Japan's Kochi airport named after samurai with six-shooter

by AFP/Jonathan Annells, Nov 20, 2003 | Destinations: Japan / Kochi

KOCHI, Japan, Nov 16, 2003 - The United States has JFK and Ronald Reagan, France has Charles de Gaulle, and Italy has Leonardo da Vinci airport, while Liverpool's commemorates John Lennon, but until now, Japan had never named an airport after a national or local hero. That changed on November 15 when the airport here became Kochi Ryoma Airport, in memory of a local-born 19th century samurai who sported traditional robes and swords, but who also packed a six-shooter and wore Western-style elastic-sided boots.

"Ryoma Sakamoto is a very romantic figure, I admired him for his bold spirit, and broad vision of the need for Japan to become international," Miyuki Kato told AFP after the naming ceremony at the airport 610 kilometres (380 miles) southwest of Tokyo. Kato, 49, a former air stewardess from Tokyo, was a guest of honour at the ceremony as she first had the idea to name the airport after a man she has regarded as a national hero and role model since she first learned about him at school.

"I flew for 10 years for Japan Airlines and I knew of Charles de Gaulle, Leonardo da Vinci and JFK, but in Japan, no airport was named after a person," she said. "I think Ryoma Sakamoto is as important for (modern) Japan as those people were to their countries."

It took two years and a 70,000-name petition to Kochi governor Daijiro Hashimoto to achieve her goal. Unlike those other world-famous names immortalised in airports, Sakamoto is hardly known outside Japan, but in his native land he is revered as a revolutionary who played a crucial role in ending the feudal rule of the shogun (military dictator), allowing Japan to modernize.

A poll by the influential Asahi Shimbun daily once named him the most popular leader of the last 1,000 years. He was a romantic figure not only as a revolutionary who died young -- cut down by assassins on his 33rd birthday on November 15 1867 -- but as a husband. Sakamoto is celebrated as the first Japanese man to take his wife on honeymoon, establishing a practice for which the nation's tourism industry has reason to be thankful.

He married Oryo, a maid at an inn where he once stayed, after she saved his life by raising the alarm when attackers sneaked in to kill him one night. The low-ranked "ronin" (masterless samurai) was also a pioneer of maritime trade, an advocate of insurance, and the author of a seminal Eight-Point Plan which formed the blueprint for modern government under the emperor Meiji, who was restored to primacy over the shoguns in 1868.

Included in Sakamoto's plan was the need to set up a bicameral parliament, fix an exchange rate to conduct international trade, and to choose lawmakers and bureaucrats on merit.

An 1866 photograph reproduced everywhere in Kochi that shows a proud Sakamoto posing in his samurai garb with a pair of well-worn elastic-sided leather boots -- an extraordinary sartorial combination even now -- seems to capture the essence of the man. Deeply loyal to the emperor, Sakamoto was initially hostile to the foreign influence that was making itself felt through the Western treaty port footholds in mid-19th century Japan. But the samurai who had been raised according to traditional codes soon recognised the threat to Japan's independence posed by superior Western technology and became convinced of the need to learn from foreigners and modernize.

Although he trained for years and became a master swordsman, he also carried a Smith and Wesson revolver, which was no mere affectation as his surviving graphic account of a fight with would be killers attests. "My pistol was a six-shooter, and since I had shot five rounds, I was now done to one shot. I thought I ought to save it for an important target, and as a result the war became a little bit quieter," Sakamoto is quoted as writing to his brother by American historian Marius Jansen.

Sakamoto's martial exploits have been celebrated in films, books and "manga" comic strip books, but his great achievement was to engineer an alliance between the powerful Satsuma and Choshu clans that led to end of the Tokugawa shogunate and Japan's 200 years of isolation from the outside world. "He was the right man in the right place at the right time. It was a very difficult time and he played a very important in the history that was being made," said Kato. As for the leather boots -- well they are a historical footnote.

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