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Sakamoto Ryoma is often portrayed in the Japanese media for his role in attempting to overthrow the shogunate during the Bakumatsu period. Since he was assassinated when he was still very young, the Japanese media are very sympathetic to his cause. I wonder how much of a role did he actually play in overthrowing the Tokugawa regime?

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It is true that Sakamoto Ryōma died young, and his heroic role is perhaps overly dramatized today (especially the famous story of his aborted assasination attempt of Katsu Kaishū), but his considerable reputation as one of the most important figures in bringing down the Tokugawa is not without merit. The two most important moments where he, as an individual, becomes a particularly important figure in the Meiji restoration:

  • His role, as a Tosa (Kōchi) outsider, in helping negotiate an alliance between the Chōshū and Satsuma forces (1866) that together led the campaigns to follow. Nakaoka Shintarō was also important in these negotiations.
  • Again, partly connected to his unusual position as a Tosa representative eager to bring an end to the conflict, he played a role in the negotiations for the surrender of the Tokugawa. Part of this was the composition of an "eight-point" program for a peace settlement and convincing the more belligerent allies in Satsuma etc. Gotō Shōjirō was the other key figure in this process.

The classic English source on this is Marius Jansen's work, frequently read by students of Japanese history: Sakamoto Ryoma and the Meiji Restoration

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Sakamoto Ryoma was very passionate toward his country. Even though he was a descendant of a low-ranking samurai family, he established a reputation for swordsmanship. He was best known for attempting to unite countries who were otherwise hostile toward each other, against the Bakufu supporting the Tokugawa shogunate.

Bakufu: A shogun's office or administration is known in English as the "office". In Japanese it was known as bakufu

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