Distrustful vagabonds, revolutionary warriors, or ruthless mercenary? Who were these enigmatic masterless ex-Samurai of feudal Japan?
A Samurai without a master was known as a Rōnin, which translates to ‘drifter’ or ”wanderer.’ A trained warrior left to their own devices, without a master to serve nor a duty imposed upon them, was an unpredictable person.
Ostracized from society, stripped of lands, money, power, and status, many became mercenaries, bandits, or petty thieves.
In earlier years Samurai who lost their masters would simply swear to another master, as a means of maintaining their social status.
During the contentious Edo period (1603-1868) Samurai were heavily restricted, and were not allowed to swear service to a new master if they lost their original.
The Samurai serving under Asano Takumi-no-Kami Naganori, the daimyo of the Akō Domain, faced these debilitating restrictions when their master was sentenced to commit seppuku, a Samurai ritualistic suicide.
Asano Naganori had attacked the corrupt and condescending Kira Yoshinaka, a member of the Shogun’s court, for insulting himself and his people. Asano slashed Kira’s face with his wakizashi, attempting to kill him for the dishonor. The attack left Kira’s face scarred: a reminder of his corruption and disrespect. Asano was sentenced to commit seppuku.
Asano Naganori had over three hundred Samurai retainers who were all forced to become rōnin. Of the newly disgraced rōnin, the forty-seven who plotted to avenge their master’s death became the basis for history’s most famous Samurai story: Forty-seven Rōnin, also known as the Akō Vendetta.
Two years after their master’s death the forty-seven rōnin, led by Ōishi Yoshio, infiltrated Kira Yoshinaka’s mansion, killed his guards, and found him begging and bribing the invading rōnin for his life.
They gave him a choice: perform seppuku and die honorably, or be struck down. Kira swore he was only a lowly servant, and continued to beg and bribe for his life.
The slash on Kira’s face identified him as the enemy of Asano, and the object of the rōnin’s revenge. His continuing cries of cowardice lost him his head. The forty-seven rōnin, now avenged, presented Kira’s head to the Shogun, who sentenced forty-six of the rōnin to commit seppuku for the unsanctioned killing of Kira Yoshinaka.
The forty-seventh, Terasaka Kichiemon, was pardoned due to his youth. Terasaka lived well into his eighties, passing away in 1747, and then buried with the other forty-seven rōnin, in front of the tomb of their master Asano Takumi-no-Kami Naganori.
The heavy restrictions on Samurai during this period of Japanese history were meant to keep them from rising in power against the Tokugawa Shogunate, which ironically created large armies of disenfranchised and radicalized rōnin who resented the Tokugawa.
Most Samurai who became Rōnin did so by falling out of favor with their master, the death of their master, or in rare cases like Sakamoto Ryōma they left on their own volition.
Sakamoto Ryōma was educated and came of age in the late Edo period, a time of great social and political instability. The Tokugawa Shogunate was at its weakest point, and Japan was forcibly open to trade with America, which for the long term isolationist Island nation this was akin to UFO disclosure.
The black ships of Commodore Mathew C. Perry arriving in Edo Bay of in 1853 shook up Japanese society and radicalized members of the Samurai order.
The Samurai, farmers, and fishermen who greeted the American ships thought them to be invading demons, and depicted them as such in woodblock prints. The arrival of these Nanbanjin or “southern barbarians” as Americans were known, with their guns, cannons, and smoking black naval ships, threw Japanese society into upheaval
Galvanized by distrust of foreigners and a deep sense of cultural nationalism, many Samurai became revolutionaries in waiting, rallying being the battle cry “sonnō jōi” which translates to “revere the Emperor, expel the barbarians.” In a time where the Emperor was the figurehead, and the Shogun the military overlord of the land, this rallying behind the Emporer was a politically extreme act.
Sonnō jōi became the basis for a unique kind of monarchical democracy. The philosophy was if one person is above all others, as a god-like Emperor, then everyone else in the nation would be equal, dismantling the old oppressive caste system.
The Samurai clan from Tosa Domain wanted a revolution to replace the weakening Tokugawa with their own Shogunate. However, the young Sakamoto Ryōma from Tosa envisioned something more radical: an end to feudalism, with the formation of a modern democratic Japan for all.
Ryōma wanted to democratize and modernize Japan to resist exploitation by the southern barbarians. However he was also inspired by American values of liberty and equality. The Declaration of Independence and its guarantee that “all men are created equal,” was formative to his philosophy.
Sakamoto knew that democracy and modernization were only possible by overthrowing the Tokugawa Shogun and the Bakufu government which supported him. After leaving the Tosa clan, he operated under the alias of “Saitani Umetarō” to avoid detection by the Bakufu and the Shinsengumi special police.
Sakamoto traveled West and negotiated peace between the two rival provincial domains of Satsuma and Chōshū, with the Satchō alliance. This alliance proved instrumental in overthrowing the Shogun. Sakamoto even formed his own private navy and trading company called Kameyama Shachū, and used them to aid the forces of Satsuma and Chōshū against the Tokugawa and the Bakufu government.
Sakamoto Ryōma lived the typically shortened life of a revolutionary warrior. He was assassinated by unidentified pro-Shogun agents at a Kyoto inn on his 31st birthday, December 10, 1867. He never lived to see the Meiji Restoration, Japan’s transition into Democratic modernity, which he inspired.
He would likely have been a vocal critic of Meiji period Japan, but still he manged to overthrow the old guard of Samurai warlords who ruled Japan for a thousand years, ending the institution of the Shogunate.
Short lived but his legacy endures. The writings and proposals of Sakamoto Ryōma were foundational in the construction of of the Meiji Constitution, the formation of the Meiji Parliament, and existence of the constitutional monarchy of Japan of today.
Sakamoto Ryōma, a revolutionary Rōnin from Tosa, became a legend for his part in the creation of a new Japan. His philosophy and his work are symbolized in the fashion sense he also pioneered, combining traditional Samurai robes with Western footwear.
Ryōma the rōnin is a more fitting manifestation of the virtuous warrior than the Samurai, and his example was an inspiration and validation for the name Gentle Rōnin.
It is true the masterless Samurai, wandering the wilderness and villages of feudal Japan are subject to romanticization and mythology too.
Sakamoto Ryōma is unique. It’s not like Rōnin were typically wandering libertarian philosophers, intellectuals, and strategists. There are other Rōnin of legend this blog will later profile, but the majority of Rōnin became mercenaries, bandits, and criminals, putting their skills to use to survive their newfound loss of social status.
Their historical reality should be understood in the context of economic needs, and that people don’t become criminals because they’re inherently bad. People turn to black markets for survival when the larger social structure ostracizes them.