Ryōtarō Shiba (司馬 遼太郎, Shiba Ryōtarō), born Teiichi Fukuda (福田 定, Fukuda Teiichi) (August 7, 1923 – February 12, 1996) in Osaka, Japan, was a Japanese author best known for his novels about historical events in Japan and on the northeast Asian continent, and his historical and cultural essays pertaining to Japan and its relationship to the rest of the world. His experiences as commander of a tank corps in China during World War II led Shiba to question why Japan had entered into global conflict, and after the war he began writing historical novels in which he portrayed historical events as consequences of a series of crucial decisions made by individuals.
Shiba is one of Japan's best-loved writers of all times. His best-selling book, Ryoma ga Yuku, about the life of Ryoma Sakamoto, a major figure in Japan's transformation from feudal military rule in the 1860s, sold 21.5 million copies. In addition to historical novels, he wrote collections of essays and Kaidō wo Yuku (街道をゆく: On the highways), a series of travel in which he recorded his observations about the history, geography, and people of the places he visited in Japan and in several foreign countries. In 1959, Shiba received the prestigious Naoki Prize for his novel "Fukuro no Shiro" ("The Castle of an Owl"). He was named a member of the Japan Art Academy in 1981, cited as a person of cultural merit in 1991, and received the Government's Order of Cultural Merit in 1993.
Ryōtarō Shiba was born Fukuda Teiichi in Osaka, Japan, on August 7, 1923. His father operated a small pharmacy; his grandfather owned a successful business manufacturing Japanese cakes and sweets. Shiba’s elder brother died at the age of two, and he also had an elder and younger sister. As an infant he suffered from beriberi, and was taken to live in his mother’s home town in Nara prefecture until he was three. He entered elementary school in 1930, but did not like studying and was often naughty. Because he did not get along well with his teachers, he was poor at English and math.
Sometimes he visited relatives in Nara, where there were many old tombs, and he became fascinated with history and enjoyed searching for artifacts. In 1936, he entered middle school, where he was particularly inspired by the novels of Ibuse Masuji. From middle school until he graduated from present-day Osaka University, he spent many hours in the library, reading every kind of book. He especially liked Russian literature and ancient Chinese history, including Sima Quian’s Records of the Grand Historian. Because of Sima, he later changed his name to “Shiba.”
After failing the first entrance exam, Shiba spent a year in preparation, retook the exam, and was accepted into the Osaka School of Foreign Languages (now School of Foreign Studies of Osaka University) in 1941. He studied Mongolian because, as he later explained, he dreamed of one day standing on the Mongolian prairie and seeing the footprints of the horse-riding nomads who lived there. After graduating early in 1943, Shiba returned to Nigata and Tochigi prefectures.
Shiba was conscripted along with other Japanese students, and sent the battlefront in December, 1943, as commander of a tank corps. His first battle took place in old Manchuria, along the border with the Soviet Union, exactly where the horse-riding nomads had once roamed. He was demobilized in 1945, after the war ended, at the age of twenty-two. His experiences during the war became his starting point as a writer. Years later, he spoke of his works, saying "These are letters to 22-year-old me."
After the war, he began working as a journalist. He lost his first newspaper job when the company went bankrupt after two years, and became employed at the Sankei Shimbun, one of Japan’s major newspapers. In 1950, when the Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavilion Temple) in Kyoto was burned down by a deranged monk, Shiba was sent to cover the incident. In Kyoto he met many scholars of history, and began writing essays and historical novels.
Shiba’s novels became extremely popular in Japan. He was a prolific author, frequently writing about the dramatic change Japan went through during the late Edo and early Meiji periods. His most monumental works include Kunitori Monogatari (国盗り物語), Ryoma ga Yuku (竜馬がゆく), Moeyo Ken, and Saka no ue no Kumo (坂の上の雲), all of which have spawned dramatizations, most notably Taiga dramas aired in hour-long segments over a full year on NHK television. He also wrote numerous collections of essays, one of which—Kaidō wo Yuku—is a multi-volume journal-like work covering his travels across Japan and around the world. In 1959, his novel, "Fukuro no Shiro" ("The Castle of an Owl") won the prestigious Naoki Prize. Shiba was named a member of the Japan Art Academy in 1981, and cited as a “person of cultural merit” in 1991. He received the Government's Order of Cultural Merit in 1993.
Shiba married for the first time in 1952 and divorced two years later. His son from that marriage was cared for by his parents’ family. In 1959, he married Matsumi Midori. His only hobby, apart from continual study and writing, was a bandana collection which he started during his military days; he was often seen wearing a bandana loosely tied around his neck.
