Godai Tomoatsu (五代友厚, 1836-1885), also known as Godai Saisuke, was born in the castle town of Kagoshima, Satsuma domain (modern-day Kagoshima Prefecture), as the second son of Takashi Shigeru Saemon (左衛門秀尭), a local magistrate holding the hereditary title of atai (直, regional administrator) and a strict Confucianist. He was sent to cram school at the age of eight and later educated in both sciences and martial arts. To study naval science and technology, his domain sent him to Nagasaki in 1857 to attend the Nagasaki Naval Training Center (長崎海軍伝習所 Nagasaki kaigun denshū-jo) and in 1862 to Shanghai to procure a German steamboat.
In the Anglo-Satsuma War of 1864, Godai commanded a ship and was taken prisoner by the Royal Navy. He was chosen to join the Satsuma Mission of 1865, consisting of nineteen members, including observers and students to embark on what was allegedly a study trip to Europe, but in fact, a mission to procure arms and spinning mills. What was evident however was the fact that the Satsuma mission was in blatant defiance of the bakufu‘s ban on travels to foreign countries.
Godai studied at the University College of London and, after his return to Satsuma, was promoted to the position of the domain’s treasurer. He persuaded the daimyō to arm himself in the European style and to purchase more Western weaponry.
While in Europe, the Scottish merchant and arms dealer Thomas Glover introduced Godai to English industrialists and assisted him in negotiations, which led him to set up the first modern factory in Japan, the Kagoshima Mill in Satsuma in 1867. As a result of earlier negotiations, the Platt Bros. of Oldham, textile machinery manufacturers from Manchester, despatched seven of their engineers to Kagoshima to assist Godai in manufacturing and technical training.
Godai also negotiated with Comte des Cantons de Charles Montblanc, a Belgian of French origin, a controversial figure and “Japan buff”, to trade natural goods from Satsuma for European arms. Montblanc had come to Japan on a scientific mission and later posed as a somehow eccentric “Japan expert” in Paris. He studied Japanese with the help of a young Japanese student and later on, was described as “nothing more than a one-man enterprise”, playing the Satsuma card by pursuing a career a sole agent for the Satsuma domain. Much to the chagrin of the Tokugawa shogunate, Montblanc managed to represent Satsuma in the Paris World Exhibition of 1867 as an independent country. In time and with the help of Glover and Montblanc, Godai was able to purchase modern warships, and other military equipment Satsuma dearly needed in their looming showdown with the bakufu.
After the Meiji Restoration Godai became head of the Osaka Customs Department and san’yo (参与, senior counsellor), a position he used to ease tensions between the growing number of foreigners in Japan and xenophobic elements among former samurai. Many conflicts, however, were caused by foreign merchants, who engaged in unethical business practices, swindling the credulous Japanese or refusing to pay wages or rent. Godai’s experience with foreigners and his excellent command of English helped to mitigate such situations. On the other hand, he did not hesitate to confront the foreign powers and their representatives, whose traders and captains often complained about his rigid customs and luggage inspections.
He resigned from his official duties in 1869 and devoted himself entirely to his industrial and trading businesses to develop Japan’s economy. He founded the Osaka Chamber of Commerce in 1880 as well as the Osaka Stock Exchange, serving as chairman in both institutions, and a business school that later became Osaka University. In 1881, Godai was implicated in the Hokkaido Colonization Office Scandal, which brought down the administration of Prime Minister Kuroda Kiyotaka. On September 25, 1885, at the age of 49 Godai died of diabetes and was buried in Abeno Cemetery in Osaka.
Godai Tomoatsu (五代友厚, 1836-1885; photo credit)
Statue of Godai Tomoatsu in Kagoshima