University College London and the Choshu Five

University College London

I couldn’t let 2013 draw to a close without a nod to the Choshu Five, five young men who, in 1863, secretly braved the arduous journey to London to study at University College. (They had to do it in secret because at that time any attempt to leave Japan was punishable by death). And of course I had to visit their monument at UCL and share some pictures with you. 

The UCL Japan Monument is in the garden next to the South Cloisters. It’s open to the public – just walk across the quadrangle and through the South Cloisters door. It commemorates not only the five members of the Choshu clan who set sail in 1863 but the fourteen members of the Satsuma clan who followed in their footsteps in 1865.

Japanese Monument at UCL

The Choshu Five’s journey began with a secret approach to an agent of Hong Kong-based shipping company Jardine Matheson, which then allowed them to sign up as apprentice seamen on a merchant navy ship bound for England. When they arrived Jardine Matheson contacted UCL, at the time the only university in England open to students of all races, religions and social standing, and were accepted to study Analytical Chemistry.

They lived with the family of the Professor of Chemistry, Alexander Williamson, in Primrose Hill. The professor’s wife, Catherine Williamson taught them English and helped them to adapt to British society. As well as their studies, Williamson arranged for them to visit iron foundries, mines, railways, farms and shipbuilders.

University College in the 1860's

The Choshu Five, who all returned to Japan and became successful in their fields, were:

Hirobumi Ito, who established a cabinet system of government and became the first Prime Minister of Japan.

Kaoru Inoue, who became Japan’s first Minister of Foreign Affairs, paving the way for the strengthening of diplomatic relations with the UK and the rest of the world.

Yozo Yamau, who helped establish the Imperial College of Engineering, now the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Tokyo.

Masaru Inoue, who became Director of the Railway Board, where he helped to plan and construct Japan’s railway system.

Kinsuke Endo, who became the head of the new National Mint in Osaka. He helped to establish a unified national currency and opened the grounds of the Mint to the people of Osaka in spring, so that they could enjoy the cherry blossom. The Mint is one of Japan’s premier cherry blossom viewing spots to this day.

Choshu Five

A film about them was released in 2006, making them look rather more glamourous than they were in real life.

Choshu Five filmTheir names are engraved in the polished granite of the monument, along with the names of the Satsuma Fourteen, in Japanese on one side and in English on the other.

Japanese Monument at UCL

There’s also a haiku carved on the end face of the monument: Harubaru to kokoro tsudoite hana sakaru – When distant minds come together, cherries blossom.

The monument was erected in 1993.

Japanese Monument at UCL

The day I visited there was a little bottle of Satsuma shochu (a sake-like spirit made from potatoes or barley)  in front of the monument, presumably left by a Japanese visitor.

Japanese Monument at UCL

A little piece of Japanese history hidden away off Gower Street – funny where a blog can take you.

Japanese Monument at UCL

17 thoughts on “University College London and the Choshu Five

  1. I spent a year at SOAS, but didn’t really at the time think to look around London for Japan-related monuments. If/when I ever get back to that side of the pond, I’ll have to take a look at this monument. Thanks for posting about it!


  2. Pingback: Fukushima Kimonos at UCL – Clay becomes Cloth (well, almost)  | Sequins and Cherry Blossom

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