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The Perilous Brink of Freedom

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The Perilous Brink of Freedom

The lower-samurai from Tosa who had sacrificed everything when hefted three years before, was now a leading figure in national politics; and although he longed to be mated with his family, he never once deviated from the thorny path toward freedom. The years of forging his draconic spirit-the kenjutsu training in Kochi and Edo; the tutoring under Kawada Shoryo and Takechi Hanpeita; the unlimited source of energy he had inherited from the cool wisdom of Katsu Kaishu; the training at the naval academy in Kobe; the knowledge and inspiration he had received through close rapport with some of the greatest men of his day, particularly the Group of Four; the loss of many of His comrades over the years during which he too had defied death-had brought the Dragon to the perilous brink of freedom, for himself for his comrades, and for Japan.
While Ryoma was determined to topple the Bakufu and restore the Emperor to power, unlike his comrades this was not his ultimate goal. Rather, he was intent on abolishing the feudal system altogether-something he was sure neither Saigo nor Katsura would easily condone. He thought it futile to depose the military hegemony in Edo simply to replace it with an Imperial monarchy in Kyoto. Rather, his objective was the establishment of a democracy. His ideals were founded on two basic tenets of Western democracy: inalienable human rights and the free trade system, both of which were completely foreign to most of his peers. And although it is true that Ryoma intended to restore the Emperor to power, unlike his fellow Loyalists, he did not revert him as a god, but merely as a unifying force for the Japanese people, the symbol of a new Japanese nation. While Ryoma’s democratic government would be centered around the Imperial Court in Kyoto, in essence it would be based on the American model. In the United States, he had learned, the leaders were elected by the people, who were guaranteed certain inalienable human rights. Without these rights--among others the freedom of action-he and his men would not be able to conduct international trade in order to strengthen the Japanese nation, both militarily and economically. Their vehicle would be their shipping company-the prototype of the Japanese corporation-that they were at this very moment establishing in Nagasaki, financed by Satsuma, but operated entirely by themselves. Ryoma, however, realized that it would be impossible for him to conduct international trade without one unified government behind him: a Satsuma-Choshu Alliance would be his first giant step toward realizing this government, the overthrow of the Bakufu the next.

Ryoma crossed Shimonoseki Strait from northern Kyushu on the first day of intercalary May. Here he received word that Katsura Kogoro, whom he desperately wanted to meet, was a half-day's journey away at the Choshu Administration Office in Yamaguchi Castletown. That night, however, Ryoma suddenly came down with a high fever, and much to his chagrin, was incapacitated.

He recovered quickly, and on the morning of his fifth day in Shimonoseki received some important news: Nakaoka and Saigo were expected to arrive in Shimonoseki any day. "A meeting between Saigo and Katsura," Ryoma thought anxiously, and it was for the purpose of such a meeting that Nakaoka was escorting the Satsuma commander in chief to Choshu. Then, on the next day, Ryoma received a message from Katsura, summoning him to the home of a friend in Shimonoseki.

Ryoma had not seen Katsura since the previous summer, but had heard that the shrewd politician was now in control of the Choshu government. Shortly after Katsura's return from exile in April, word of an impending Bakufu attack had created a new sense of unity throughout Choshu, despite the recent civil war between the revolutionaries and conservatives. Choshu was now united in its determination to defend itself: should it be defeated, the daimyo would be punished, the samurai lose their stipends, the stores of the merchants would be looted and the lands and crops of the peasants destroyed. But since even a united Choshu. whose army numbered only some 4,000, could not possibly resist, let alone defeat, tens of thousands of Tokugawa troops-conscripted from the armies of thirty-one clans-Katsura immediately took two measures to improve the situation. First he increased the power of the rebel faction within the Choshu government, which meant recalling from exile Takasugi, Inoue and Ito-the three new radical leaders who had recently fled to avoid assassination. And even more importantly, Katsura's second measure, which now consumed him, was to modernize the Choshu Army.

