by Jolin Chan
On the morning of November 4, 1863, the Pegasus sailed into London, carrying—among its many passengers—Inoue Kaoru and Itō Hirobumi. Inoue would later become Japan’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, and Itō would become the country’s first Prime Minister. Still, at one time, they were simply men who had come from Japan to London to pursue an education.
Inoue and Itō would soon join with three other Japanese men: Yamao Yōzō, Endō Kinsuke, and Inoue Masaru. Together, they formed the group called the Chōshū Five, as they were all from the Chōshū domain. All five of the men would play an important role in the formation and development of Meiji-era Japan.
1863 was only ten years after Commodore Matthew C. Perry entered Edo (now Tokyo), thus beginning the process of opening up Japan for trade with the Western world. In 1858, Japan signed trade treaties with the United States that ended their more than 200-year-old isolationist foreign policy called sakoku. However, the pressure and encroachment from Western powers led to anti-foreign sentiments and movements that promoted messages such as “expel the barbarians” and “revere the emperor.”
Though the men were supportive of—and participated in—the anti-foreign movements in Japan, they also believed that, to improve and strengthen the country’s military, they needed to look abroad. This was an era in which Western influence was encroaching on Asia. Japan’s neighbor China, in particular, was evidence of that. With the Opium Wars and unequal treaties of the nineteenth century, the stability and power of China were being undermined by Western powers like Britain, the United States, and Russia. The decline of China combined with Japan’s experiences with Commodore Perry sent an eye-opening message: perhaps the outside world held the answer to becoming a powerful competitor. Inoue Kaoru and Yamao convinced senior members of the Chōshū domain to allow them to study abroad. Inoue Masaru, Itō, and Endō later joined as members. They were expected to, in the words of a Chōshū lord, “devote [themselves] to the improvement and strengthening of [Japan’s] naval power.”
However, it was not an easy journey to get to Britain; in fact, they were risking their lives to do so because traveling abroad was prohibited. They wrote to their domain, “We took this decision knowing that our illegal act deserves the death sentence.” Reaching their destination involved changing their hairstyles, wearing Western clothes, and sneaking onto a ship to avoid being caught. To them, the risks were worth it, as long as they could discover new ways to improve, strengthen, and modernize their country—even if it meant living amongst the “barbarians.”
When the men arrived in Japan, they were placed under the care of an award-winning UCL chemistry professor named Alexander Williamson and his wife Emma Williamson. Though it perhaps looked peculiar from the outside, the chemistry professor became a mentor to the men; Itō remembered how Williamson “gave [them] lessons in the early morning and evening at home.” For the next couple of years at UCL, the Chōshū Five registered as students and took classes that ranged from chemistry to engineering to geology. However, they learned outside of the classroom as well, and with the help of the Williamsons, they visited museums, factories, banks, and more to understand how the modern Western world worked.
During their time in Britain, Anglo-Japanese relations were tense, especially after the Anglo-Satsuma War in 1863. However, Kaoru Inoue believed that what they had learned so far could change Japan’s course of action—which was still anti-foreign—and greatly benefit the country’s modernization plan. Thus, he and Itō decided to return to Japan in 1864, while the others remained in Britain, to convince officials to adopt a new tactic they believed would save Japan: “revere the emperor and open up the country.”
Eventually, all of the Chōshū Five returned back to Japan to fulfill their original goal of using their Western education to modernize their country. Re-entering Japanese life with their new knowledge, the men became very involved with the Meiji Restoration and the creation of a modern Japan. Itō became known as “the father of the Japanese Constitution,” Kaoru Inoue as “the father of modern Japanese diplomacy,” Yamao as “the father of Japanese engineering,” Masaru Inoue as “the father of Japanese railways,” and Endō as “the father of the modern Japanese mint.” With the Chōshū Five’s combined knowledge and leadership in ministries that ranged from the Ministry of Industry to the Ministry of Finance, the men held immense power in shaping the future of their country—as they hoped to do by learning from the Western world.
