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Okuma Shigenobu and Modern Democracy in Japan Essay

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Updated: Aug 22nd, 2020


Okuma Shigenobu is a renowned figure in Japan’s political history and is famous for introducing the politics of modern democracy in his country. Shigenobu was born in 1838 and died in 1922, having served as the prime minister of Japan on two separate occasions, the first instance coming in 1898, and the second one in 1914. Other than being a politician with pioneering political views, Shigenobu was also actively involved in scholarship matters and he was the founder of Waseda University.

Shigenobu is also one of the founders of Rikken Kaishinto or the Progressive Party. During his final years, Okuma took a break from politics and briefly became marquees. It is hard to separate Shigenobu’s biographical information from his involvement in the Meiji government and his subsequent fallout with this regime. The renowned statesman was also an ardent supporter of the Western sciences and other outlying cultures. This paper is a biography of Okuma Shigenobu, the Japanese statesman, democracy advocate, and champion of academic freedom.

Early Life

Okuma hailed from Saga, a city that lies in the southwestern region of Japan and he was the first-born son of a Samurai father. As a child, Okuma received basic formal education but he later developed an unusual interest in Western studies. The would-be politician was mainly educated on a repertoire of Confucian literature and other Japanese works but the change for him came when he enrolled in an institution that focused on Dutch studies.

Consequently, he learned how to speak English, a language that had not yet gained prominence in Japan at the time. After learning English, he was able to read two major works that had a major impact on his future thinking, the Bible, and the American Declaration of Independence. When he was part of the loyalist party in Hizen, Okuma “supported the policy of union between court and shogunate” (Idditti and Prifti 43). As a scholar in the Dutch institution, he concentrated on a wide range of subjects including English, International law, and other cultural subjects.

Okuma’s chance to engage in politics on the national level resulted from the Meiji regime’s efforts to recruit politicians from remote areas of Japan. Therefore, Okuma and other representatives from Saga became part of the Meiji Restoration. The newly elected official’s main claim to fame was his vast wealth of knowledge of Western interests. His forceful personality also worked to his advantage because he was known for getting things done.

Throughout his induction into the Meiji Restoration, Okuma’s agenda for speedy Westernization remained intact. Under Meiji Restoration, he served as a finance minister and also started mentoring youth and inducting them into leadership. Okuma became the most influential figure in the government after the senior-most politician in the Meiji regime (Toshimichi Okubo) died. Nevertheless, the politician’s newly found fortunes were short-lived because he competed with Ito, another influential figure in the government. Furthermore, his controversial agitation for the adoption of Western-style democracy soon led to his dismissal from the government in 1881.

Political Life

The former prime minister’s political life began with the Meiji Restoration’s need to solidify its political power soon after it regained control of Japan. As a renowned figure from the formerly politically sidelined region of Saga, Okuma was suddenly thrust into the limelight. Armed with a strong personality, Okuma’s first tactic was to capitalize on his relationship with Inoue Kaoru, a key figure in Tokyo’s politics. After the “Boshin War” of 1868, his first notable assignment was in the foreign affairs office and he was soon accorded extra assignment as “head of Japan’s monetary reform program” in the newly formed Meiji government.

In 1869, the government official was entrusted with a prestigious mandate as the chief secretary in the Ministry of Finance. It was during his tenure as the finance chief when he spearheaded modernization reforms in Japan’s monetary system. Historians reckon that these early fiscal reforms had a great impact on Japan’s success during the industrial revolution (Beasley 47). Okuma’s political star continued to shine when he became a councilor in 1870 and a minister of finance in 1873. Another remarkable reform by the minister was relieving all stand-by Samurais and giving them a one-off payment, thereby eliminating a lingering financial burden for the Meiji administration. Unification of Japanese currency and the creation of an independent ministry of industry in Japan also occurred when Okuma was a minister.

The turning point for the politician’s career came in 1881 when the government sought the input of its officials regarding the proposals of a new constitution. During this time, the outspoken Okuma caught his fellow politicians when he fronted the idea for the adoption of British-style democracy in Japan. He shocked his colleagues “by urging the government to hold elections the next year and establish a parliament and a cabinet responsible to the parliament” (Beasley 98).

He was expelled from the Meiji administration in the same year due to a series of misunderstandings with the high-ranking officials, but they all stemmed from his strong stand on democratization. Even after he departed from the Meiji Restoration, the clamor for a new constitution failed to die down due to increasing pressure from the masses. The emperor bowed to the pressure and by February 1, 1889, the constitution of Japan had been ratified.

Outside of the Meiji administration, Okuma continued with his political activities and went on to form the Constitutional Progressive Party. This party was formed to agitate for the introduction of a parliamentary-based democratic system in Japan. Soon the party began to attract other notable political figures of the time including Inukai Tsuyoshi and Ozaki Yukio. In 1882, Okuma concentrated his efforts on founding an academic institution that was initially named “Tokyo Semmon Gakko” in Waseda. Later on, the school was to become Waseda University, a renowned institution of higher learning in Japan.

