Every year NHK, Japan’s broadcasting behemoth, pours money into a year-long historical television series known as the “taiga drama.” The subject this year is Sakamoto Ryoma, a 19th-century samurai often credited with bringing Japan into the modern age. History often portrays Sakamoto not only as a vital component in the country’s unification, but also as a “Renaissance Samurai,” a forward thinker who embraced new inventions (Smith & Wesson pistols, western-style boots) and new ideas (industrialization, the democratic process). By the end of the year, his image will be burnished even further, since the series’ starring role is being played by Masaharu Fukuyama, a handsome and extremely popular celebrity known for his clean-cut image.
Pairing Fukuyama with Sakamoto will prove to be a lucrative mix, and many in the tourism and entertainment industries have been prepping for a windfall of Ryoma-related commerce. The official Sakamoto Memorial Museum in his native Kochi prefecture has been inundated with hundreds of licensing requests, and regional tourism agencies have projected over 20,000 fans signing up for package tours of famous sites from his life. Telecommunications powerhouse, Softbank, recently used Sakamoto imagery in their very popular commercial series (granted, Softbank’s been a fan for years). And let’s not even get started on the video games, theme restaurants and custom-made boots that already trade on his name.
Yes, “Ryomaden” will help push 2009’s “samurai boom” into the next decade. From undergarments to soda to high-street fashion houses, echoes of Japan’s feudal past continue to convince a large – and increasingly female – audience to open their wallets. Does this stem from a national longing for heroes, a reaction to Japan’s evolving gender identity issues or something else? Hard to say, but at this pace we should expect boy bands sporting chonmage by summertime.