London college commemorates 19th century "Choshu Five" students from Japan

A ceremony has been held at University College London to commemorate five Japanese men who defied a ban on travelling overseas to come and study in Britain 150 years ago.

The five noblemen from the Choshu clan in Hagi, Yamaguchi Prefecture, were smuggled out on a ship in 1863 and went on to study at UCL. After their return to Japan they took up prominent positions in various fields and helped to modernize the nation.

At the commemoration ceremony on Wednesday, former British ambassador to Japan David Warren said that despite the travel ban by the shogun, some Japanese had started to realize the country could learn a lot from industrial advances in Europe.

"The arrival of the Choshu Five was a turning point in Japanese history. The ideas and know-how they brought back helped to create the forward-thinking and modern nation that Japan became," Warren said.

Among the five were Hirobumi Ito, Japan's first prime minister after the Meiji Restoration in 1868, and his foreign minister, Kaoru Inoue.

Japanese Ambassador to Britain Keiichi Hayashi said Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who also hails from Yamaguchi Prefecture, takes "great pride" in the achievements of the "Choshu Five."

"They laid the foundation for modern Japan and took back knowledge and vision. They risked their own lives to do it," he added.