Young adventurers laid to rest far away


Four graves in a Victorian cemetery near London mark the final resting place of some of the earliest travelers from Japan to the West. Though they traveled separately, years apart, they shared the same aspirations and were fated to meet similarly sad ends. The four gravestones were joined by a monument erected in September 1977 by the Anglo-Japanese Friendship Association “in honor of their courage and their cause.”

The oldest grave is that of Yamazaki Kosaburo, who died in London on March 6, 1866, age 22. His two traveling companions, Minami Teisuke and Takeda Yojiro, survived to tell the tale.

In 1865, the closing years of the Edo Period, these three young samurai of the Choshu han, the most powerful of the 250 clans that made up feudal Japan, risked the death penalty by breaking the strict ban on overseas travel imposed by the central Tokugawa shogunate.

But they were not the first to venture abroad in the quest for Western knowhow. Five others had been smuggled out of the country to study in London in 1863. They came to be known as the “Choshu Five,” and included Hirobumi Ito, who would later become prime minister.

Following the trail blazed by their predecessors, Yamazaki, Minami and Takeda set sail for England, then at the peak of its Victorian era imperial power, in the hope of returning with the knowledge necessary to help transform their country, still reeling from the shock of the arrival of Comm. Perry’s black ships.

Technology had broken Japan’s isolation, and the more farsighted clansmen decided that it was exactly what the country needed. It is difficult now to imagine the gulf of culture, history and tradition bridged by such a remarkable adventure — it was nothing less than a voyage out of the Middle Ages into modernity — the journey on which Japan itself was about to embark.

By paying 1,000 ryo for their passage, and with the assistance of another early trader, Nagasaki-based Thomas Glover, they slipped out of Shimonoseki, traveling via Shanghai to England. On arrival, Takeda headed for Aberdeen in Scotland, Glover’s hometown, while Yamazaki and Minami settled in London.

Unfortunately, due to the political turbulence at home in Japan, eagerly awaited funds failed to materialize and they quickly became impoverished.

In his memoirs, Minami later recalled: “We had no money at all for food or clothing, wore the same clothes all the time and had no fire in our room, even in the depths of winter.” To relieve their plight, Minami managed to arrange some credit, but not before Yamazaki had become seriously ill with tuberculosis. Yamazaki was taken in by Alexander Williamson, a chemistry professor at University College London (and one of their few contacts in London) and nursed by the professor’s wife at the family home in Belsize Park, but to no avail.

His grave lies in Brookwood cemetery, about 50 km southwest of London. The professor and 12 Japanese students attended the funeral.

Buried next to Yamazaki are three other early Japanese adventurers — Arifuku Jiro, Fukuoka Morito and Fukuro Kuhei. The headstone directly behind Yamazaki’s reads “G. Arifuku. A late officer in the army of Japan who departed this life 13th August 1868 at Highbury aged 22.” Arifuku (whose first name is today transcribed with a J rather than a G), hailed from Yamaguchi Prefecture, home to the Tokuyama domain.

A retainer in the party of Mori Motoisa — an important Tokuyama elder — Arifuku planned to enrol in a course of military studies but died within two months of his arrival. The exact cause of his death is unknown. The rigors of the journey, and an alien environment and diet could not have helped.

To the right of Arifuku lies “the beloved son of Kenzo Fukuoka” a Tosa han elder, from present-day Kochi Prefecture. The son, Morito, died in London on March 3, 1873, at 37 King Henry Road, Chalk Farm, North London. During his studies, he converted to Christianity, dying two years into his stay, at 21.

The grave inscription suggests he made quite an impression on his hosts. “Imbued with profound moral feeling, adorned with the graces of modesty, refinement and courtesy, he loved and earnestly sought the truths of religion.” The inscription ends with a quote from the Bible: “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God.”

The fourth headstone reads, “In memory of Fukuro Kuhei from Saga, Japan who having been sent out by the government of his country to study in Berlin, was compelled by threatened consumption to return home but soon after landing in England fell victim to the disease in London where he died November 2nd 1873, aged 24.

“This monument is erected by his sorrowing friends as a tribute to his worthy and industrious character.”

According to cemetery records, he lived at 28 Northumberland Hall, Bayswater, and was buried two days after his death.

Although united in death, the four had never met. Each of the unfortunate “fellow travelers” had died by the time the next arrived. Why, then, were they all buried in the same graveyard? Was it simply because of their shared nationality? Possibly, but then even Williamson, who died in 1904, and his wife are buried at Brookwood. The answer might lie in the history of the cemetery itself.

The idea for a great metropolitan graveyard situated in the suburbs to contain all of London’s dead was conceived in the 1850s. Since opening, Brookwood has accommodated around 240,000 souls of various nationalities. The well-landscaped grounds and the winding paths make for a peaceful, private final resting place for so many so far from home.