Cambridge & diversity

Kukuchi Dairoku: the first Japanese graduate

Kukuchi DairokuIn 1873 Kikuchi Dairoku entered St John's College; he became the first Japanese graduate of the University, majoring in Mathematics, and graduated amongst the top students of his class. He is described as an outstandingly able, articulate, original and culturally confident individual and is credited as being one of the pioneers for the modernisation of Japan.

Kikuchi Dairoku first came to study in England when he was just 11, attending University College School. His academic brilliance was already evident and in his final year at the school he became ‘head of the school’ or head boy. Kikuchi was accepted for study at both London University and Cambridge. It is thought that he is the only Japanese student to graduate from London University before the 20th century. He completed his entrance and graduation exams for London, but was not a resident at the University—choosing instead to enter St John's College to study the Mathematical Tripos.

Kikuchi was admitted as a pensioner to St John's College, meaning he paid his own tuition fees and bills associated with residing at the College. His outstanding academic achievements had already been acknowledged in Japan and initially his studies were supported by the Japanese Government. After the withdrawal of government support in 1874 it is believed that he was supported by the former head of a Japanese clan. Following the Tripos examination in January 1877 he was classified 19th Wrangler—a first class mathematician coming nineteenth in the year—and became the first Japanese student to graduate from the University. Although little is recorded about his time at Cambridge, his successful career is well-documented.

In 1877 Kikuchi returned to Japan and became an influential figure in the period of Japanese history known as the Meiji era, a period of modernisation essential to preserving the independence of Japan. His exceptional career included positions in academia, educational administration and politics. Academically gifted, with important work and family connections, Kikuchi Dairoku was a pivotal figure of the university and educational systems in Meiji Japan. His study in England—particularly his time in Cambridge—is credited as a significant factor in his outstanding life and career.

On his return to Japan, aged just 22, Kikuchi became a professor of mathematics at Tokyo University; at the age of 25 he was appointed dean of the faculty of science. In 1890, he was selected as a member of the House of Peers by Imperial nomination. After serving as director of the Specialized Education Department and vice minister of the Education Ministry, he became president of the Tokyo Imperial University in 1898. In 1901, he became education minister and in 1902, he received the title of danshaku (baron). In 1908, Baron Kikuchi became president of the Kyoto Imperial University. Later, he served as Principal of the Imperial Academy and Privy Councillor, and was the first president of the Physical and Chemical Research Institute, Japan's first scientific research establishment. His textbook on elementary geometry was said to be the most widely used textbook in Japan until the end of the Second World War.

Kikuchi was in the vanguard of Japanese students to attend Cambridge; the first of an eminent list of influential Japanese figures and representative of the University's efforts to always attract the most talented individuals regardless of background. Overseas study underpinned the crucial modernisation of Japan in the late-nineteenth and early twentieth century, and Kikuchi combined his strong Imperial values with the systems and teachings of his English education. Throughout his career he was awarded with the highest honours available and at his death in 1917 he was recognised as one of Japan's greatest scholars and educationists.

Further reading

  • Noburu Koyama, Japanese Students at Cambridge University in the Meija Era, 1868–1912: Pioneers for the Modernization of Japan (Translated by Ian Ruxton, Lulu 2004). Kikuchi Dairoku is the central protagonist of this publication, which is the primary source for this short profile.
  • John Venn, Alumni Cantabrigienses: A Biographical List of All Known Students, Graduates and Holders of Office at the University of Cambridge, from the Earliest Times to 1900.