Skip to main content
Select Source:

Shigenobu Okuma

Shigenobu Okuma

The Japanese statesman and politician Shigenobu Okuma (1838-1922) was one of the early leaders of the Meiji government. He later broke with it to become one of its most eloquent and respected critics.

Born on Feb. 16, 1838, in Saga, the castle town of the Hizen domain in western Kyushu, Shigenobu Okuma was the son of a middle-rank samurai. In 1855, shortly after his father's death, he abandoned his studies at the domain academy and turned his interest to Dutch (Western) learning. As a member of the imperial loyalist faction within Hizen, he supported the policy of union between court and shogunate. He also studied English, mathematics, international law, and other Western subjects under Guido Verback, a Dutch Reform missionary at Nagasaki.

Although his domain did play a leading role in the restoration, Okuma became an official of the new government by reason of his Western knowledge and his forceful personality. He was an active promoter of speedy Westernization, serving in the Ministry of Finance. He also began to recruit a group of able underlings, many of whom were graduates of Keio Academy. After Toshimichi Okubo's death in 1878, Okuma, along with Hirobumi Ito, emerged as one of the principal younger leaders in the government. His rivalry with Ito, coupled with his bold proposal that Japan adopt an English-style constitution, resulted in his expulsion from the government in October 1881.

Although Okuma returned to serve twice as foreign minister (1888-1889 and 1896-1897) and twice as premier (1898 and 1914-1916), the remainder of his career was primarily spent in moderate opposition to the Meiji oligarchy. Beginning with the Kaishinto, organized in 1882, he led a series of political parties that advocated a moderate Anglophile liberalism and opposed the authoritarian tendencies of the oligarchy.

Okuma also founded a private university, the Tokyo Special Higher School, which later became Waseda University, in the hope that it would foster a spirit of personal and political independence among its students and provide a "forcing ground" for politicians of liberal disposition. Finally, as owner of the Hochi Shimbun, and later as editor of Shin Nippon and Taikan, liberal journals of the late Meiji and early Taisho periods, he commented frequently, and sometimes contradictorily, on public affairs.

Okuma formally retired from politics in 1910 but was called back by the genro to serve as premier in 1914. After serving 2 years, he returned to private life and spent his later years trying to promote mutual understanding of East and West.

When he died on Jan. 10, 1922, Okuma's reputation as a champion of liberalism was somewhat tarnished, but he remained an enormously popular figure.

Further Reading

The only English-language biography of Okuma is Smimasa Idditti, The Life of Marquis Shigenobu Okuma, a Maker of New Japan (1940). Prepared for the Okuma family, it is very uncritical and highly eulogistic. Background is in Hugh Borton, Japan's Modern Century (1955); Ryusaku Tsunoda, William Theodore de Bary, and Donald Keene, Sources of the Japanese Tradition (1958); George M. Beckmann, The Modernization of China and Japan (1962); John K. Fairbank, Edwin O. Reischauer, and Albert M. Craig, East Asia: The Modern Transformation (1965); Robert E. Ward, ed., Political Development in Modern Japan (1968); and Kenneth B. Pyle, The New Generation in Meiji Japan (1969). □

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Shigenobu Okuma." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. 23 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Shigenobu Okuma." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 23, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/shigenobu-okuma

"Shigenobu Okuma." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved August 23, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/shigenobu-okuma

Okuma, Shigenobu

Shigenobu Okuma (shēgā´nōbōō ō´kōōmä), 1838–1922, Japanese statesman. He was an early supporter of the emperor and entered the Meiji government as finance minister in 1869. In 1876 he had the annual stipends of the former feudal aristocracy changed to payments in lump sums, with great saving for the state. His power in the government grew steadily, and by 1881 he was the only oligarch able or inclined to challenge the conservative and autocratic ideals of Hirobumi Ito. In 1881, Okuma publicly urged the government to set up a parliament and embarrassed the Ito clique by exposing their fraudulent scheme to sell government assets in Hokkaido. The oligarchs, fearing growing popular support for Okuma, persuaded the emperor to oust him. Okuma founded (1882) a reform party called the Kaishinto (a forerunner of the Minseito) and agitated for parliamentary government. However, Okuma's connections with the Mitsubishi business interests (see zaibatsu) were publicized, and his prestige, and that of democratic government, declined. As foreign minister (1888–89), he negotiated to revise the unequal treaties with the Western powers, which limited Japan's tariff autonomy and permitted extraterritoriality for Europeans. The bomb of a terrorist who opposed the Japanese government's attempt to find a compromise cost Okuma a leg. He again served as foreign minister in 1896 and 1897, and during this period the unequal clauses in the treaties were finally eliminated. In 1898 he and Itagaki merged their parties to form the Kenseito (Constitutional party) and Okuma served for a brief period as prime minister. During his second term as prime minister (1914–16) the army was expanded, and Japan, entering World War I on the Allied side, seized Kiaochow and presented China with the Twenty-one Demands.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Okuma, Shigenobu." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. 23 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Okuma, Shigenobu." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 23, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/okuma-shigenobu

"Okuma, Shigenobu." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved August 23, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/okuma-shigenobu