Okuma Shigenobu, 1840-1900

大熊重信
Prime Minister in 1898 and from 1914-1916.
Cabinet list Okuma Shigenobu cabinet 1
Cabinet list Okuma Shigenobu cabinet 2
Total Tenure as Prime Minister: 1,040 days.
Born in Saga (Hizen feudal domain)

Okuma Shigenobu (Count), 1838-1922, was born in Saga (feudal domain Hizen). He was an early supporter of the anti-Tokugawa movement and entered the Meiji government as one of the few representatives not from the dominating Satsuma and Choshu domains. Okuma's first appointment in government was in 1868, just after the Meiji Restoration, as a diplomatic and commercial official in Nagasaki. His financial expertise and his friendship with the restoration leader Inoue Kaoru led to his initial appointments in the central government in Tokyo as san'yo (junior councillor) in 1868 and later as sangi (councillor).
Following his appointment as minister of finance in 1873, Okuma directed his attention to unifying the currency system, establishing a national mint, and creating a ministry of industry. He wielded considerable political power as the head of the finance ministry. However, unlike his rivals from Satsuma and Choshu, Okuma lacked a domainal base of political support and had to seek other alliances.
A series of political blunders confirmed Okuma's outsider status in the Satsuma-Choshu oligarchy. In 1881 he presented a memorial for the speedy drafting of a constitution on the British model, a plan at variance with the views of other councillors. Finally Okuma made public the proposal of a Satsuma councillor that government assets in Hokkaido be sold to a consortium of businessmen headed by former officials from Satsuma and Choshu. In August 1881 senior councillors demanded Okuma's removal from office. He resigned in October and, soon after, a dozen of his followers resigned or were dismissed. Okuma remained politically active, however, and in 1882 formed Japan's second major political party, the Rikken Kaishinto (Constitutional Reform Party). He founded Tokyo Semmon Gakko the same year, which is today known as Waseda University.
Okuma returned to political office in 1888 as foreign minister and reopened negotiations with the Western powers in an attempt to revise the Unequal Treaties. The treaty he drafted was conciliatory toward the Western powers and brought a strong negative response from the Japanese public. In 1889 Okuma was seriously injured in an assassination attempt by a member of the ultranationalist Gen'yosha (Dark Ocean Society), which cost him a leg.
In 1896 Okuma returned to politics, reorganizing the Kaishinto into a new party, the Shimpoto (Progressive Party). That same year he served again as foreign minister, and in 1897 he also took the post of minister of agriculture and commerce. In 1898 he merged the Shimpoto with Itagaki Taisuke's Jiyuto to form the Kenseito (Constitutional Party). A few days later Okuma and Itagaki were ordered to form a party cabinet, the first in Japan. Itagaki was appointed home minister, while Okuma served concurrently as foreign minister and prime minister. Internal dissension led to the dissolution of the cabinet within four months.
In 1900 Okuma became head of the Kensei Honto, a splinter group of the Kenseito. He resigned in 1907 to become president of Waseda University and withdrew from public affairs. It was called upon him again in 1914, when he was appointed Prime Minister for a second time. His cabinet was notable for presenting the infamous Twenty-One Demands to China. In 1916 he resigned as prime minister and retired from politics. During his last years, he authored the book "The harmony of Eastern and Western Civilizations" (Tozai bunmei no chowa).


Bronze Statue of Okuma Shigenobu in Waseda University, Tokyo