"Welcome, Sakamoto-san," Katsura said, greeting Ryoma in a drawing room, and gesturing to another man sitting with him. "I'd like you to meet Murata-sensei, who's in charge of the overall defense of Choshu." Murata Zoroku, age forty-one, had only recently risen to prominence. Unlike most of the other Loyalist leaders of Choshu, Murata was neither a disciple of Yoshida Shoin nor an outstanding patriot, but so extensive was his knowledge of Western military science, Katsura now depended on him to modernize the Choshu Army. Although Murata was drilling his troops after the fashion of the Western armies, since the majority were armed only with muskets, swords and spears, he informed Katsura that Choshu must have state-of-the-art weaponry-namely rifles, cannon and warships-to fight the Bakufu forces. He proposed that Choshu procure 10,000 modem, rapid-firing, breech-loading rifles, far superior in range and accuracy to the old-fashioned, muzzle-loading guns and muskets of the Bakufu troops. But because Tokugawa agents in Nagasaki prevented Choshu men from procuring weapons from the foreign traders there. Murata had recently traveled to Shanghai to purchase as many rifles as possible. Unfortunately, there were 80 breechloaders to be had In Shanghai at that time, and Murata was forced to settle for the muzzle-loading type, and several cannon. It was the dire need for modem breech-loading rifles, and the extreme difficulty in procuring them, that was consuming both Murata and Katsura when Ryoma arrived.

"Hello," Ryoma said, meeting the sullen expressions of both men with a wide grin. "It's a pleasure to meet you, Murata-san."

Murata bowed his head slightly, and returned the greeting. "We were just discussing rifles," Katsura said.

"Which you're having trouble getting," Ryoma said. Ryoma's nonchalance annoyed Murata, but his uncanny ability to read a person's mind impressed him.

Katsura cleared his throat. "Yes," he said with perfect calm. "But please sit down, and tell us what brings you to Choshu."

"How many do you think you'll need?" Ryoma asked in the same nonchalant tone, though well aware that the question was of utmost importance to both men. "How many what?" Katsura feigned ignorance.

"Breech-loading rifles, of course. You don't think you can defeat the Bakufu troops with those old-fashioned, muzzle-loading rifles you have now, do you? You can fire ten shots with a breechloader in the same time it takes to fire one shot with the others. That would be like increasing the number of your troops tenfold." Ryoma stopped speaking, but continued to grin at the two men who he knew were far more informed in such technical matters than he himself was. "With the American Civil War over, there's a surplus of rifles in Nagasaki that the foreign traders are just dying to get rid of."

"Get rid of? Where did you get your information?" Murata asked suspiciously.

"In Kagoshima." Ryoma had recently learned from Saigo and Komatsu that, while Choshu was prohibited as an enemy of the Tokugawa from purchasing weapons in Nagasaki, such was not the case for Satsuma, which was still officially a Tokugawa ally. And as the four foreign powers-Britain. France, Holland and America-had agreed among themselves not to interfere in Japan's domestic affairs, even if foreign traders wanted to sell arms to the renegade han, they were prohibited by their governments from doing so. "But of course," Ryoma burst out laughing, as if to intentionally irritate, "you need the right connections."

Katsura offered Ryoma an empty cup, then filled it with sake. "Please elaborate," he said.

"A group of my men are in Nagasaki right now to set up headquarters for a shipping company" Ryoma drained the cup, and held it up for Katsura to refill. "For whose benefit?" Murata asked, suspicious of Ryoma's boasting. "Japan's," Ryoma said indignantly. "Who's sponsoring you?" "Satsuma."

"Satsuma!" Murata seethed, his eyes bulging.

"Yes. And," Ryoma lowered his voice, "Saigo is due to arrive in Shimonoseki any day now to talk to you."

"Saigo Kichinosuke?" Katsura sneered, suddenly losing his composure. "The commander in chief of the Satsuma armed forces. That dirty, rotten..."

"Yes," Ryoma interrupted, "Nakaoka is with him right now."

"Nakaoka with Saigo?" Katsura gasped.

"Yes, they'll be arriving together from Kagoshima to talk with you."

"About what?"

Ryoma smiled sardonically, shaking his head. "You just said you needed guns, didn't you."

"Desperately!" Katsura sat up straight, refilled Ryoma's cup. "But what does that have to do with Saigo?"

"Satsuma is ready to openly oppose the Bakufu," Ryoma said, his former grin replaced with a look of intense seriousness.

