X Close

UCL Culture Blog


News and musings from the UCL Culture team


The Fathers of Modern Japan

By Nick J Booth, on 14 August 2013

In May 1863, five young Japanese men were disguised as British Sailors and smuggled on board a ship that would take them on the first leg of their journey to Britain. At the time it was illegal for any Japanese person to leave the country. It took them 135 days to make the journey.

The five young men who made up the Choshu Five.

The five young men who made up the Choshu Five.
(Image Credit –  Glasgow University Museum)

Once they arrived in the UK the owner of the shipping line, Hugh Matheson, introduced them to Professor Alexander Williamson, who had been head of the Chemistry Department at UCL since 1855. Williamson and his wife took the five under their wing, inviting three of them to live with them. They apparently even moved to a bigger house to accommodate their guests.

Williamson isn’t very well known now, outside history of science circles, but perhaps he should be. He came up with the ‘Williamson Synthesis’, which showed that water has two Hydrogen atoms. Hence H2O, not HO as was previously thought.

When the students, who became known as the ‘Choshu Five’, all returned home several years later they went on to found the modern state of Japan. In fact they all received ‘the father of’ title. Hirobumi Ito – ‘the Father of the Japanese Constitution’ or ‘the Father of  Parliamentary Government in Japan’. Kaoru Inoue – ‘the Father of Modern Japanese Diplomacy’. Yozo Yamao – ‘the Father of Japanese Engineering’. Masaru Inoue – ‘the Father of Japanese Railways’. Kinsuke Endo – ‘the Father of the Modern Japanese Mint’.

The Choshu Five were followed soon after, in 1865, by a second group from Japan. This group of 19, a mix of students and supervisors, mostly came from the Satsuma region , hence their name ‘the Satsuma Group’. Sadly one of them died of Tuberculosis while in the UK, a disease that was responsible for up to a quarter of all deaths in Europe at the time, however  those that did return to Japan included people who went on to be successful diplomats, bring in compulsory education for all and founded Japan’s first modern factory.

One of the retorts Williamson used during  his discovery of the 'Williamson Synthesis'.

One of the retorts Williamson used during
his discovery of the ‘Williamson Synthesis’.
(Image Credit – UCL Museums)

A ceremony to mark the 150th anniversary of their arrival in the UK was held at UCL at the start of July. As part of this the Chemistry Collection, Art Museum and Special Library Collections all contributed to a special ‘pop-up’ event. This featured beautiful Japanese prints from the Art Collection, original documents from Special Collections (including attendance books, which students needed to sign to ensure their professors got paid) and objects from the Chemistry Collection, which included apparatus that Williamson used in his experiments.

However the star ‘object’ from the event, from the Chemistry Collection at least, wasn’t an object at all. Instead it was a recording of Joji Sakurai, who studied at UCL between 1876 – 1881. He was another one of Williamson’s students, and appropriately enough went on to become the first Professor of Chemistry in Japan, at Tokyo University. In 1937 he was made an honorary Fellow of UCL, the first non-British person to be honoured, and his acceptance speech was recorded on a 10” record. It has now been made available online, via UCL Soundcloud, for a wider audience.

'The father of' Japanese Chemistry.

‘The father of’ Japanese Chemistry.

The fact we can listen to a recording from so long ago is impressive enough, however the social history value should not be underestimated either. Sakuri, at about 1 minute 40 seconds in, talks about the people active during his time in London  ‘As statesmen and orators, Lord Beaconsfield and the grand old man – Mr. Gladstone- were shining like stars of first magnitude; Tennyson was being adored as Poet Laureate, Ruskin as a writer and critic and George Eliot as a feminine [sic] novelist of unusual talent; Charles Darwin was enjoying to see [sic] his life-long labours bearing fruit, Herbert Spencer was laying a scientific foundation of Sociology, whilst Henry Irving and Ellen Terry were, night after night, drawing crowds of enthusiastic audiences in the Lyceum’.

Williamson continued to teach at UCL until 1887, when he retired and moved to Surrey. His replacement, Sir William Ramsay (who discovered the Noble Gases), wrote the following sad note in a letter to Sakurai in 1902 ‘…poor Dr Williamson is very far through. He is very difficult to manage. He isn’t very old –about 75 – but his mind is quite gone, and he has that unreasoning insanity which sometimes befalls old people. It is very sad’.

Williamson died in 1904 and was buried, along with his wife, close to where four Japanese students who died while in the UK (including the Satsuma member) were buried, at the London Necropolis, now known as Brookwood Cemetery. As part of the 150th anniversary celebrations a monument to the Williamson’s was unveiled.

Nick Booth is one of the Curators of the Teaching and Research Collections at UCL.

This blog was updated on 15.08.2013 after a couple of errors were pointed out by Professor Alwyn Davies from UCL Chemistry. I am very grateful for his help.

5 Responses to “The Fathers of Modern Japan”

  • 1
    A week in the life of a Curator | UCL UCL Museums & Collections Blog wrote on 18 September 2013:

    […] Wednesday AM – I was really looking forward to today because I had put aside the whole day to work on our database. I spent most of the morning working on the Geological Minerals database checking that new acquisitions are properly recorded. I am not a geologist, so work like this is good because it allows me to get a sense of what we have in the collection and the type of language geologists use. I also left the office for an hour to help hang three pictures in the lobby of the Chemistry department, which were given to UCL by the Prime Minister of Japan to mark the 150th anniversary of a group of Japanese Students coming to study at UCL. […]

  • 2
    on.fb.me wrote on 11 August 2014:

    Greetings! This is my first visit to your blog!
    We are a team of volunteers and starting a new initiative in a community in the same
    niche. Your blog provided us valuable information to work on. You have done
    a marvellous job!

  • 3
    Erik wrote on 4 October 2014:

    I thank the person or team that put Joji’s speech on SoundCloud. It has given us much joy.

  • 4
    UCL-Japan collaboration on disaster management | UCL UCL Global wrote on 2 August 2016:

    […] The event was created in the framework of an academic relationship between UCL and Japan that started 153 years ago, when five samurais came to study here. […]

  • 5
    Patrick Baty wrote on 21 August 2023:

    I am currently transcribing the Enrolment Registers for the Artists Rifles – a Volunteer unit established in London in 1860. It appears that on 15th May 1866 seven men with Japanese-sounding surnames signed up. It is also noticeable that they all resigned on 6th December 1867.
    At that time, many students from University College London joined the regiment – so many that they had companies of engineering, medical and legal students.
    Could these men have been from the number who came over to study at this time?

Leave a Reply