Tomoya Nakamura in aikido gear fiercely reaches for the camera
Photographer: Katsuo Sugano

At the end of the Edo Period, the samurai Sakamoto Ryoma brought about an alliance between the Choshu and Satsuma clans, creating the basis for the restoration of the emperor and opening the way for the Meiji Era. Sakamoto has become an immensely popular figure.

Often chosen as a person GLOBIS MBA students admire, it seems students suffering from a stagnating Japanese society look to his example for a way to open a new era of their own.

The man who created a new era

Sakamoto’s name was pushed to fame with the publication of Shiba Ryoutarou’s masterpiece, Ryoma ga Yuku, which describes Sakamoto’s life.

The book explains how Sakamoto was born in Tosa (present-day Kochi Prefecture in Shikoku) in 1836. The Tosa Clan was a hierarchical society strictly divided into upper- and lower-class samurai. Sakamoto was in the lower class, as he came from a country samurai family. He was a bit of a crybaby as a child, but that changed when he was 17 and went to Edo to study the Hokushin Ittō-ryū style of kendo swordsmanship. Later, he was admitted as a full master and went on to study the West through the painter Kawada Shoryo.

In 1862, Sakamoto escaped from the Tosa Clan and became a ronin, or masterless samurai. He then met and studied as an apprentice under Katsu Kaishu, a renowned statesman at the time. When Katsu opened the Kobe Naval School, Ryoma became its headmaster and 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 achieved the famous Satsuma-Choshu alliance by bringing together clan leaders Saigo Takmaori and Kido Takayoshi.

A year later, he was assassinated.

When one looks comprehensively at Ryoma’s life, some key words come to my mind: rationalism, equality, freedom, management, master, and timing. Sakamoto managed to create a strong personal mission in relation to society.

Trained in swordsmanship and steeped in Western learning

Ki takes time and energy to prepare, like clay for pottery and dough for bread. Sakamoto was certainly exposed to the many established routines, customs, and cultural restrictions within the strict, class-based society of the Tosa. From the pent-up energy accumulated in this oppressive environment arose a dream of the Japanese nationーa notion which had never existed before.

Ki requires timing. Regardless of effort, if things are not in line, intention will not bear fruit. On the other hand, a heart must be ready for a dream, regardless of timing. The key is to sense the quiet nuances of ki every day, in every activity.

Furthermore, understanding the circumstances of society is essential. Through his training in swordsmanship and study of the West, Sakamoto gained a view of society. Despite being a mere ronin, this view of society allowed him to meet Katsu Kaishu and connect two clans that had long been enemies.

Step by step, ki accumulates and converges. Still, it can scatter in an instant. In that sense, it is easier to maintain the energy of democratic organizational management than dictatorial management. Different people at different layers intermingling with each other, taking turns to shine as leaders, keeps ki steady. Sakamoto’s Kameyamashachu shipping company had an organizational management style based on this kind of model.

Translating Sakamoto’s lessons to the modern era

So what can we do now, living in this era? Most of us have not been disciplined in martial arts, nor do we have opportunities to meet someone as magnanimous as Katsu Kaishu. How can one create a sense of purpose?

Firstly, just as Sakamoto stored up his ki while living among the Tosa Clan, we too must accept our current environment, but prepare ourselves for a greater world in the future. We must recognize any discontent and anger in our current situation, face our imperfections, and work to develop our abilities.

Secondly, to feel and sense ki, we must understand and appreciate the best of things, form a sense of the moment. For example, we should notice a dusting of frost under the trees as the seasons change, appreciate the few seconds when tea leaves smell the best. Even at work, we can feel the perfect balance when a meeting facilitator senses just the right amount of time for participants to digest something before moving on. We can practice ki anywhere, every day.

Thirdly, if you encounter a person that you truly admire, ask them to become your mentor. If you don’t ask, there is no way he or she will take the time to guide you.

Finally, it’s important to develop good relationships, not only in a hierarchy, but on any level. Create a relationship in which positions rotate, where one takes the lead in a meeting today, and another in a project tomorrow. Exercise your energy to push your organization forward and allow others to do the same.

Sakamoto created a new Japan. We all have it within us to create something new, as well.

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