"Sakamoto-san," Katsura exploded, "you don't know what you're saying"

"Listen," Ryoma interrupted, his eyes ablaze. "If you will agree to talk to Saigo and hear what he has to say, I'm sure you'll see things differently than you do now. I've been to Kagoshima, and stayed at Saigo's home. Saigo is not the man you think he is. Trust me. Saigo has been urging Lord Hisamitsu not to participate in the expedition against Choshu. He's a man of his word, one of the most sincere I've ever met." Ryoma looked hard into Katsura's eyes. "I've just come from Dazaifu," he informed in a solemn lone. "The Five Banished Nobles agreed with me." Ryoma knew that the mere mention of these champions of Toppling the Bakufu and Imperial Loyalism would have a strong effect on the Choshu men.

"Agreed with you about what?" Katsura asked.

"That there must be an alliance between Choshu and Satsuma." Silence filled the void brought on by Ryoma's preposterous words.

"Sakamoto-san," Katsura gasped indignantly, "what are you saying?"

"You can't tell me that you haven't at least heard of the plan. It's been talked about in Shimonoseki all spring."

"Alright, so maybe I have heard of it. But if you really believe such an alliance is possible, you just don't understand Choshu's position. It was Satsuma who deceived the court into declaring our han an 'Imperial Enemy," after Satsuma sided with the Tokugawa. I don't know how many Choshu men have written the words 'Satsuma bandits' on the bottoms of their sandals just for the enjoyment of walking on them every step they take. We Choshu men would prefer to die in battle against the Bakufu than to unite with Satsuma."

Ryoma groaned, wiped his nose on his sleeve. "Damn this cold," he muttered. "I can't seem to get rid of it" Giving both men a hard look, he said, "I understand how you feel. But your main concern right now is to preserve your han and crush the Bakufu, right?"

"Yes," Katsura answered sharply.

Then you're going to have to forget about the past, and concentrate on the future. The only way to save Choshu from destruction, and to overthrow the Bakufu. will be for you to unite with Satsuma. And of this, I've already convinced Saigo." Ryoma paused, took a deep breath. "But I'm not only talking about Choshu and Satsuma. I'm talking about the preservation of all of Japan."

"And what about the rifles?" Murata interjected harshly.

"My company will arrange for you to buy rifles in Nagasaki under the Satsuma name," Ryoma said, perhaps stretching the truth. Although the idea of procuring weapons for Choshu to use against the Bakufu had consumed him as of late, he had only mentioned it to Saigo once. Nevertheless, he was confident in his ability to persuade; and so deep was his trust in Saigo that he was sure the great man would support his scheme. "We'll even deliver the rifles to Shimonoseki on one of our ships," Ryoma said, as if he already had a ship at his disposal.

"Alright," Katsura said, offering his hand to Ryoma. "I'll talk with Saigo. But his visit must be kept secret. There are many in Choshu who would die a thousand deaths for a single chance to cut him. And who knows what might happen if word were to get out that I was meeting Saigo, let alone discussing the idea of an alliance with the Satsuma bandits."

Katsura and Ryoma spent the next two weeks waiting for Nakaoka and Saigo to arrive, and although the Choshu leader bad no reason to hide his anxiety, the Tosa ronin had to force himself to act as self-confident as Katsura believed him to be. This is not to say that Ryoma ever once doubted Saigo's sincerity, but the very fact that the great man himself had never actually promised to come to Shimonoseki remained in the back of Ryoma's mind as a constant reminder that nothing was settled yet.

While waiting, Katsura was confronted with still another problem. The Lord of Uwajima, whose deceased wife was the younger sister of the Lord of Choshu, had recently sent to Yamaguchi Castle a copy of a letter he had received from Edo explaining its reasons for the planned second expedition against Choshu (This letter had been circulated among all the daimyo, except, of course, Choshu.) Included was an account of a meeting the Dutch Consul General had recently had in Yokohama with Bakufu officials to verify a secret report by Kokura Han, the hereditary Tokugawa clan located just across Shimonoseki Strait from Choshu. According to the Kokura report, Choshu men had been seen approaching a Dutch warship in the strait. The letter indicated that although the Consul General denied the report as groundless, he did inform the Bakufu officials that Choshu had recently been trying to smuggle some of its men out of Japan as foreign envoys, and furthermore that Choshu had opened Shimonoseki to foreign trade. Needless to say, the Choshu men were furious about this slander, which they felt might trigger a second expedition against them. When a Dutch warship carrying the Consul General happened to stop at Shimonoseki en route to Nagasaki, Katsura requested a meeting with the Dutchman, and asked Ryoma and Ito to accompany him.

