Ryotaro Shiba was one of the Japanese greatest writers of all time. He is best known for writing novels about important historical events in Japan and in the northeastern Asia. Shiba’s most famous book is Ryoma ga Yuku (Ryoma Is Going, 竜馬がゆく). He was also a commander of tank corps in China during World War II. The author is known for having a critical look at modern life.
Ryōtarō Shiba's real name is Fukuda Teiichi. He was born under this name in 1923 in Osaka, Japan. Shiba's father owned a small pharmacy, while his grandfather manufactured Japanese sweets and cakes. He had an older brother but he died before Shiba was born, as well as two sisters, one older and one younger than him. Shiba had the beriberi disease during his early years, which is why he was taken to his mother's hometown in the Nara prefecture, where he lived his first three years of life.
Shiba started going to the elementary school when he was 7 but he didn’t like it. He didn’t like studying and he liked his teachers even less, especially math and English teachers, which is the reason why he was so bad in these subjects.
His occasional visits to Nara were the reason why Shiba got extremely interested in history. He would enjoy searching for artefacts and during middle school, which he entered in 1936, he was fascinated by Ibuse Masuji whose novels he loved to read. This is when he started spending whole days in the library, reading all kinds of books. Until graduation from Osaka University you practically couldn’t get a book out of his hands. His favorites included ancient Chinese history such as Records of the Grand Historian written by Sima Quian. It was Sima that inspired Teiichi to change his name later.
He failed his first exam to enter the Osaka University and spent the next year preparing himself to retake the exam. Shiba managed to get into Osaka School of Foreign Languages in 1941. Although it was unusual at the time, Shiba chose to study Mongolian because he was often imagining himself on the Mongolian prairie picturing all the horse-riding nomads who used to live there.
Shiba graduated early, in 1943. Shortly after he was sent to the battlefront. He was a commander of Japanese battle corps in China. In a twist of fate, the first battle he participated in occurred in old Manchuria, right where the Mongolian horse-riding nomads used to roam. Participation in the World Was II left a huge mark on Shiba’s life and his war experiences inspired him as a writer.
He started working as a journalist when he was demobilized in 1945. However, his first employer went bankrupt, so he had to find another job. Fortunately, he was noticed by Sankei Shimbun, one of Japan’s most reputable newspapers. One of the first big stories that Shiba covered was in 1950 when the Golden Pavillion Temple (Kinkaku-ji) in Kyoto had been burned down by a crazed monk. It was in Kyoto where he started to write historical novels and essays.
It didn’t take a long time for Shiba’s novels to find their way to the readers. He became extremely popular and made his way to becoming one of the most known Japanese writers of all times. Shiba’s novels were mostly about the dramatic changes in the history of Japan during the late Edo and the Meiji periods. Among the most popular Shiba’s novels were, Ryoma ga Yuku (竜馬がゆく), Moeyo Ken, Kunitori Monogatari (国盗り物語), and Saka no ue no Kumo (坂の上の雲).
Apart from historical novels, Shiba also wrote a series of travel essays that were first published in a Japanese weekly magazine Shukan Asahi. They were also released as a series of books under the name Kaido wo Yuku (Going along the Highways). Japanese largest broadcasting organization HNK made a documentary series by Shiba’s essays but this was not the only dramatization of the writer’s work. HNK also made half-hour historical “Taiga” dramas that were filmed by his books.
In 1959, Shiba won the renowned Naoki Prize for his novel Fukuro no Shiro (The Castle of an Owl). He was offered a membership of the Japan Art Academy in 1982. In 1991 he was pronounced a “person of cultural merit” and two years later, he was awarded the Order of Cultural Merit by the Japanese Government.
Shiba died at the age of 72 from internal bleeding.
Shiba always respected research and scientific analysis a bitmore than religion, and claimed that Japan needs to perform an ideology which is based on scientific research and evaluation, and not the one inclined toward a single party or religious organization.
Shiba didn’t participate in the politics directly but he was known for criticism of modern Japan. Ryoma Sakamoto, the main character of his novel Ryoma ga Yuku, didn’t join the extremists in his neighborhood. Instead of siding with the emperor’s fanatical supporters, Ryoma was concentrated on modernizing Japan. This was argued to be the way of Shiba delivering a message what he thinks of the imperial institution in the post-World War II history in Japan.
Shiba understood the concept of economic growth was needed to be pursued in the 1960s, which could clearly be seen from his novel series Ryoma ga Yuku. The main character of that book, Ryoma Sakamoto, was portrayed as someone who understood the importance of economy and commerce. Up until Shiba’s works, money was a negative item in Japanese historical novels, but his hero knew that commerce is the future of Japan.
Shiba also encourages his heroes to approach any problem in a way that will avoid the conflict and the war outcome. Through his characters and his novels, he was trying to message the broad Japanese audience not to forget people who died during the World War II.
"These are letters to 22-year old me", the sentence with which Shiba summarized all his work
Shiba didn't get along with his elementary school teachers and he failed when taking the first entrance exam for enrolling at the Osaka University, but that didn't stop him from pursuing his love for writing and history. His personality, as well as his writings, was largely influenced by taking participation in the World War II in his early 20s. That experience left a huge mark on Shiba.
Aside from his love for books and history, Shiba was a big fan of bandanas, whom he often wore around his neck.
: Shiba was famous for his hair of medium length, whom he didn't shorten even when he went gray. He was also known for the big glasses he always wore and his affection for wearing a bandana around his neck.
history, Japanese history, bandanas
Shiba got married twice. His first marriage started in 1952 and ended two years later. He married his second wife, Matsumi Midori, in 1959. He has a son from the first marriage.