Satsuma Samurai: The students who travelled to Camden ‘on pain of death’
PUBLISHED: 10:15 10 August 2018 | UPDATED: 10:15 10 August 2018
In the dying days of feudal Japan, 14 student samurai from the southern Japanese province of Satsuma (now Kagoshima) came to Camden to study at UCL. Four others went to colleges around the country.
After a gruelling 66-day journey across land and sea they began degree courses in 1865, and graduated three years later.
The 18, who were known collectively as the Satusma Samurai, went on to become pre-eminent figures in Japanese public life and 2018 has seen the students’ final years in the UK commemorated.
During July, the mayor of Camden Jenny Headlam-Wells signed a friendship agreement between Camden and Kagoshima, while 15 new Japanese students attended Camden Summer University to mark the historic partnership.
Dr Andrew Cobbing, an expert on Japanese history from the University of Nottingham, explained the students’ sojourn in the Camden had far-reaching consequences for Japan’s rapid industrialisation.
Dr Cobbing told the Ham&High: “These students went on to play huge roles in Japanese public life.
“The trip had huge importance. It was almost unprecedented, not least because it was also illegal under Japanese law at the time.
“It was illegal to travel abroad, so the students had to do so incognito and under assumed names. In fact, they were travelling on pain of death.”
The students were sent to England during the end of the Edo period, when Japan was a closed nation, and private travel abroad was banned by central government.
However, sending students to England was a dream of Nariakira Shimazu, who ruled the province until 1858, and in 1865 his nephew Tadayoshi Shimazu seized the opportunity to boost Satsuma’s international ties.
However, Dr Cobbing said: “It was remarkable because Great Britain had recently actually been at war with the dominion of Satsuma. The royal navy had bombarded the capital just two years before.”
The shortlived war with Britain was caused by the killing of a British merchant in the village of Namamugi, after a perceived insult to the travelling party of the Tadayoshi’s father, Hisamitsu.
After peace was negotiated, the rulers of Satsuma wanted to learn from Britain, and so the plan to send students abroad was hatched.
In the 1860s, UCL was one of the few UK universities to accept international students, and while there the Japanese visitors were trailblazers.
They were taken under the wing of a Dr Williamson, who taught chemistry. Dr Cobbing said: “Dr Williamson taught science, but for a while the Japanese students were simply learning English.”
By the end of their time, though, some of the students had progressed to other subjects.
From 1868, the return of the students to Japan coincided with a time of political upheaval.
The feudal Shogunate would be replaced by modernising leaders in a process known as the Meiji Restoration, which accelerated Japan’s development into the modern, heavily industrialised nation we know.
The students who had been in Camden played an integral role in the fledgling new order.
Dr Cobbing added: “In a sense they were part of the resistance against the Shogunate [the feudal leadership], and they ended up on the winning side. Because they had this experience abroad, they were in primed to play a role in the new regime – and many of the Satsuma students did.
“They ended up in important political roles after the revolution despite their young age.
“At one stage most of Japan’s international ambassadors were from this group.
“You could almost say there was a Satsuma school of Japanese diplomacy.”
Arinori Mori was one of the students who most rapidly ascended to power upon his return to Japan.
He put the skills acquired in the UK to good use, becoming first the inaugural Japanese ambassador to the United States and then minister for education, before he was assassinated at the age of 45.
Another success story is that of Hisanari Murahashi, who founded Japan’s oldest brewery, home of the famous Sapporo beer.
Dr Cobbing explained: “He was one who learnt from his time in the UK and went back to Japan with new ideas.
“Beer wasn’t a common thing there, and he’d obviously spent some time in the pubs of Camden...”