Satsuma samurai and Meiji politician
Okubo Toshimichi (大久保利通 (1830-1878) was a Japanese statesman and one of the Satsuma samurai who supported the Meiji Restoration. He is commonly regarded as the progressive driving force behind the new Meiji state, despite his authoritarian and often opportunist style of government.
Ōkubo was born in Kagoshima, Satsuma Province (present-day Kagoshima Prefecture), to Ōkubo Jūemon, a low-ranking retainer of Satsuma daimyō Shimazu Nariakira. He studied at the same domain school as Saigō Takamori, who was three years his senior, receiving a military education as well as the traditional Chinese learning of Confucian principles of loyalty and filial piety. He also studied Zen Buddhism. Being of frail constitution, he was given the position of aide (側役 sobayaku) to the domain’s archivist in 1846. He lost his position when his father was banished following involvement in political intrigue, thereby becoming the sole means of support for his family.
In 1858, he was appointed a tax administrator by Shimazu Nariakira, who recognised Ōkubo’s talents. When his mentor Nariakira died just a year later, he joined the plot to overthrow the Tokugawa shogunate, joining a group of radical loyalists. The new daimyō‘s father, Shimazu Hisamitsu, who wielded actual power in the domain, opposed the idea of Satsuma attacking the shogunate, but was more open to such ideas after Ii Naosuke had been assassinated in March 1860. Again, Ōkubo’s influence in the domain grew, and he was promoted from assistant superintendent of the treasury to adviser to the daimyō.
Domain and shogunate reforms
Following Ōkubo’s advice, Satsuma carried out political reforms by centralising its administration. He no longer advocated an attack on the shogunate, but called for shogunate reforms, promoting the idea of kōbu gattai (公武合体, Union of the Imperial Court and the Shogunate). In 1862, backed by Shimazu Hisamitsu he negotiated reforms, resulting in rehabilitation for the victims of the Ansei Purge in 1858 and the first shogunal visit to Kyōto in thirty years. When Satsuma samurai killed an Englishman in Kanagawa in September 1862 (“Namamugi Incident”), he counselled moderation. At the end of the same year, Ōkubo was made a trainee liaison officer between the domain senior minister (karō) and the daimyō.
When Satsuma was defeated in the bombardment of Kagoshima by the British Royal Navy following the Namamugi Incident, and when a coup d’état by the kōbu gattai faction in Kyōto failed in September 1863, he realized that any cooperation between the court and the shogunate had become impossible and that the shogunate had to be overthrown. He also recognised the military superiority of the Western powers and the need to open Japan to their influences.
Gaining more and more influence in Satsuma, Ōkubo and his leaders established a naval training centre, and Satsuma samurai were sent to England to study.
In 1866, he and Saigō Takamori met Chōshū domain’s Kido Takayoshi to forge the secret Satchō Alliance between the two most powerful domains in southwestern Japan with the aim of overthrowing the bakufu. The alliance marked the beginning of the Meiji Restoration.
In 1867, the anti-shogunate movement was further strengthened by the death of Emperor Kōmei who had been opposed to the extremist loyalists. Satsuma negotiated military alliances with Chōshū, Tosa (modern-day Kōchi Prefecture), and other like-minded domains, seizing the imperial palace in Kyōto on 3 January 1868 and proclaiming an imperial restoration (王政復古 ōsei fukko). The new – authoritarian – government was shaped by Ōkubo, Saigō and Kido who implemented a series of administrative reforms aiming at stabilising the new Meiji state. Ōkubo became increasingly influential in policy-making and resisted dissenting voices, antagonising a lot of his former allies. In 1869, he abolished an assembly of nobles (公議所 Kōgisho) acting as a consultative body because open debate undermined government policy. When abolishing the domains and instituting a prefectural system in 1871, he stepped down from his position as state councillor, and Saigō and Kido took the leadership. Later, Ōkubo, Saigō and Kido formed a provisional government. As Finance Minister, Ōkubo enacted a Land Tax Reform (1873-1881), the Haitōrei Edict (廃刀令, Sword Abolishment Edict) in 1871 that prohibited samurai from wearing swords in public, and ended official discrimination against social outcasts.
