The secret mission across the world to the heart of the British Empire
In 1865, nineteen young samurai from the Satsuma domain were sent to study abroad in the UK and bring back the knowledge and technology needed to modernize Japan.
Satsuma was still reeling from the bombardment it suffered in August of 1863 in retaliation for the killing of a British merchant named Charles Richardson close to Yokohama a year earlier.
During the bombardment two young samurai named Godai Tomoatsu and Terashima Munenori were captured by the British Royal Navy. Realizing that modernization was necessary in order to protect Japan’s future, Satsuma quickly formed an agreement with the UK and began planning a trip overseas to study an industrialized nation directly. Through merchant Thomas Blake Glover, Godai managed to negotiate access to spinning mills in Manchester and also to raise capital to fund the journey by exporting Kagoshima tea to Shanghai.
A group of nineteen talented young men including Godai and Terashima was chosen to travel to the UK with the youngest, Nagasawa Kanaye, being only thirteen years old.
Japan was still closed to the outside world and it was illegal to travel overseas, so the students left Japan via the port of Hashima under the pretense of visiting one of the islands to the south of Kagoshima. Any attempt to leave the country could be punishable by death, so this brave group of young men were literally risking their lives for the future development of their domain.
On board the ships they surrendered their swords and cut off their topknots, vital status symbols to the samurai class. It is hard to imagine today how much this gesture would have meant to these young men who were surrendering their social status and culture before heading out into the unknown.
After travelling to Hong Kong they moved on to Singapore and had many new experiences along the way. They ate pineapple and ice cream for the first time, saw westerners kissing their loved ones farewell (something unthinkable at the time in Japan), and saw the sprawling modern cities on the edge of the British Empire. They continued on to Bombay and beyond, witnessing the construction of the Suez canal, railroads in action, and marveling at the technological and industrial advancement of Britain compared to feudal Japan.
They arrived in Southampton on June 21st, 1865 and traveled directly to London where they enrolled at University College London. Nagasawa was too young to study at the university and was sent far north to Aberdeen where he lived with the family of merchant Thomas Blake Glover and attended a regular grammar school.
Nagasawa was alone in Aberdeen and seems to have suffered since his diary has the word “gaol” (jail) written hundreds of times so that the whole page is almost black. He was also apparently bullied, being called “chinaman” by his classmates. In retaliation he one day pulled out his pocket-watch which was a present from Glover and smashed another boy over the head with it, cutting him badly. Expecting to be scolded by Glover’s mother he sheepishly returned home, only to be told “good on you son” in true Aberdonian style. Despite this hardship he excelled in school and rose to the top of his class.
The other students studied modern science and industry diligently, and the older members of the group organized purchases of modern technology to be taken back to Japan.
One of the older students on the trip and the most fluent speaker of English, Terashima Munenori also visited the Foreign Office in London to hand gifts intended for Queen Victoria to the British Government. The gifts which comprised of a silver stag and a large cup for sake (over 50cm across) called a sakazuki. The deer represents a messenger from the gods in Japanese folklore and is said to be reminiscent of the deer close to the Queen’s Highland home in Balmoral. The sakazuki features reunited elderly couple Uba and Jo happily reunited on a moonlit beach. The Chinese lucky symbols of evergreen pine trees, cranes and turtles are also featured symbolizing a long and prosperous relationship between Satsuma and the UK.
The gifts were accepted and passed onto the Queen the following year accompanied by a letter explaining the circumstances surrounding their presentation. Both items are currently in the posession of the Royal Collection Trust, and are due to be featured in the upcoming “Courts and Culture” exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace.
The nineteen students returned to Japan after their year of study and were instrumental in the founding of the modern government, the Tokyo National Museum, the Sapporo Beer Company, and many other endeavors. The youngest member Nagasawa wasn’t able to settle in Japan and moved to America, finally arriving on the west coast to start a wine business that earned him the nickname “The Wine King of California”. Godai went on to found the Osaka Chamber of Commerce and become the leading entrepreneur of the Meiji period. Terashima became a senior politician and diplomat, highly influential in the Japanese government.
This painting of Nagasawa flanked by Godai Tomoatsu and Terashima Munenori is by “Nobunaga’s Ambition” artist Tsuyoshi Nagano. It shows the three students in London, no doubt in awe of the heart of the British Empire and keen to bring back all they could learn to their homeland to spur on the development of Japan.
Alex is the Head of Overseas Business for Shimadzu Limited, and has lived in Kagoshima for over 15 years.
He has spent many years studying traditional swordsmanship, and has demonstrated martial arts for the Crown Prince of Japan as well as at many venerable shrines across Japan. He also practices calligraphy, zazen, and many other elements of Japanese culture and has translated several works on the subject.