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.
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).