Principal Analyst   GEOFFREY TUDOR


One of the  most interesting characters of the Bakumatsu period is Sakamoto Ryoma who was not only a top ranking swordsman but also carried a revolver. My interest in him, as an amateur historian , is his signature footwear.

All Ryoma fans know that he wore boots. The evidence is clear in the famous photograph of the great activist and reformer taken in Nagasaki.

The boots are also immortalised in Nagasaki. In Irabayashi no Ichi, near the Wakamiya Inari Jinja and adjacent to the site of the Kameyama Shachu, Ryoma's first commercial maritime undertaking, a giant pair of bronze boots stands by a replica ship's wheel, in memory of this great hero of 19th century Japan and his signature footwear.

The questions that have puzzled me for some time are:

(1)   When did Ryoma acquire his famous footgear?

(2)   Where?

(3)   Why?

There is no hard evidence, but the general opinion is that he acquired the boots when he established his presence in Nagasaki. The boots he is wearing in the photograph are clearly Western style boots and are either imports or the product of a locally based foreign bookmaker.


It is of course possible that he acquired them in Kobe, when he was involved from 1863 in Katsu Kaishu's naval training establishment. In the mid 1860's foreign traders were established in the Hyogo port town and boots and shoes were available. But there is no evidence that Ryoma acquired his boots in Kobe.

We know Ryoma was in Nagasaki on and off from about May 1865, when he established the Kameyama Shachu, his first shipping and trading enterprise. The photograph of the booted samurai, taken at the Ueno Hikoma studio - probably by Ueno's assistant and Ryoma's fellow Tosa-han member Inoue Shunzo - was taken in 1866, although the exact date is unknown. So if Ryoma obtained his boots in Nagasaki, it must have been between May 1865 and whenever the photograph was taken in 1866.


Nagasaki is also a likely place for the boots because there was a well-established foreign settlement. This was in the Oura district, specifically labelled Higashi and Minami Yamate. Here there were ships' chandlers, merchants, hoteliers, bar owners, butchers, and bakers. Today we can visit the famous Glover Garden, where some of the old settlement houses have been preserved, so named after a well-known British merchant and Nagasaki personality, Thomas Glover,

The case for Nagasaki becomes more compelling after examination of an 1867 map of the foreign settlement, which lists the owners or renters of the sites. This valuable document produces an interesting candidate for the possible source of Ryoma's boots. Plot 42B, rented by G.J.Colthrup and G. Curtis, appears to be sub-let to two other tradespeople: W. Nelson, a watchmaker, and a Pieters Thompson, shoemaker.


Could Mr. Thompson be the source of Ryoma's boots? We have no concrete proof, but the possibility is strong - indeed one might say, very strong. Mr. Thompson is the only Western shoemaker listed in the directory. His shop was close to the Glover residence and near other foreign merchants who Ryoma would have known through his Kameyama Shachu activities.

Mr. Thompson appears to have moved away from Nagasaki at some later date. There is no record of a Pieters Thompson in the burial records of Nagasaki's foreign cemeteries. International trade in Nagasaki was in decline at this period and many foreigners moved away to Kobe, Yokohama and Shanghai. Lack of customers may have persuaded Mr. Thompson to move his cobbler's last and seek new opportunities in other ports.


Nagasaki foreign settlement Plot 42B (in area, 267 "tsuboo") lay by the western side of the Oura River. The Matsugae bus terminal and car park now cover the site. In 1867 it was next to the Nagasaki Port tax Office. A famous Chinese restaurant, "Shikairo", stands close by.


Obviously, more research needs to be done on the provenance of the boots, but the Thompson theory seems reasonable.


Why did Ryoma wear boots?

Were boots his way of making a fashion statement? Western clothing and footwear were beginning to be popular among the upper and military classes. The young Emperor Meiji wore western-style shoes (and did not take them off when standing on tatami).

Personal appearance doesn't seem to have been important for Ryoma. His portraits show him to be rather unkempt in appearance, so I think we can rule out fashion.


Ryoma was a great traveller. Boots would be practical kit for a man constantly on the move, especially when travelling at sea. Good strong boots would be useful to a sailor and were more suitable than native Japanese footwear, either on deck or in the engine room. By all accounts, Ryoma was a very practical man and would not have worn boots unless they were useful.