The pioneering foreign students who rebuilt Japan

UCL celebrates 150th anniversary of arrival of noblemen who modernised their country

June 27, 2013

Eminent Victorians: who risked life and limb to study in the UK

Five pioneering international students who risked life and limb to reach England before going on to become the architects of modern Japan are being celebrated by a University College London event.

The story of the so-called “Chōshū Five”, a group of Japanese noblemen who studied at UCL 150 years ago, is testament to the transformative power of global higher education. The most eminent of the quintet was Hirobumi Itō (1841-1909), who rose to become four-time prime minister of Japan, the father of its 1889 Meiji Constitution and a key player in the University of Tokyo’s creation.

In the early 1860s, explains Shin-Ichi Ohnuma, professor of experimental ophthalmology at UCL, “Japan faced serious problems, including a severe economic crisis, difficult relations with foreign countries such as the US and the UK, and political instability. But there were those within the two powerful clans of Chōshū and Satsuma who realised that Japan could learn from the West in many areas.”

So the Chōshū Five secretly made contact with William Keswick, a representative of Jardine, Matheson & Co – the first foreign trading house to establish a base in Japan – to secure passage on one of its ships. Because of sakoku (“chained country”), the state policy restricting contact with foreigners, this was illegal and put their families as well as the men themselves in great danger.

After an arduous 135-day journey, they eventually reached London looking “like hungry crows”.

Hugh Matheson, the head of Jardine, Matheson & Co, contacted UCL, and the Chōshū Five were enrolled at the university and taken under the wing of Alexander Williamson, a chemistry professor who acted as their teacher, adviser and landlord. They were fascinated by London’s underground railway and focused their educational efforts on chemistry, engineering, mathematics, mineralogy and physics. They also used their time in England to visit military facilities and factories, as well as the Houses of Parliament, the Bank of England, the Royal Mint and the British Museum.

Their experiences, continues Professor Ohnuma, marked “a turning point in Japanese history…And after returning to Japan, the Chōshū Five did indeed apply what they had learned in London to help transform their country, making them pioneers of modern Japan, both as a group and individually.”

Besides Itō, Masaru Inoue became the founding president of the Japanese Board of Railways; Kinsuke Endo founded the Japanese Mint; Kaoru Inoue became Japan’s first foreign secretary; and Yozo Yamao, the “father of Japanese engineering”, established the country’s first institute of technology.

All were at the heart of a new government responsible for transforming Japan from an isolated, inward-looking state into a global technological power. 

The anniversary of their arrival is being marked by a ceremony on 3 July supported by the Jardine Matheson Group – the current chairman of Jardine Matheson Holdings is a direct descendent of William Keswick – and will include speeches by UCL provost Malcolm Grant, Keiichi Hayashi, the Japanese ambassador, and a representative of the company. It is hoped that some of the descendants of the Chōshū Five will attend, too. There will also be an exhibition of Japanese prints from UCL’s special collections.

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