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Meiji Modernizers: The Chōshū Five

Kashihara Hiroki [Profile]


In the last days of the Tokugawa shogunate, five samurai from the Chōshū domain secretly traveled to Britain. The knowledge and linguistic ability they acquired helped make them central figures in Japan’s modernization under the Meiji government.

Japan is now considered a highly developed country and one of the world’s economic powers. While it passed through several historical stages to reach this point, the modernization process after the Meiji Restoration of 1868 was crucial. How was it achieved? The small group known as the Chōshū Five played a key role in laying down the infrastructure that formed the foundations of a modern state.

Study Abroad in the Last Days of the Shogunate

On June 27, 1863, five samurai from the Chōshū domain (now Yamaguchi Prefecture) covertly left Japan by ship from Yokohama for Britain at a time when it was extremely difficult to travel overseas. Itō Hirobumi, Inoue Kaoru, Inoue Masaru, Endō Kinsuke, and Yamao Yōzō would go on to become leaders of politics and industry in Meiji Japan. The aim of their voyage was to study Western technology and thereby become “living instruments”—in the words of Inoue Kaoru—to effectively advance the jōi movement to expel foreigners, which was then championed by Chōshū, and prepare for international diplomacy.

The five began by learning English, visiting various facilities, and studying analytical chemistry at University College London. Itō and Inoue Kaoru cut their studies short after a few months, however, and went back to Japan when news came of the 1863–64 bombardments of Shimonoseki in Chōshū by the joint naval forces of foreign countries seeking control of the Shimonoseki Straits. The other three samurai remained to attend further scientific lectures, with Endō returning home at the start of 1866. Inoue Masaru received a diploma from University College and is thought to have made visits to inspect railways and mines. Yamao traveled to Glasgow, where he worked as an apprentice engineer in the shipyard by day and studied technology at Anderson’s College at night. Both went back to Japan, arriving at the start of 1869.

The Chōshū Five. For their achievements, each is known popularly as the “father” of different innovations in Japan. Endō Kinsuke (back left) is the “father of the mint,” Inoue Kaoru (front left) is the “father of diplomacy,” Inoue Masaru (center) is the “father of railways,” Itō Hirobumi (back right) is the “father of the cabinet,” and Yamao Yōzō (front right) is the “father of engineering.” (Courtesy of the Hagi Museum)

Itō Hirobumi and Inoue Kaoru: The World of Politics

After their British sojourn, Inoue Kaoru and Itō Hirobumi rose within the Chōshū political system. When the Meiji government was established, they put their overseas experience to work as bureaucrats on the front lines of diplomacy at the ports that had been opened to foreign trade. They later became high-ranking officials in the Ministry of Finance, which was responsible for modernization projects in addition to financial and civil administration. During this time, Itō overreached his position by making a suggestion about the replacement of domains by modern prefectures, for which he was heavily criticized and demoted. Both Itō and Inoue offered to resign over the issue of centralization of power, but their valuable experience in Britain served to protect them. Ultimately, Inoue’s active efforts contributed to the successful switch to prefectures and a centralized system of government on August 29, 1871.

Inoue rose to the position of vice-minister of finance, introduced annual budgets for ministries, and established the groundwork for the present budgetary system of making decisions based on revenue assessments. Although he resigned in May 1873, he returned to government some years later, following another trip overseas from June 1876. He became a councillor in July 1878, a position in which he was involved in government decisions. Itō, meanwhile, began the first of two foreign study periods in late 1870. After honing his political skills, he climbed to the position of councillor in October 1873.

Although they were not consistently successful, both men advanced within the Meiji government not only due to their roots in Chōshū—one of the leading forces in the new administration—but also through applying what they learned overseas and their knowledge of policy. They later became important politicians; Inoue was Japan’s first minister of foreign affairs and also served as home minister. Itō went on to establish the cabinet system and become the country’s first prime minister. He played a major role in the introduction of a number of political and administrative innovations that continue to this day through his involvement in the enactment of the Meiji Constitution and the creation of the national assembly in 1890.

Inoue Kaoru (left) and Itō Hirobumi. (Courtesy of the National Diet Library)

  • [2018.09.12]

Associate professor of economics at Kansai University. Born in Osaka in 1978. Completed his degree in politics at Keiō University in 2001, and received his doctorate in politics at the same university in 2008. Started his present position in 2015. Works include Kōbushō no kenkyū: Meiji shonen no gijutsu kanryō to shokusan kōgyō seisaku (Ministry of Industry Research: Technocrats and the Promotion of Industry in the First Year of Meiji) and Meiji no gijutsu kanryō: Kindai Nihon o tsukutta Chōshū goketsu (Meiji Technocrats: How the Chōshū Five Built Modern Japan).

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