150th Anniversary: Satsuma Students

2015 marks the 150th anniversary of the arrival in the United Kingdom of the Satsuma Students from Kagoshima. There are a number of events being held throughout the year to commemorate the anniversary.

4 March 2015, Satsuma Biwa (Akiko Sakurai)

On 4 March, Satsuma biwa player Akiko Sakurai, visited London as a Japanese Cultural Envoy from the Japanese Agency for Cultural Affairs. She performed at King’s College London as well as at the Embassy of Japan.

At King's College London, the session was supported by the Department of Music. It was kindly organized by Professor Martin Stokes, whose research interest includes ethnomusicology. Professor Stokes and Ms Sakurai both introduced the instrument, which is related to the lute and is believed to have origins in the Middle East. It was imported to Japan about 1300 years ago where five types of biwa developed, one of them being the Satsuma biwa which was originally produced in the Satsuma region.

During the concert Ms Sakurai performed, in a story-telling style, a piece called Nasu-no-Yoichi, which is from the Tale of Heike.
She performed again at a concert at the Embassy of Japan in the evening, to an audience of about a hundred guests, This performance included additional pieces relevant to the region of Satsuma: an original piece called Sakura-jima, the volcano which dominates Kagoshima, and a piece Kagoshima's popular hero of the Meiji Restoration, Saigo Takamori.

Akiko Sakurai at King’s College London

Performing at the Embassy of Japan

8 & 10 July 2015, Satsuma Biwa (Junko Ueda)

Satsuma Biwa player, Junko Ueda, held a recital in Devonshire Square on 8 July 2015 as part of the City of London Festival. She also held a Satsuma Biwa lecture and concert at SOAS, University of London on 10 July 2015. Junko Ueda is a recognised master of both Satsuma Biwa and Japanese shōmyō Buddhist chant (which she also demonstrated). The Satsuma Biwa tradition has a strong element of story-telling and the quality of the voice plays an important role in a Satsuma Biwa performance. She has collaborated with such artists as cellist Yo-Yo Ma and composer Jean-Claude Eloy. Her CD Heike Monogatari received several prizes including the Grand Prix du Disque, Académie Charles Cros.
The lecture-demonstration "A closer look at the Satsuma Biwa" focused on the history and playing techniques of Satsuma biwa. Also discussed was the comparison with Buddhist chant, other biwa genres, and traditional v contemporary repertoires.

Following the lecture Ms Ueda gave a concert to a packed full house showcasing a mix of traditional and modern works, including the cadenza from Takemitsu’s ‘November Steps’ with British shakuhachi player Joe Browning. This Japan-UK collaboration was a rare occasion to see this piece performed in this country and was extremely well received.

The concert was followed by a free sake-tasting session which included shochu, distilled from sweet potatoes (satsuma imo), from Kagoshima prefecture.

Junko Ueda, Joe Browning performing at SOAS University of London


21 July 2015, Japan Society Pub Quiz – Satsuma 150 Special

To celebrate the 150th anniversary of the arrival of the Satsuma Students, 19 young people from Kagoshima arrived from Japan to visit the sites travelled to by their predecessors. To help show them the strength of the UK-Japan relationship, members of SATSUMA150 and the Japan Society organised a pub quiz. Although a popular feature of British pub culture, the unique point about the pub quiz was that half the questions were in English and half in Japanese. In honour of the visitors from Kagoshima, there were some questions thematically linked to the lives of their forebears and each team had one visitor from Kagoshima help.

Satsuma 150 special Pub Quiz (c) Japan Society

23 July 2015, Ceremony at UCL

Another related event was a ceremony at University College London (UCL) to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the arrival of the Satsuma students on 23 July. Following on from the commemorative ceremony organised by UCL two years ago for the 150th anniversary of the arrival of the "Choshu Five", this year, UCL welcomed 19 participants of a programme organised by Kagoshima prefecture and five students from Yamaguchi prefecture, the latter having joined the programme “UCL-Japan Grand Challenge Seminar and Event” for high school students.

Photograph by Kirsten Holst

Photograph by Kirsten Holst

Professor Michael Arthur, UCL President and Provost, took the opportunity to hand Motohiko Kato, Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary of the Japanese Embassy, a letter addressed to Prime Minister Abe on this topic and on the broader issue of UK-Japan educational exchange. In response, Minister Kato paid tribute to UCL for its wide-ranging contribution to academic research in various fields and for its openness and cultural diversity as one of the world's leading universities. There was much of interest on display for the participants, including special collections from the UCL Art Museum and the college archives including the 1865 college register inscribed with the names of the Satsuma Students. Of course on permanent display is the Japan Monument commemorating the Japanese pioneers’ arrival at UCL 150 years ago.

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