The three samurai were met in the cabin by the Dutch Consul General and a British official, whose Smith and Wesson revolver, which he wore in a holster at his hip, immediately caught Ryoma's eye. The Europeans sat on one side of a long, polished wooden table, opposite the three Japanese. Ito, who had been to England, was to interpret for Katsura, with Ryoma present for moral support.

"Ito-san," Ryoma said before the discussion began, "ask him if he'd sell me his pistol." Ryoma smiled at the Englishman, drawing a confused look which made him wonder if the foreigner understood Japanese. Ryoma had attempted to study English at Kaishu's naval academy, but unlike Yonosuke and Sonojo, was unable to make sense out of the strange sounds.

"Later, Sakamoto-san," Katsura objected sharply. "1 want to get directly to the point at hand. Ito, interpret for me." Katsura produced an English translation of the letter, and handed it to the heavyset, blue-eyed blonde man sitting opposite him. "Please read this," Katsura said.

After reading the letter, the Consul General placed it on the table, and began speaking heatedly, sweat running down his bearded face. "It's just not true! None of it. I never said anything to the Tokugawa officials to slander Choshu. It was Kokura, not the Dutch, which tried to trigger the expedition against your ban, by fabricating a story that Choshu men had approached one of our ships off Shimonoseki."

"If that's the case," Ito said in slow, deliberate English, translating Katsura's words, "should war break out with the Bakufu, we must bring up the subject of this discussion immediately, and reprove Kokura for spreading false rumors to slander us. Would you be willing to be present at such a discussion to support us?"

"Certainly!" the Consul General affirmed, wiping his forehead with a handkerchief. Holland, like Great Britain, anticipating that the future of Japan lay in the hands of either Choshu or Satsuma, or both, wanted to maintain friendly relations with the two bitter enemies, even at the exclusion of the Tokugawa.

"Then it's settled," Katsura said, stood up, and offered the Consul General his hand. Ryoma followed suit, extending his hand to the British official, and with a wide smile uttered with an incomprehensible pronunciation the English word "trade." As he spoke he reached for his sword, and offered it in exchange for the Smith and Wesson, at which instance the Englishman naturally stepped back and drew his revolver; but as Ryoma had still not drawn his blade, the dumbfounded Briton soon realized that this smiling samurai meant him no harm.

Ryoma broke out in laughter, and said, "Ito-san, ask him if he'll trade his pistol for my sword."

The Englishman declined Ryoma's offer, but was nevertheless impressed with this odd samurai who would trade what other men of the two-sworded class considered their soul for a Smith and Wesson.

On the following morning, a young man appeared at the waterfront mansion of a wealthy Shimonoseki merchant and Loyalist sympathizer, where Ryoma was staying- "Ike Kurata of Tosa, in command of a militia unit for

m the Choshu Loyalists," he introduced himself to a servant at the front door.

"I'm looking for Sakamoto Ryoma."

The servant showed Kurata to Ryoma's room. "Kura!" Ryoma shouted at the sight of this old friend, and former Tosa Loyalist. "What are you doing here? What a coincidence. What a stroke of luck!" Ryoma clapped his hands ecstatically. "We haven't met in over three years, since I fled Tosa." Ryoma paused, clapped his hands again. "Sit down, and tell me about what you've been doing all this time."

As Kurata told Ryoma, with Yodo's suppression of the Tosa Loyalist Party he, like many other Tosa men, had fled to Choshu, where he served as a staff officer is a militia unit during the attacks on foreign ships in Shimonoseki Strait. During an ill-fated Loyalist uprising in the province of Yamato near Kyoto, Kurata commanded a rifle squad in the Corps of Heaven's Revenge barely escaping alive to Choshu's Osaka headquarters. The next summer he fought in the Corps of Loyalty and Bravery, and fled to Choshu after the defeat at the Forbidden Gates. In the following winter he saw combat again, fighting with Takasugi's Loyalists in the civil war which toppled the Choshu conservatives; and now, on official business in Shimonoseki, he chanced to meet Ryoma, who was like an older brother to him. Ryoma described the reunion in a letter to Kurata’s family in Kochi:

