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The Story of a Comet Hunter's Life

My 50 years with Comets

Part 5: Halley's Comet and Ryoma

>From the translator:
The translator's notes:
1. This story makes frequent references to Ryoma Sakamoto. Ryoma Sakamoto (1835-1867) was born in Tosa (Kochi). He campaigned bravely for toppling the feudal rule of the Tokugawa Shogunate and modernizing Japan. He played a crucial role in laying the foundation of modern Japan. For the historical backdrop of Ryoma's activity and his life, visit the following website:
2. In translation the names of Japanese historical figures are usually written with the family name first followed by the first name (e.g. Sakamoto Ryoma), but in this series all the names, modern or historical, are reversed to avoid confusion.

    Ryoma Sakamoto, a hero warrior in the last days of the Tokugawa Shogunate, was born on November 15, 1835. His birthplace was only 300 meters away from my home. However, his house is no longer there; only a small monument is erected at the site with the inscriptiongRyomafs birthplacehoccupying a tiny plot of land along the streetcar tracks. It is rather a pitiful sight woefully inadequate for the man who greatly influenced the course of the country.
    Ryoma's mother "Ko", while pregnant, saw in her dream a free-spirited, fearless dragon-horse (from Chinese mythology) leaped into her womb. She consequently named him Ryoma (Dragon Horse). I found a very interesting fact while I was studying the era when Ryoma was born. Incredibly, Great Halley's Comet was seen overhead at the very moment Ryoma was born. Didn't Ko, Ryoma's mother, see the dragon horse in her dream, because Halley's Comet was seen overhead like a dragon-horse rising through the clouds?
    The 1835 apparition of Halley's Comet took place under extremely favorable conditions. With a 20-degree-long tail, it reached perihelion on November 16 (one day after Ryoma's birthday). In fear of the comet's collision with the earth in May, many superstitious speculations spread leaving people confused and apprehensive. It is easy to imagine how the population plunged into chaos and panic in 1835 when they saw an extraordinarily huge comet. In those days some people may have regarded comets as monsters, not astronomical objects, running wild throughout the sky. Ko, Ryoma's mother, saw the comet lying overhead night after night and may have dreamed of a fearful dragon. She perhaps named her new-born baby "Ryoma" wishing that the baby would fly around the world and flourish like a dragon-horse. Naming her baby a dragon horse, in spite of her fear of it, is fitting to a woman of Tosa. (Tosa women are known for their characteristic fortitude.)
    Ryoma's encounter with the comet represents his fateful meeting with like-minded warriors. Needless to say, he did not witness Halley's Comet, as he was born around the time the comet reached perihelion. However, he witnessed the apparition of Halley's Comet in 1986, about half a century after his bronze statue was erected at Katsurahama beach in 1931. Ryoma, transformed into a bronze statue, turned the eyes of numerous people to Halley's Comet, another of his progressive actions he was known to have taken.
    I have already described in the previous story how Halley's Comet was observed at Geisei Observatory back in 1986 . As I wrote, Mr. Saizo Goto, father of the 60cm reflector at Geisei Observatory, died without being able to realize his dream of seeing Halley's Comet twice in his lifetime. However, the story about Mr.Goto would take an unexpected turn in the end and I would like you to wait for a while to read about it. In the meantime, I will return to the story of Ryoma and Helley's Comet.
    We saw a strong interest by the media and general public in Comet Hele-Bopp last year and Comet Hyakutake in 1986. However, the enthusiasm for Halley's Comet was extraordinary. As a periodical comet, its apparition was forecast many years earlier. As soon as it became known that Geisei had observed the comet first in Japan in September 1984, tourists flocked to Geisei wishing to see the comet in Kochi Prefecture. One night, as many as 2000 people crowded the observatory, unthinkable in the history of the observatory. To people who could not enter the overcrowded observatory I suggested to stay at government-subsidized Kokumin Shukusha hotels overnight and see the comet in the following morning. I suggested this because the comet was moving low in the southern sky and all of the Kokumin Shukusha hotels in Kochi prefecture were situated on the hills with a clear view of the southern ocean. Many visitors were worried that they were disoriented at an unfamiliar place and might not be able to see the comet. I said to them: "If you want to see Halley's Comet for sure, please go to the renowned Katsurahama beach. You will find Ryoma Sakamoto there, a pioneer of his era. He will show you the comet. Follow his gaze over the ocean and the comet is sure to come from that direction."
    The statue of Ryoma at Katsurahama beach gazes far over the southeastern ocean. People wondered and argued: Whatis Ryoma looking at? What is his right hand trying to take out of his kimono? One theory goes that he is looking toward Kyoto, where he engaged in a campaign for modernization of Japan. Another theory says that Ryoma is looking beyond Kyoto. His eyes were fixed upon the West, while fighting was continuing in the country over the issues of the absolute power of the emperor and opening of Japan to the outside world.
    In the meantime, Halley's Comet, which reached perihelion in early March of 1986, continued its journey and made its magnificent appearance in late March over the ocean Ryoma was gazing at. Ryoma, who was always ahead of his time, caught sight of Halley's Comet ahead of any others in Japan. And what he was trying to take out of his kimono was not a short sward or knife but must have been a modern telescope.
    Ryoma played a crucial role in ending the Tokugawa Shogunate rule. Yodo Yamauchi, the last daimyo (feudal lord) of Tosa, is said to have advised to the Shogun to return the power to the emperor. Both of them were very interested not only in the West, but in the universe. Later on, in the Yamauchi family storage were found an excellent astronomical telescope (built by Germany's Schneider and Fraunhofer), an armillary sphere, constellation booklets, and a stereoscope which shows views of modern European and American cities. These items are eloquently telling Yodo Yamauchi's interest in the West and heavens.
    In 1862 Ryoma's fateful encounter with Kaishu Katsu made him aware that Japan had been closed to the outside world. Being taught by Katsu, Ryoma formed and developed his progressive thoughts about the world. Is it a far-fetched idea that Ryoma's thoughts reached as far as the universe through the astronomical instruments owned by the Yamauchi family? I cannot shake off the idea that the lonely telescope stored in the treasury of Yamauchi Shrine laid the foundation for the dawn of modern Japan.

    The next story will tell you about observation through this historical telescope.

Copyright (C) 2005 Tsutomu Seki.