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Finance Secretary, Foreign Minister (twice), and Prime Minister (twice)
Shigenobu Okuma was born in Saga, in the province of Hizen, in 1838, the son of a middle-rank samurai. His early education focused on study of Confucian classics, but after his father's death (about 1855), he began studying English, mathematics, international law, and other more "western" subjects. He also received instruction from Guido Verbeck, a Dutch Reform missionary, who introduced him to the ideals of Christianity and democracy.
As the son of a feudal authority, Okuma was originally a supporter of the Tokugawa Shogunate, but as his "western learning" increased he became determined that Japan needed to rid itself of its traditional feudal system and establish a constitutional government. Although he became a very powerful voice of the movement that led to the overthrew of the shogunate in 1868, he never actively participated in the revolution itself.
Upon establishment of the Meiji government, Okuma was given a position within the Department of Foreign Affairs, primarily because of his knowledge of the world outside of Japan. In 1869 he was asked to assume the post of Finance Secretary, in which position he was responsible for overseeing the reorganization of Japan's fiscal system.
As Japan emerged out of the shadow of the Tokugawa Shogunate, Okuma pressed for a speedy westernization of the country, and for the adoption of an English-style constitution. Although these ideas made him popular with the Japanese people, they ran counter to those favored by the Meiji government. Eventually the clash of ideas, combined with Okuma's exposure of corruption in the proposed sales of government property, led to Okuma being expelled from the government, in 1881. In 1882, he formed the Rikken Kaishinto (Progressive Party), which favored an English-style parliamentary government.
Okuma returned to the government as Foreign Minister in 1888. In this capacity he negotiated with various Western powers to revise treaties that limited Japan's tariff autonomy and permitted extraterritoriality for Europeans. His willingness to compromise with the Europeans infuriated some radical elements of the population, and, in 1889, one would-be assassin threw a bomb at Okuma; the explosion cost him his leg. Not only did the injury force him to give up his position as Foreign Minister, he had to do so having failed to gain the concessions he had been seeking.
Having been seriously injured while attempting to serve his country, Okuma retired from politics and stayed out of the public realm until 1896, when he agreed to join the Matsukata cabinet as Foreign Minister. Although he only remained in this position for little more than a year, he was able to resume his negotiations with the same European nations over the same treaties which had years before almost cost him his life; this time he was successful at getting the treaties eliminated. Disputes between himself and Prime Minister Matsukata led to his resigning from office and once again retiring from politics.
In 1898, Okuma again came out of retirement and, with Itagaki Taisuke, created Kenseito (the Constitutional Party). The two men formed a new government, with Okuma as Prime Minister. His return would be very short-lived, however, as dissensions within his cabinet led to his resignation.
Okuma came out of retirement one last time in 1914, when he again became Prime Minister. During his second tenure in this position, the Japanese army was expanded and Japan entered World War I on the side of the Allies. He retired from office in 1916, this time for good.
In between his various terms of government service, Okuma established the Tokyo Special Higher School (now Waseda University), which focused on providing its students with a more "western" education, and was instrumental in the founding of other similar schools and colleges. He also owned Hochi Shimbun and edited Shin Nippon and Taikan, liberal journals in which he frequently criticized the Meiji government. He spent his later years trying to promote a mutal understanding between East and West.
Shigenobu Okuma died on January 10, 1922.
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This page was last updated on July 13, 2017.