was certainly exposed to the many established routines, customs, and cultural restrictions of the strict class-based society of Tosa. Yet, I believe that from the pent-up energy accumulated in this oppressive environment arose a dream of the “Japanese nation”–a notion which to that date had not yet existed.

Ki requires timing. No matter how much one tries, if things are not in line, one’s intentions will not bear fruit. On the other hand, if one does not prepare one’s heart for this dream, no matter how well things may line up, one will not be able to take action and grasp this opportunity. In a word, one must sense the quiet nuances of Ki throughout one’s regular daily activities.

Furthermore, as lining things up is beyond one’s control, a view of the circumstances of society, not just of oneself, is essential. Through his training in swordsmanship and study of the West, Ryoma gained a view of society. Despite being no more than a mere ronin, his view of society allowed him to meet Katsu Kaishu and connect Saigo Takamori and Kido Takayoshi.

Step by step, Ki accumulates and converges. However, once it converges it soon scatters in an instant. In that sense, it is easier to maintain a high organizational energy level with organizational management based on democracy and partnership rather than through dictatorial management under one leader. This is like accumulating Ki in many different places throughout an organization, with different people from different layers intermingling with each other and taking turns to shine as leaders. It has been said that Kameyamashachu (later known as Kaientai), which was founded by Sakamoto Ryoma, had an organizational management style that was based on this kind of democracy.

Looking back at ourselves, what should we do living in this era? We have not been disciplined in martial arts such as Ryoma, nor will we have an opportunity to meet someone as magnanimous as Katsu Kaishu. We are living far out from an environment where sensitive considerations are required.

In the midst of this kind of era, how can someone perceive a historical and generational perspective? And, how can one create a sense of purpose such as dedicating one’s life to the greater benefit of society?

What We can do Living in this Era

Firstly, just as Ryoma stored Ki while living in the Tosa clan, we too must accept our current environment and then prepare ourselves to go into a greater world in the future. In this process, we must recognize our discontent and anger of our current situation, honestly face our own imperfections, and begin to develop our abilities. As Ryoma practiced the Hokushin Ittō-ryū style of swordsmanship and studied about the West under Kawada Shoryo, we too must study and create our own personal mission.

Secondly, let us begin to feel and sense Ki, which is really understanding and appreciating the best of something, a sense of the moment. For example, we might recognize a small frost under the Christmas tree, not found yesterday when walking through the main street. We can sense and appreciate the few seconds when tea leaves scent the best. We can also think of a business setting, when the facilitator senses the right amount of time necessary, perhaps 5 seconds, for participants to digest the subject before moving on to the next agenda. Even in our everyday activities, we can practice sensing Ki.

Thirdly, if you encounter a person that you truly admire, you should ask them to become your mentor. Unless you ask them, there is no way he or she will take the time to guide you.

Finally, it is also important to develop good relationships. Look out not only for hierarchical relationships, but also for horizontal relationships. To be more precise, create a relationship in which positions rotate, where one takes the lead on an occasion and follows on another occasion. Build a relationship where you can be a part of a wonderful organization, exercising your energy in pushing the organization forward and receiving them when others’ take command to do the same.

I would like to finish by expressing my expectations to the readers of this column and to the IMBA students. I hope that you will lead a fulfilling life taking the perspectives of Ki into your daily activities. I look forward to meeting a lot of new Ryomas in 2010. Best wishes.

(This article was originally published on December 24, 2009)