17 July 2015

Celebrating Satsuma 150

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Izumi Thomas is the chair of Satsuma 150 which is being celebrated in the UK this year. Satsuma 150 aims to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the arrival of the Satsuma students in the UK in 1865. Izumi is from Fukiage in Kagoshima and now lives in London where she is a freelance translator and a visiting researcher at the British Museum. Below is an interview with her about this year’s commemoration.

 Who were the Satsuma students?


The Satsuma students were 19 young men who were sent to Britain in 1865. This occurred during the ‘sakoku’ era, a time when foreigners were not allowed to enter Japan or Japanese to leave the country. This varied group of students, ranging in age from 13 to 34, secretly set out from Kushikino Hashima Ura (modern-day Ichiki Kushikino City, Hashima in Kagoshima prefecture) to Britain on 17 April. It took them about two months to sail the great distance to Britain by ship, landing at Southampton on 21 June. Not long after arrival they went their own ways in order to pursue their different interests. While the group’s three supervisors/managers and interpreter travelled around Europe engaging in business discussions and inspection tours, Nagasawa Kanae, too young to enrol at university, went up to Scotland where he joined a secondary school in Aberdeen. The remaining 14 students undertook different fields of study at University College London. Three of the Chõshu Five who had come over to Britain in 1863 from Chõshu, present-day Yamaguchi Prefecture, were still in Britain, and were able to exchange ideas with the newly-arrived Satsuma students.

 Why did they come to the UK?

Let’s start by referring back to the Namamugi incident. In 1862, in the village of Namamugi (present-day Tsurumi-Ku in Yokohama City), a large procession headed by Hisamitsu Shimazu, the head of the Satsuma Clan, encountered four British nationals riding on horseback in the opposite direction and who unsettled the retinue. The Satsuma samurai, affronted, assaulted the British party. Charles Lennox Richardson, a businessman visiting from China, was killed and two of the party were injured. As a result of this incident Britain pressed the Tokugawa Shogunate and the Satsuma Clan for reparations. As these were not forthcoming, an incensed British side sent seven battle ships to Satsuma in order to speed up negotiations. Eventually this situation turned into war (Anglo-Satsuma War) as both sides fired at each other. The area around Kagoshima Castle was burned and both sides suffered fatalities. Having been confronted with Britain’s overwhelmingly advanced technology, Satsuma pursued the path of friendship with Britain in the hope of learning from its advanced technology and way of thinking. As early as during the time when Nariaki Shimazu (1809-1858) was daimyo or lord of Satsuma, the Satsuma Clan was warming up to the ideas of sending students overseas. While peace negotiations following the Anglo-Satsuma War were taking place, the idea of sending students to Britain was proposed to the British side.

Can you identify two or three of the Satsuma students who have been the most interesting, influential or important?

It is very hard to choose just two or three students from this diverse and active group of 19, but I have managed to choose three.

Mori Arinori: On returning to Japan he became the country’s first Education Minister and made huge efforts to reform and modernise the Japanese education system. The basis of the school system which Mori introduced lasted for 50 years. However, Mori did have detractors and was assassinated at the young age of 43.

Machida Hisanari: While studying in London, Machida took interest in the British Museum and other similar establishments. Back in Japan, while serving for the Ministry of Home Affairs, he set about establishing a museum. This was to be the Imperial Museum, the precursor to the Tokyo National Museum of which Machida was the founding director. In later years he turned to Buddhism and became a monk. I find this turn around in his life really fascinating.

Kanae Nagasawa: At 13 years of age, Nagasawa was the youngest of the Satsuma students. After two years in Britain he went straight to the USA. Nagasawa set up a winery in Santa Rosa, California where he became very successful and was nicknamed the ‘wine king’. Having left Japan in 1865 he was the only one of the Satsuma students not to return to settle down in his home country.

 How will you celebrate Satsuma 150? Do you have any special events coming up?

We asked primary and middle schools in Hashima, from where the Satsuma students set sail, to help by devising a logo to commemorate Satsuma 150. The winning logo, chosen from out of 75 entries, was designed by seven year old Taiji Hashima from Hashima Primary School.  This official logo will be used to promote events relating to Satsuma 150. Other organisers and bodies have also been using this logo when publicising events relating to the anniversary of the Satsuma students’ arrival in Britain.

The Satsuma Biwa player, Junko Ueda, held a recital on 8 July 2015 as part of the City of London Festival.

She also held a Satsuma Biwa concert at SOAS, University of London on 10 July 2015. She was joined by Joe Browning on Shakuhachi. Details can be found via this link below:

Satsuma Biwa concert

Before too long we will set up a Satsuma 150 website, which will list all Satsuma 150 related events. Other activities are also being planned.

 Do you think the UK and Satsuma/Kagoshima still have a special connection?

Yes, I do. British supermarkets stock the familiar ‘Satsuma’ fruit. Rumour has it that satsumas were given to the British side during the peace negotiations after the Anglo-Satsuma War and were introduced to Britain as a result. In Kagoshima, on the other hand,  ‘kurobuta’ (‘black pig’), one of Kagoshima’s signature dishes, is none other than the British variety of Berkshire pig.

You can find the Satsuma 150 Facebook page via the red button below:

Satsuma 150 Facebook page

The Embassy of Japan has published an article on the Satsuma students which you can see via the button below:

Satsuma 150, Embassy of Japan website


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