Ryotaro Shiba died February 12, 1996, two days after suffering from internal bleeding and lapsing into a coma.
Ryotaro Shiba’s historical novels were and are extremely popular in Japan. Ryoma ga Yuku, about the life of Ryoma Sakamoto, a major figure in Japan's transformation from feudal military rule in the 1860's, has sold 21.5 million copies; Saka no Ue no Kumo, the story of the destruction of the Baltic fleet during the Russo-Japanese War, 14.45 million copies; and Tobu ga Gotoku, about Takamori Saigo, another Meiji hero, 11 million copies. His book of travel essays, "Kaido wo Yuku" (Travels by the Old Highways), has sold 10.09 million copies, and his essays on modern Japan, "Kono Kuni no Katachi" (The Shape of This Country), 3.6 million. In all, more than 180 million copies have been printed of his 350 books. Many modern Japanese have read at least one of his works.
The primary theme of Shiba’s novels was the development of modern Japan and the meaning of being Japanese, and he particularly sought an explanation for Japan’s entry into World War II. He approached his subject in a journalistic manner, studying historic documents and offering imaginative interpretations. His writing was modern and conversational, but at the same time learned, a style which appealed to the public. He depicted his characters at moments when they were making historical decisions, showing historical events as the consequence of a series of individual choices. Shiba's view, called Shiba-shikan, was that history is determined by individual people, not by ideologies. Rather than using prominent historical figures as his protagonists, Shiba frequently chose socially inferior characters who were more open-minded to change than those whose power and authority depended on past tradition.
Shiba had a deep concern for the future of Japan, and felt that his country was in danger of losing its national character. He regarded both the militarism which preceded World War II, and the speculation which fueled the economic bubble of the late twentieth century, as aberrations for a people who respected honor and valued harmony, and who always paid their debts.
When I examine a human being, I climb up the stairs, go out on the roof, and peer down on the person from that vantage point. It provides an entirely different scene from that one gets by observing people at eye level.
One of Shiba’s best known historical novels, Ryōma ga Yuku (竜馬がゆく: “Ryōma moves ahead”), was about the samurai Sakamoto Ryōma, who was instrumental in bringing about Japan’s Meiji Restoration, after which values and elements from Western culture were introduced into the country, sparking dramatic change. During the late Edo period, Japan was divided into two factions. After Japan had banned international trade and isolated itself from the rest of the world for over two hundred years, the Japanese government, led by the Tokugawa clan, had agreed to open the country to trade with the United States and several European countries. In opposition to this, a movement called Sonnō-Jōi (revere the emperor and eradicate the barbarians) arose to fight the foreigners and protect Japan from outside domination. The Tokugawa shogunate had usurped political power from the emperor, but he was still considered by many to be the sacred symbol of Japan. The Sonnō-Jōi faction sought to restore the emperor’s political authority by overthrowing the Tokugawa shogunate, and rejecting its trade agreements with foreign countries.
Sakamoto Ryōma, the protagonist of Ryōma ga Yuku, started out as a member of the Sonnō-Jōi faction, but gradually realized that Japan was almost powerless in the face of the technology and well-developed industry of the contemporary Western powers. He came to believe that Japan must adopt elements of Western culture, to develop into a country that could hold its place equally among nations.
Kaidō wo Yuku (街道をゆく: “On the highways”) is a series of travel essays initially published as 1,146 installments in Shūkan Asahi, a weekly magazine, from 1971 until 1996. In 1970, after the heady economic growth of post-World War II years, Japan’s historical sites, idiosyncrasies of local culture, and traditional monuments of beauty were rapidly disappearing, displaced by ugly, colorless modern urban development. Shiba, feeling a sense of urgency, set out to record as much as possible, and to make the public aware of what was being lost. He traveled all over Japan, making observations about the history, geography, and people of the places he visited. He translated the English word "identity" as sato (hometown), promoting the concept that the unique aspects of a person's home or village contributed to that person’s character and personality. The series also includes several volumes on foreign lands—China, Korea, the Namban countries (Spain and Portugal), Ireland, the Netherlands, Mongolia, Taiwan, and even New York. Now available as a multi-volume set, Kaidō wo Yuku was also developed into documentary series and broadcast on NHK, Japan’s public television station.
Several of Shiba’s works have been translated into English, including his fictionalized biographies of Kukai (Kukai the Universal: Scenes from His Life, 2003) and Tokugawa Yoshinobu (The Last Shogun: The Life of Tokugawa Yoshinobu, 2004), as well as The Tatar Whirlwind: A Novel of Seventeenth-Century East Asia (2007).
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