Oxford and Japan – 150th anniversary of the admission of the first Japanese student at Oxford

2023 is a significant year for anniversaries in the University’s progress towards the diversification of its student body. The year 1873, 150 years ago, saw not only the admission of the University’s first known black student, Christian Cole of Sierra Leone, it is also believed to be  when the first Japanese student attended Oxford: Tats (aka Tomotsune) Iwakura.

Iwakura was admitted to the University (‘matriculated’) on 29 May 1873. The information he gave the University on his matriculation form, written in his own hand, stated that he was born in Miako, Japan. Aged 19, he was the third son of the Prime Minister of Japan, Tomomi Iwakura.

Tats Iwakura matriculation form

Matriculation form of Tats Iwakura, 1873 (from OUA/UR 1/1/5)

Iwakura came to Oxford during a time of great change at the University, and his arrival reflects a number of movements by the University in later nineteenth century towards opening itself up to a greater range of students.

Under ‘college’, Iwakura has written ‘Unattached’. This refers to the Delegacy for Unattached Students (later known as Non-Collegiate Students). This was a University body set up in 1868 in order to allow students from a wider social range to attend the University by reducing the cost of their time here. Membership of a college or hall was expensive and it was this which put an Oxford education out of the financial reach of many. Membership of the Delegacy for Unattached Students, this new alternative means of being a student, was cheaper, and therefore became a possibility for people who had been hitherto excluded.

At about the same time, another major change took place at the University. Until 1854, every person matriculating at the University had to declare their agreement (by subscribing) to the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England. This effectively barred from the University all those of any other faith, or none. The Oxford University Act of 1854 had abolished subscription at matriculation and at graduation as BA, but it wasn’t until 1871 that the Universities Tests Act abolished subscription for all degrees and for all offices (except, somewhat understandably, degrees and professorships in theology). Catholics, Jews, Muslims and members of other faiths, or none, were now able to become senior members of the University.

A result of both the Unattached Students scheme and the 1871 Universities Test Act was that the student body at Oxford slowly began to become more diverse. And it’s into this new climate at the University that Iwakura arrived.

Tomotsune, or Tats, Iwakura (Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Iwakura_Tomotsune.jpg)

It’s clear, however, that a student from Iwakura’s background did not need the financial assistance which came from being an Unattached Student. So why did he come to Oxford in this way, and not as a member of a regular college? A clue may be the fact that once he was here, the archives are silent on what Iwakura did, apart from recording his migration (ie transfer between colleges) to Balliol College in January 1874. It was not uncommon for Unattached Students to transfer to a regular college after they had arrived at the University. In these records, Iwakura is now known as Tomotsne, no longer Tats.

There is also no record in the Archives here of Iwakura passing any examinations or of receiving a degree. This suggests that he was not here to study as a traditional undergraduate, working his way to a BA. In fact it appears that, despite the aim of the Unattached Students scheme being to attract students from poorer social backgrounds, it actually also enabled wealthy mature students to come to study in a private capacity. Unattached Students were often, like Iwakura, older than regular undergraduates, from overseas, and already graduates of other universities. What isn’t recorded on Iwakura’s form is that he had already spent time studying at Rutgers College in the United States alongside his brother Asahi in 1870.

Generally speaking, it is very difficult for the University Archives to identify the first person from a particular country to matriculate. The reason that we are able to do this, albeit tentatively, in the case of Iwakura, is that he and number of students from other parts of Asia and the Middle East are listed separately in Joseph Foster’s Alumni Oxonienses, a published register of all those admitted to the University between 1715 and 1886.

The Alumni Oxonienses (and, to some extent, the University itself at that time) had difficulty dealing with personal names that were not of Western European origin. As a result, in the back of the Alumni are separately listed all those students whose names fell into that category, under the heading “Indians, etc”. Although it is a highly disrespectful categorisation, it does enable us to more easily identify those students coming from countries such as Japan, India and Thailand. Many, it’s interesting to note, are the sons of high-status individuals such as princes and government officials.

There is no record here of how Iwakura found being a Japanese student in 1870s Oxford. He appears not to have suffered the cruelty of racist caricaturisation in the popular press that Christian Cole had to endure, but as his student experience is unrecorded in the University Archives, we don’t know what life would have been like for him here.

Iwakura’s matriculation marked the beginning of a long association of the University with Japan. It has an international office in Tokyo and over 1500 alumni currently in Japan. More about the University’s links with Japan can be found on its website at https://www.ox.ac.uk/about/international-oxford/asia-east/japan

For more on Iwakura’s time at Rutgers, see the interesting article on the College’s ‘Rutgers Meets Japan: early encounters’ website at https://sites.rutgers.edu/rutgers-meets-japan/iwakura-brothers/

Further information about Christian Cole, the first known black student at Oxford, can be found at https://blogs.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/archivesandmanuscripts/2021/10/18/the-first-black-student-at-oxford-university/


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