I am preparing a Third Thursday Lecture on the “Chōshū Five”. This group of samurai came to London in 1863 to study Western science. They were hosted by Prof. Alexander Williamson, chemist at University College London, who himself had been learning from Justus Liebig in Giessen and Auguste Comte in Paris. A manga and a film designed by artist Yukimura are now honoring this early example of global academic cooperation.
The five samurai later had splendid careers in the Japanese government and industry. While today, the number of Japanese students going abroad is decreasing, these samurai took high personal risks for the modernisation of their country. Leaving Japan was still forbidden in 1863 – ten years earlier, intellectual Yoshida Shōin had been was thrown off Commodore Matthew Perry’s steamship and later exectuted by the bakufu at the age of 29.
N.B. Both manga and film also hint at the “one-track-mind” of the young men pushing science and industrialisation in Japan. They believed Britain to be “civilised” and completely overlooked the poverty of the working class. Remember: At that time, philosopher Karl Marx was just writing his book Capital (published 1866). What, if the samurai had also met the thinker? He was buried on Highgate Cemetery in 1883, today a great monument of Victorian England.
Needless to say: Manga has also dignified Marx himself many times and quoted his writings – just like his memorial stone: “Workers of all lands, unite!” And the mangafication of Marxist writer Kobayashi Takiji’s novel The Crab Canning Ship (1929) on a strike of poor sailors recently became a bestseller in precarious Japan. There are many historical lessons to be learned from Japanese manga and popular culture…