In his political life, Okuma served as the Japanese prime minister on two separate occasions; in 1998 and again between 1914 and 1916. Nonetheless, his major political contributions include his continued opposition to the Meiji oligarchy. Even though Ito and Okuma were fierce rivals in politics, the latter still gave Ito a position as minister of foreign affairs in 1888. Ito’s main duty at the time was to negotiate with the West about prevailing treaties. In 1889, the Prime Minister was a victim of a ‘terrorist’ attack that left his leg amputated. This incident was also the reason behind Okuma’s first retirement from politics.

The statesman ventured into politics again in 1896 using the Progressive Party as his vehicle. In the following year, the reigning Prime Minister, Matsukata Masayoshi, included Okuma in his cabinet. Nevertheless, he abandoned his position but not before managing to effect some changes to existing treaties. In 1898, “Okuma co-founded the Kenseito (Constitutional Government Party), by merging his Shimpoto with Itagaki Taisuke’s Jiyuto, became Prime Minister, and was appointed by the Emperor to form the first bipartisan cabinet in Japanese history” (Beasley 94).

However, his newly appointed cabinet failed as a result of internal strife. His second retirement from politics came in 1908 when he ceased being the leader of the Constitutional Government Party. Thereafter, Okuma turned his attention to scholarship through his presidency at Waseda University.

Later Political Life

Okuma found his way back to the political limelight in 1914 during the era of the constitutional crisis, when he was elected as the Prime Minister. This return to power came after Yamamoto Gonnohyoe’s government resigned following the “Siemens scandal whereby it became apparent that the German organization was remitting illegal money to the Japanese navy in form of kickbacks” (Skrzypczak 39). Following this resignation, Okuma was quick to form a coalition that later constituted the government. In his second stint as the Premier, foreign policy was the main forte of his government. Furthermore, it was also during this period when Japan entered World War I together with the Allies, by declaring war on Germany.

In 1915, Okuma was also instrumental in drafting Japan’s ultimatum to China. During his second stint as Prime Minister, there was relative ease that resulted from his previous experience and the fact that Japan was enjoying an economic boom as a result of war activities. His cabinet was however brought down by the Oura scandal prompting most of his government officials to resign. Eventually, even Okuma resigned from the government in 1916 although he had initially hesitated. In the same year, Okuma finally resigned from politics for the last time. The former politician retreated to Waseda where he met his death in 1922. He was accorded a state funeral that was attended by a record-breaking crowd of three hundred thousand people at Hibiya Park.

Educational Contributions and Legacy

Although Okuma was an internationally known figure, his fame culminated in his hometown of Saga. This position is solidified by the erection of a bronze statue in the place where he once called home, in his native province of Saga. Another of Okuma’s bronze statue also appears at Diet Building where his famous likeness stands beside Hirobumi Ito and Taisuke Itagaki. This statue honors him as the foremost figure in the agitation of a parliamentary system of government. At Waseda University, “there is also a statue of Okuma dressed in a robe with a firmly-set mouth in the front grounds of the institution” (Idditti and Prifti 29).

His fame as an educator stretches beyond Waseda and his work as a pioneer educator is recognized around the country. Initially, Okuma was synonymous with his diplomacy because he was welcoming to all cultures of the world. Therefore, at any given time he would entertain several diplomats from around the world at his residence. Although he has been dead for almost a century, it is customary for foreigners to visit the Okuma Auditorium and give lectures in his honor. This deep-rooted practice is meant to pay homage to the person who is credited with modernizing Japan. His philosophy on education can be summarized through these famous words:

“This is an ocean with a complicated society. What will be the compass to guide us over the seas? Knowledge. While you have gathered the necessary knowledge, it is still only the beginning. Travelers on the voyages which will appear in the future can’t be kept away from the compass and barometer. What is that barometer? That is knowledge. You must take on every job with a book in hand. You must always carry a book. Those who don’t will fail immediately, finishing life unable to regain the power of society.” (Idditti and Prifti 29).

On his steadfast nature even in the face of strong opposition, Okuma once retorted that it was not about success or failure, but doing what is morally right. Consequently, he was never afraid to meet with failure on some occasions as long as his moral compass was in order. These views also align with the statesman mantra of ‘do well unto others’. This mantra is sourced from the famous manuscripts of “Hegakure”, and it helps in explaining his long service to the Japanese people and the influence that his early education had on him.

The statesman was also convinced that longevity could be achieved through simple practices and habits. Although he never had it easy during his tenure as a politician and statesman, most scholars are now in agreement that Okuma Shigenobu had a hand in changing the history of Japan (Skrzypczak 84).

Works Cited

Beasley, William. The Rise of Modern Japan: Political, Economic, and Social Change since 1850. New York: Macmillan, 2000. Print.

Idditti, Smimasa, and Peter Prifti. The Life of Marquis Shigenobu Okuma: A Maker of New Japan. New York: Macmillan, 2006. Print.

Skrzypczak, Edmund. Japan’s Modern Century. London: Sophia University, 1998. Print.

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