The founding father of Waseda University
Ōkuma Shigenobu (大隈重信, 1838-1922) was a statesman of the Meiji Restoration, the 8th and 17th Prime Minister of Japan and the founder of Waseda University.
In contrast to most other important Meiji figures, Ōkuma did not hail from either Satsuma or Chōshū. He was born as a son of a samurai from Saga, Hizen Province (modern-day Saga Prefecture) and studied Confucian literature as well as Dutch studies (rangaku [蘭學 kyūjitai, literally “Dutch Learning”, or by extension, 蘭学 shinjitai, “Western Learning”]). In Nagasaki, Ōkuma met a Dutch missionary named Guido Verbeck who taught him English and Dutch language and who exposed him to Western ideas and Christianity.
In his youth, Ōkuma sympathised with the sonnō jōi movement, which aimed at expelling the Europeans from Japan and later supported efforts to abolish the existing feudal system and the idea of establishing a constitutional government. He became active in the Meiji Restoration and was arrested by the bakufu in Kyoto, sent back to Saga and imprisoned for a month.
In 1868, he was appointed Minister of Foreign Affairs, and in 1869, he became Minister of Finance under Meiji. In 1876, he converted all samurai stipends into a lump sum payment, which brought great financial relief to the young Meiji state. He also unified Japan’s currency and created the national mint.
In 1881 however, Ōkuma was forced to step down over disagreements with members of the Satsuma and Chōshū fraction in the Meiji administration. He was the only oligarch capable of opposing Itō Hirobumi, and embarrassed the latter’s clique by denouncing their fraudulent scheme to sell government assets in Hokkaido, in particular, Prime Minister Kuroda Kiyotaka from the Satsuma clan.
In 1882, Ōkuma founded the Rikken Kaishintō (Constitutional Progressive Party, a forerunner of the Minseitō). His popularity and credibility declined however when his connection with the Mitsubishi zaibatsu was revealed. In the same year, he also founded the Tōkyō Semmon Gakkō in the Waseda district of Tokyo, a school that later became one of Japan’s most prestigious institutions of higher education, Waseda University.
During his second term as Minister of Foreign Affairs (1888-89), Ōkuma tried to renegotiate the unequal treaties between Japan and the Western powers, but as he was trying to find a compromise, one of his legs was blown off in a bomb attack by the ultranationalist Gen’yōsha (玄洋社, “Dark/Black Ocean Society”) movement and he retired from politics for a while.
He rejoined politics in 1896/97 when Prime Minister Matsukata Masayoshi convinced him to become foreign minister, and Ōkuma finally managed to revise the unequal treaties.
He merged his party with that of Itagaki Taisuke in 1898, creating the Kenseitō (憲政党, Constitutional Government Party) and briefly served as prime minister. Ōkuma remained in charge of the party until 1908, when he retired from politics. He became President of Waseda University and focused on academic and scientific projects.
His second term as prime minister in 1914 saw Japan entering World War I and imposing the Twenty-one Demands to China. After political scandals involving members of his administration, Ōkuma finally resigned in 1916 and returned to Waseda University. He died in 1922.
- Okuma, Shigenobu; Fifty Years of New Japan (Kaikoku Gojûnen Shi): Volume 1, Adamant Media 203
- Jansen, Marius B.; The Emergence of Meiji Japan, Cambridge University Press 1995
- Swale, Alistair; The Meiji Restoration: Monarchism, Mass Communication and Conservative Revolution, Palgrave Macmillan 2009
- Wilson, George M.; Patriots and Redeemers in Japan: Motives in the Meiji Restoration, University of Chicago Press 1992
Okuma Shigenobu (Photo credit)
Okuma Shigenobu as a young samurai (Photo credit)
Statue of Okuma Shigenobu at Waseda University (Photo credit)