Toshiaki Sakurai Samurai at UCL Chosu Five

23 February 2021

Book by History Department Alumnus on the Japanese Alumni who transformed their country.

The Department’s former students are very loyal, none more so than Medieval Studies students, and among the latter none more so that Toshiaki Sakurai. Toshiaki is a writer who has made it his mission to tell Japan about the Western Middle Ages through books designed to be accessible to non-specialist, but his latest book is on UCL alumni. Its title translates into English as Chosu Five – Samurai in London (ISBN 978-4-08-721139-9). UCL has already celebrated them: https://www.ucl.ac.uk/news/2013/jul/ucl-celebrates-150th-anniversary-japans-choshu-five

The five Samurai played key roles in transforming Japan from a secret realm, on the brink of the fate that was already destroying imperial China, to a modern state capable of standing up to the Western powers. Paradoxically, this was accomplished together with the restoration of the imperial power, for centuries in the shadow of a ‘Shogun’. The Shogunate banned travel to the West and no Japanese had studied at a university before, but the five Samurai manages to slip out secretly to sail to England and study at UCL, for they knew that Western academic learning was the key to modernisation, and that UCL was the place to go for it. By contrast with Oxbridge, its curriculum was up to date, it was full of international students, and being an Anglican was not an obligation. Above all, London was the centre of the world (as despite everything it still is).

Toshiaki Sakurai shows how well the plan worked. UCL really did train the makers of modern Japan. Hirobumi Ito became Prime Minister (not the last UCL alumnus to become Prime Minister of Japan incidentally), Kaoru Inoue was the foreign minister who renegotiated the treatises imposed on the old Japan by the Western powers (including the USA), Yoso Yamao created the shipbuilding industry (as well as doing great things for the handicapped), Kinsuke Endo was the father of the mint, and Masaru Inoue built up the Japanese railway system. He had been captivated by the London railway system and despite a fatal illness he came to end his days in London. His funeral was in Golder’s Green. 

Another UCL alumnus who figures in the story was Sir Earnest Mason Satow, a British diplomat in Japan, and architect of an Anglo-Japanese alliance. Toshiaki Sakurai is himself, informally, a great ambassador: Japan’s to UCL, and UCL’s to Japan.

Written by Emeritus Professor David D'Avray