"Kura is just fine and he looks very healthy. What is particularly admirable about him is that he did not once ask about his family, but rather spent the whole day talking about nothing else but the state of things in Japan... We promised each other not to start any more useless wars, and not to die for a stupid reason. So far, around eighty of those who have left Tosa have died in the fighting. Kura has been in battle eight or nine times, and despite all the bullets, arrows and rocks that flew around him, he hasn 't once been wounded. What he's particularly proud of is the fact that he faced the enemy at a distance of about 200 feet, and despite the shells flying in all directions and the bullets whizzing all around him he stood right up and cried out his orders, his own gun smoking as he fired at the enemy artillery carriages. Most of the men hit the ground as soon as they saw the flash of the enemy guns; but Kura says that since they were at such close range, he saw no point in ducking because he knew he wouldn 't be able to get out of the way of a bullet anyway. Of this he's very proud. "Although Kura has always been very self-assertive, and generally not well liked, it seems that a man improves when he goes to war. We had a great laugh when he told me that now everyone really likes him..." After the two finished laughing, Ryoma told Kurata of the progress he and Nakaoka had made toward realizing an alliance between Choshu and

Satsuma, then, giving Kurata a grim look, asked, "Have you heard anything

about Hanpeita?" "No. I was going to ask you the same thing." "We've come a long way since the uprising over the deaths of the Ikeda brothers," Ryoma said, grabbing Kurata by the wrist. The unexpected meeting

made him realize just how much he missed his home, family and old friends.

"We've had so many brave men from Tosa fighting for our cause," Kurata said. "So many Tosa men have died in battle, and so many have proven their courage as leaders."

"If only Lord Yodo could be convinced to give up his support for the Tokugawa," Ryoma said in an unusually melancholy tone. "If Tosa were to join forces with Satsuma and Choshu, we'd be able to avoid more useless death."

"How do you mean? Certainly there would be a war."

Ryoma snickered. "You don't think that even the Tokugawa could stand up against the combined forces of Choshu, Satsuma and Tosa, do you?"


"But forget it," Ryoma said bitterly, slowly shaking his head. "I gave up hope in Tosa three years ago. I just wish Hanpeita and the rest of those men who stayed behind had done the same. The most important thing now is to unite Choshu and Satsuma." Ryoma smiled. "Kura, it seems to me you've had enough fighting for a while. How about coming with me to Nagasaki? Sonojo, Uma, Chojiro, Tora and Taro are all there right now."

Kurata took hold of Ryoma's wrist. "You know I'll do anything for you," the younger man said.

"Good! We'll join the others in Nagasaki as soon as Shinta gets here with Saigo, which should be any day now."

Less than one week later, on the night of May 21, Nakaoka Shintaro arrived at the mansion of the Shimonoseki merchant, blatantly alone and absolutely downtrodden. "I am truly sorry," he told Katsura. "Saigo promised to come, then suddenly, three days ago..."

"Damn those scheming Satsuma bandits. They've done it again," Katsura seethed, as Ryoma, overcome by frustration, pounded his fist on the floor.

Nakaoka explained that he and Saigo had left Kagoshima aboard the Butterfly on May 15; three days later, as they headed east along the southern coast of Kyushu, off the province of Bungo, Saigo suddenly informed him that he wouldn't be able to stop at Shimonoseki "because of urgent business in Kyoto." Nakaoka suppressed his rage, disembarked and hired a fishing boat to take him to Shimonoseki, while Saigo continued on to the Imperial capital.

"And that was all he would tell me," Nakaoka said, half apologetically, half indignant at Saigo's behavior.

"I'll be damned," Ryoma groaned, as Katsura remained deadly silent. "Katsura-san, it's not like Saigo to..."

"Don't tell me about Saigo," Katsura interrupted sharply. "The Satsuma bandits are up to their old tricks again. If I had told our daimyo of my intention to meet Saigo, I'd have no choice now but to commit seppuku. As it is, Saigo's insult to our han is too much for me to bear."

"Give us one last chance to fix things," Ryoma implored. "If we fail, then I'll commit seppuku."

"How would Choshu benefit from the death of one ronin from Tosa?" Katsura snickered.

"You're right," Ryoma said. “But I’m sure Saigo had a valid reason for changing his mind. You can't let this destroy our chances, not after we've come this far. The very future of Japan is at stake "

An expression of hopelessness shrouded Katsura's face, the piercing black eyes dark against the light skin. "The only way Choshu will ever be able to trust Satsuma now is if the weapons are delivered before I meet with Saigo Otherwise, we will never be able to forgive his insult."


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