In foreign relations, he worked to secure revision of the Unequal Treaties of 1858 and joined the Iwakura Mission on its around-the-world trip of 1871 to 1873. On the trip, he met Otto von Bismarck in Prussia who advised him to rely solely on military power and to have realistic expectations when dealing with Western powers, further confirming Ōkubo’s policy of fukoku kyōhei (富国強兵, “Enrich the Country, Strengthen the Army”). Returning from overseas, however, Ōkubo strongly opposed Saigō’s plan to invade Korea, a move that would estrange him from his childhood friend forever. Ōkubo argued that it was imperative to strengthen the country first. When it was decided not to attack Korea, Saigō, Itagaki Taisuke, and other government figures resigned in protest.
In the autumn of 1873, he formed what was later called the “Ōkubo Government”, establishing himself as head of the newly formed Home Ministry, exercising civil control through its police bureau. He also encouraged industrial growth through an industrial promotion bureau and subsidised industry and agriculture. His role became one of a de facto prime minister, even though the office of premier was not established until 1885, with both Saigō and Kido gone (the latter had resigned in 1874 over Ōkubo’s decision to send a military expedition to Taiwan). Ōkubo tried to placate his critics by restructuring the government to allow for checks and balances; establishing the Dajōkan (太政官, “Great Council of State”) acting as the executive branch; the Daishin’in (大心院, “Great Court of Cassation”); the Genrōin (元老院, “Senate”) to discuss legal matters as well as allowing to convene the Chihōkan-kaigi (地方官会議, “Assembly of Prefectural Governors”) that was also meant to take the place of the lower house of a national assembly. These institutions never wielded any significant power and were short-lived, and Itagaki who was lured back into the government by Ōkubo soon left again.
Ōkubo also had to confront the forces opposing modernization, such as many of the former samurai who were dissatisfied over the decision in 1876 to commute their hereditary stipends into government bonds (秩禄処分 chitsuroku-shobun), leading to several uprisings all over the country, adding to the general discontentment over the land tax, military conscription, and rising prices of common goods. Saigō, Ōkubo’s former friend and combatant, became convinced that Japan’s new policy of modernisation was flawed. In the Satsuma Rebellion of 1877, some Satsuma rebels under the leadership of Saigō fought against the new government’s army. Saigō had founded a network of private schools in Kagoshima to prepare for the coming conflict with the Meiji state. As Home Minister, Ōkubo took command of the army and fought against his old friend. With the defeat of the rebellion’s forces after a brutal eight-month civil war, Ōkubo was considered a traitor by many of the Satsuma samurai. Conservatives and radicals alike condemned his arbitrary exercise of power. On May 14, 1878, Ōkubo was assassinated in Tōkyō by Shimada Ichirō (島田一郎, 1848-1878) and six other samurai of the Kaga domain (present-day Ishikawa Prefecture).
The Last Samurai
The film “The Last Samurai” portrays a fictionalised account of Saigō’s last years and the Omura character in the film is modelled after Ōkubo. It is interesting to note that Japan’s 92nd Prime-Minister Tarō Asō (麻生 太郎) is a great-great-grandson of Ōkubo Toshimichi.
- Hillsborough, Romulus; Samurai Tales: Courage, Fidelity and Revenge in the Final Years of the Shogun, Tuttle 2010
- Jansen, Marius B.; The Emergence of Meiji Japan, Cambridge University Press 1995
- Jansen, Marius B.; The Making of Modern Japan, Cambridge 2002
- Kune, Kunitake; Japan Rising: The Iwakura Embassy to the USA and Europe, Cambridge University Press 2009
- Nussbaum, Louis-Frédéric; Japan Encyclopedia, Harvard University Press 2005
- Ravina, Mark; The Last Samurai: The Life and Battles of Saigo Takamori, Wiley 2005
- Wilson, George M.; Patriots and Redeemers in Japan: Motives in the Meiji Restoration, University of Chicago Press 1992
- Poems by Katsu Kaishu commemorating Okubo Toshimichi (National Museum of Japanese History)
Ōkubo Toshimichi (Photo credit)
Ōkubo Toshimichi as a young samurai (Photo credit)
Ōkubo Toshimichi (right), as a member of the Iwakura Mission; r-l: Okubo Toshimichi, Ito Hirobumi, Iwakura Tomomi, Yamaguchi Naoyoshi, Kido Takayoshi (Photo credit)
Harada Masato as “Omura” in The Last Samurai