Popular realms of memory in Japan: the case of Sakamoto Ryōma

Tagsold, Christian GND

Sakamoto Ryōma is said to have united the fiefs of Satsuma and Chōshū in their attempt to overthrow the Tokugawa shogunate, which eventually led to the Meiji Restoration. He is one of the most popular historical figures in contemporary Japan. However, while the remembrance and commemoration of the darkest decades from the 1930s to the 1940s in Japanese history have been researched extensively in the West, cases such as Sakamoto have been mostly neglected. This paper examines Sakamoto’s current popularity and puts it into the context of Pierre Nora’s concept of “realms of memory.” Nora’s concept describes how national identity draws upon various memories and transforms them into interconnected points of reference. The analysis starts by scrutinizing on the many historical novels that have been written about Sakamoto as well as the historical TV drama Ryōma-den, produced and aired by public broadcaster NHK in 2010. Situating Sakamoto’s case in the overall picture of Japanese “realms of memory” reveals the political dimensions of memorizing him. Sakamoto has been cherished by conservatives and left-wing students alike. The paper concludes that Sakamoto and other heroes such as Saigō Takamori should be included into Western research on collective historical memory in Japan because they shed light on the complex entanglement of memory and politics in Japan.