THE LAST SHOGUN The Life of Tokugawa Yoshinobu By Ryotaro Shiba Translated from the Japanese by Juliet Winters Carpenter Kodansha International. 255 pp.$25

Robespierre and Louis XVI are familiar names, but who has heard of Sakamoto Ryoma and Tokugawa Yoshinobu outside of Japan? They are two of several principal actors in a gripping drama that ended a feudal dynasty and restored the emperor to power. In many ways, the events that culminated in 1868 are just as fascinating as -- and perhaps more relevant to modern history (especially in Asia and Africa) than -- the French revolution of 1789. Consider these facts: Commodore Matthew C. Perry, with a fleet of heavily armed black ships, sails into Tokyo Bay in 1853 and demands that Japan negotiate a treaty to open up its harbors. If you don't, we'll blow you sky high, he says -- of course, he couches his demands in diplomatic language. The message reaches the Tokugawa authorities, who have been in power since the decisive Battle of Sekigahara in 1600 and have kept Japan closed off to foreign intrusion for over two centuries. Suddenly they realize that their sword-wielding samurai forces are hopelessly obsolete in contrast to the modern navy from a country not even a century old. Three days after Perry's arrival, Shogun Ieyoshi dies, and a sickly and feebleminded Iesada is named the 13th Tokugawa shogun -- the effective ruler of the country. Who will manipulate him and wield actual power? Or could the Tokugawas be overthrown by a coalition of rebellious feudal lords awaiting such a chance? Sakamoto Ryoma, a dashing pro-imperial ronin (masterless samurai) and other able rebels rise to the occasion. Terrorist attacks and insurrections shatter centuries of relative peace. Hitotsubashi Keiki, who became Shogun Yoshinobu, was indeed shadowed by an ancient curse: May you live in interesting times. Born in 1837, the year of several peasant rebellions, Keiki was brought up in a privileged but strict household. His father believed, for example, that a warrior should sleep perfectly straight: "If he rolls around in bed like that, he'll never make a true samurai. Set a sword blade on either side of his pillow." Keiki learned fast. He also learned to sleep with his right arm beneath him so that, if attacked, he could still fight back with his good arm, even if he were to lose his left. Keiki's father, Tokugawa Nariaki, belonged to one of the collateral families with a reputation for independence and outright hostility toward the rulers in Edo Castle. He espoused a restoration of power to the emperor while maintaining an isolationist policy. But he saw the need for Western learning, especially on military matters, and established a school for that purpose. Nariaki wanted no treaty signed to placate the Western powers. For that opposition and his pro-imperial sympathies, he clashed with Ii Naosuke, the pro tempore virtual dictator who was responsible for the 1858 treaty with the United States. Ii made the fatal mistake of signing an international treaty without getting the approval of the emperor in Kyoto. Nariaki protested, was banished and confined to his house. But his retainers managed to assassinate Ii at the gate to Edo Castle (now the imperial palace), a feat that encouraged other enemies of the Tokugawa shogunate to accelerate and organize their own rebellion. Ii's seventh son, Keiki, was 23 years old when the assassination took place in 1860. He was already rumored to succeed as shogun since the main Tokugawa line had only weaklings as possible successors. After so many years of Tokugawa rule, the family multiplied to form several main branches. At the behest of an influential Tokugawa court official, and with his father's prescient approval, Keiki was adopted by the Hitotsubashi family and thus became a candidate to succeed as shogun. But by the time Keiki reluctantly became the 15th Tokugawa shogun in 1867 and assumed the name Yoshinobu, he saw all too clearly that the entire feudal structure would indeed collapse under pressure from the combined rebel forces determined to modernize Japan. In November of that year in Nijo Castle, Yoshinobu solemnly announced the return of political power to the emperor. "We have no other hope but this. . . . This alone is the way to ensure the survival of {Tokugawa} Ieyasu's great legacy," he said. The rebels, however, wanted more. They wanted not only Yoshinobu's resignation but all of Tokugawa's inherited land and possessions. His allies from various fiefdoms were outraged, and at their instigation Shogun Yoshinobu made one last attempt to quell the rebels in Kyoto. In January 1868 he sent an army of 15,000 men with cannons in tow but was badly beaten. Unlike Ieyasu, the first Tokugawa shogun, the last shogun did not lead his troops into battle. Instead, when word of imminent defeat came, he stealthily fled Osaka Castle and returned by ship to Edo. Satsuma and Choshu rebels now bore the imperial flag as official defenders of the new sovereign. Yoshinobu surrendered Edo Castle to the imperial forces and was ordered to return to Mito, his ancestral homeland. A new era began, Edo became Tokyo ("eastern capital"), and Emperor Meiji was now ensconced in the castle and the seat of power. Yoshinobu was only 32. He lived until 1913, pursuing his interests -- photography, painting, polo, falconry, fishing, embroidery. Like his father, he sired many children. Twenty-one of them survived to maturity. Japan learned the ways of the West very quickly. What had been a feudal force adept only at quelling domestic rebellions was transformed into a formidable military power. Only a few decades after the Meiji Restoration, Japan was able to defeat a major Western power: In 1905 its navy crushed the Russian fleet. The author of The Last Shogun, former journalist Ryotaro Shiba (1923-1996), has a formidable reputation in Japan as a writer of popular fiction, particularly about famous figures from Japan's feudal past. This biography, however, is the first of his books to be translated into English. His death two years ago has spawned a number of books about his life and work, and The Last Shogun has been transformed into a popular prime-time television series now showing in Japan. Although the author succeeds in telling an interesting story, this new book pales by comparison with Shiba's long biographical novel about the last shogun's enemy, the romantic rebel Sakamoto Ryoma. The reader is left with very little information about Yoshinobu's life after his resignation. The imaginary dialogue seems too brief and somewhat contrived. But one cannot quibble too much since there are so few books translated into English about this fascinating era. The last novel written by the late James Clavell covered the same era. It had an awful title, Gaijin ("foreigner"), with historical names changed just as in his bestselling Shogun. In The Last Shogun, the original names are mercifully retained, and the plot is faithful to historical facts. (Kunio Francis Tanabe's e-mail address is tanabef@washpost.com.) Reviewed by Kunio Francis Tanabe an assistant editor and art director of Book World. CAPTION: Portrait of Shogun Tokugawa Yoshinobu ec