The Iaido Journal  Jan 2011
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Legends 2:

龍 馬 伝
copyright © 2011 Douglas Tong, all rights reserved.

A curious thing happened to me the other day on my way to kendo class. One of the friendly Japanese moms ran into me in the hallway and said to me: “Oooooh, wow, you look like Sakamoto Ryoma.” I gave her a quizzical look, not of scorn but of surprise and curiosity. She noticed my confusion and then added, “You look cool!”

I thanked her for her compliment and went on my merry way. But I couldn’t stop thinking about that incident all through kendo class. Why had she said that? What did she mean? And who is Sakamoto Ryoma? My curiosity was piqued now and I had to find out.

Later, I ran into her again and this time, I was determined to find out what she meant. I hate not knowing something, so I politely asked her why she thought I looked like Sakamoto Ryoma. She replied, “It’s your chonmage.”

Chonmage*? Chonmage? What’s a chonmage?

( * pronounced “chon-ma-gei”)

“Chonmage?” I asked.

“Yes, chonmage.” And perceptive woman that she was, she translated. “Your ponytail.”


My chonmage

Okay. Now I understand.

To explain to everyone, I have been growing my hair long for the past year and a half, to the point now where I can just get it into a ponytail. And for dojo practice, I sometimes put it up in a ponytail to get it out of my face. Of course, there are various styles of ponytails for men with long hair. But in the spirit of things, I chose to try a Japanese style, very much akin to the old samurai topknot of sorts. So no wonder I got the compliment.

Anyway, chonmage means topknot. But recently, the interpretation of the topknot has been more stylish in samurai period dramas and movies. Instead of the strict Edo style of shaved head with topknot, there has been a shift to the ponytail style of long hair.

The ponytail style of chonmage

It is clearly seen in this movie trailer for the movie Gohatto.*

* nominated for the Palme D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival (2000). For more information, go here: Taboo (1999) (Gohatto)


A scene from Gohatto

The ponytail style has been seen before in the Kurosawa era of film-making. For example, Kyūzō, the stone-faced samurai in Seven Samurai, had a short ponytail.


Kyūzō (third samurai from the left) with short ponytail

In the film Miyamoto Musashi (re-titled Samurai Trilogy in North America), actor Mifune Toshiro sported another version of the short ponytail-type of chonmage.


Mifune Toshiro’s chonmage

Currently, it is again in vogue due to the popularity of the hit TV drama Ryomaden (2010). Ryomaden chronicles the life and times of Sakamoto Ryoma (1835-1867), one of the architects of the modernization of Japan at the start of the Meiji Era.


I must confess that I did not know who Sakamoto Ryoma was. But once that Japanese mom mentioned him, I became curious. I did later ask her, “Why Sakamoto Ryoma?” She responded, “Because he’s very popular now in Japan.”

Fukuyama Masaharu (the actor who plays Sakamoto Ryoma)

Is that right? Gosh, I didn’t know that. So I went home and later on, I started to do some research on this supposedly wildly popular historical figure, which I had no previous inkling about.

What did I find? Well, here are some facts about his life and about him:

How was he unique in the landscape of Japanese history, which was already full of colourful figures?

Some say he was a visionary since he realized that Japan could not survive in a technologically advanced global world if she did not modernize. Once he saw Commodore Perry’s ships arrive, he knew Japan had to change or she would surely become colonized and carved up.

Some say he was the Daniel Boone of Japan: an explorer, a frontiersman, a folk hero, a pioneer. Guiding Japan from feudal isolation into the modern age.

Here are some other interesting tidbits about Ryoma:


A statue of Sakamoto Ryoma (notice the Western shoes on his feet)

I am glad I ran into that Japanese mom. She added something new to my world. An interesting chance occurrence. Who would have thought? That’s the interesting thing about budo training: you learn something new everyday.

Sakamoto Ryoma. A strangely compelling figure. I am not a professed admirer of Meiji Era history but I do have a soft spot for black sheep and unconventional thinkers. To some, he could rightly be viewed as a traitor, a loose cannon, a turncoat. But to others, they would view him as a true patriot, a pioneer, a revolutionary.


One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter…

Sakamoto Ryoma. No matter which way you view him, he was a mover and a shaker.

For more excellent information about Sakamoto Ryoma, check out these sites:

  1. for a great timeline on his life, see: samurai archives on Sakamoto_Ryoma

  2. fantastic information about all aspects of his life: Ryoma Sakamoto

  3. an article by Romulus Hillsborough available at Sword Forum International

About the statue of Sakamoto Ryoma, it stands on a hill overlooking Katsurahama, a scenic beach 30 minutes south of Kochi. For more information about Katsurahama, go here: Katsurahama Beach


The statue of Sakamoto Ryoma overlooking Katsurahama Beach

** If you want to watch the Ryomaden samurai period drama (jidai-geki) free online (yes, with English subtitles), go here: japanese drama ryomaden-episode list


Ryomaden, a great TV drama

The actor Fukuyama Masaharu is also a popular singer-songwriter and record producer in Japan.


Fukuyama Masaharu, the singer-songwriter

In addition, he is an accomplished photographer, having been sent by TV Asahi to cover the Sydney Olympics, hosts a radio show, and is a popular model appearing frequently in print ads. He is currently one of the hottest male artists in Japan. For more information about this unique individual, see: Masaharu Fukuyama

 Mr. Tong can be contacted via email at:

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