Yet, their influence did not end there. A couple of years after the Chōshū Five arrived in Britain, 15 students and 4 supervisors departed for the same destination. This new group was called the “Satsuma Group”—as many were from Satsuma—and the catalyst for their journey was the aforementioned Anglo-Satsuma War. Following negotiations between the British and the Japanese, the New York Times reported the following:
“Reports say that the [Japanese] officers who were in command [during the Battle at Cogashima]... were surprised and mortified to see how little apparent damage they were able to inflict on the English fleet… They are evidently convinced that they cannot yet compete with a Western nation in warfare… During the negotiations of Satsuma’s Ambassadors [sic] with the English Ministers, they proposed to send to Europe thirty of their young men, to be educated in the useful arts, especially shipbuilding, cannon-making, &c.”
Again, the idea that the foreign world held immense possibilities for Japan inspired young men to take the trip across the world, despite the era of isolation that had just dictated the country. The Chōshū Five and the Satsuma Group were just the beginning. They represented not only an increasing influx of Western culture and knowledge into Japan, but also Japan’s expansion into the outside world. More students under the Meiji government continued to be sent out to countries like Britain, France, and Germany, as directed by the Ministry of Education.
This exchange of culture and ideas during the latter half of the nineteenth century allowed Japan to begin its rise as a global superpower. Around forty years after the Chōshū Five first stepped foot in Britain, Japan entered the Russo-Japanese War over competing interests in Manchuria and Korea. This was the country’s test to see how much it had modernized, and whether or not the risks had paid off. And it did. Before, Japan was concerned about the increasing influence of foreign powers in Asia. Now, it was part of the growing influence. Using modern technology, Japan defeated Russia, and their victory told Western powers that they were not a country to underestimate.
The development of modern Japan involved many factors, but the Chōshū Five represented—and started—a large part of the process. The men come from a domain that was integral to the fall of the Tokugawa shogunate and the Meiji Restoration, and their influence remains in the world today. From the Chōshū comes Kishi Nobusuke, who was Prime Minister of Japan from 1957 to 1960, among other roles, and played a critical role in Manchukuo and World War II; and from Kishi comes his grandson, Abe Shinzo, Prime Minister of Japan from 2012 to 2020. Within these 160 years is a long legacy of power stemming from the Meiji Restoration and the transformation of feudal Japan.
“INTERESTING FROM JAPAN.” The New York Times, January 30, 1864. https://nyti.ms/3otLLJf.
Inuzuka, Takaaki, and Haruko Laurie. “Bridge to Japan’s Modernisation.” In Alexander Williamson: A Victorian Chemist and the Making of Modern Japan, 86–98. UCL Press, 2021. https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctv1fj84dv.9.
Inuzuka, Takaaki, and Haruko Laurie. “The Chōshū Five.” In Alexander Williamson: A Victorian Chemist and the Making of Modern Japan, 28–51. UCL Press, 2021. https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctv1fj84dv.8.
Inuzuka, Takaaki, and Haruko Laurie. “The Satsuma Nineteen.” In Alexander Williamson: A Victorian Chemist and the Making of Modern Japan, 52–68. UCL Press, 2021. https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctv1fj84dv.9.
“UCL Delegation Visit Japan, こんにちは!” UCL Global, September 19, 2017. https://blogs.ucl.ac.uk/ucl-global/tag/choshu-five/.
 Takaaki Inuzuka and Haruko Laurie, “The Chōshū Five,” in Alexander Williamson: A Victorian Chemist and the Making of Modern Japan (UCL Press, 2021), 33.
 “The Chōshū Five,” 34.
 “The Chōshū Five,” 35.
 “The Chōshū Five,” 36.
 “The Chōshū Five,” 36–37.
 “The Chōshū Five,” 44.
 “The Chōshū Five,” 44–46.
 “The Chōshū Five,” 48.
 “UCL Delegation Visit Japan, こんにちは!” UCL Global, September 19, 2017, https://blogs.ucl.ac.uk/ucl-global/tag/choshu-five/.
 Takaaki Inuzuka and Haruko Laurie, “The Satsuma Ninetten,” in Alexander Williamson: A Victorian Chemist and the Making of Modern Japan (UCL Press, 2021), 53–56.
 “INTERESTING FROM JAPAN,” The New York Times, January 30, 1864, https://nyti.ms/3otLLJf.
 Takaaki Inuzuka and Haruko Laurie, “Bridge to Japan’s Modernisation,” in Alexander Williamson: A Victorian Chemist and the Making of Modern Japan (UCL Press, 2021), 97.