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The world of the “Okuma Letters”

『Letters relating to Shigenobu Okuma』Editor

Shigenobu Okuma, the founder of Waseda University, was a man who left great footprints from the final days of the Tokugawa Shogunate and the Meiji Restoration until the end of the Taisho Era, and Waseda University Library is home to “Ookuma Bunsho (Okuma Letters)”, a vast collection of letters addressed to Okuma. The majority of these letters was written by people with connections to Okuma, and because they were writing on various business relating to Okuma, there can be understating the great value these letters have in, not only Okuma’s personal field of research, but also research in modern Japanese politics, economics, society and culture.

Waseda University Archives has individually researched and reproduced the Japanese letters in “Okuma Letters”, including those from the Center and the Okuma Memorial Museum in Saga City, to publish them as “Ookuma Shigenobu Kankei Bunsho (Letters relating to Shigenobu Okuma” (Misuzu Shobo). The first volume was published in October 2004 as part of Waseda University’s 125th anniversary commemorative projects, and this project will be completed at the end of the year with the publication of the 11th volume.

Here, in addition to reproduced materials on Tomomi Iwakura, Toshimichi Okubo, Hirobumi Ito and Yukichi Fukuzawa among others, published by other universities and research institutions, the thorough collection of letters to Okuma will shine a new light on the whole story of the era.

A vast amount consisting of 6606 letters written by 1383 people has been covered in the 10 volumes of “Letters relating to Shigenobu Okuma” (“Letters” hereinafter), and below, as editor of “Letters”, I would like to introduce a tiny fraction of those.

Waseda Universtiy Archives “Letters relating to Shigenobu Okuma” (Misuzu Shobo)

A letter to Shigenobu Okuma (donated by Yoshikazu Masuda)

1 Shigenobu Okuma and the former Mint Bureau (now Japan Mint)
(Hirobumi Ito letter to Shigenobu Okuma July 6, 1870)

After a general inspection, I feel the day of its completion is gradually nearing. In fact, in regards to the design on the coin, I was asked if I agreed with the proposal by bureau chief Kinder and vice-Finance Minister Inoue of changing it to be like a photographic diagram. In response to this, I agreed with the change. I have mentioned the change, but They will change the reverse side and the front side will remain the same.
As there are only a few days remaining until the completion, I intend to have the engraving of the coin design commenced immediately. I would like to choose a place close and convenient to the Mint Bureau for a station of Osaka Railway. (“Letters” Vol.1 pp.196)

Opening of the railroad (Shimbashi Station)

This is part of a letter Hirobumi Ito sent from Osaka. Through negotiations with British envoy Harry Smith Parkes, Okuma was a leading figure in the Meiji Restoration government. In the beginning his work involved diplomatic relations, but by 1869 Okuma became in charge of finance and domestic affairs, playing an active role as a supporter of the push for modernization policies. At this time, Okuma’s residence was called “Tsukuji Ryozanpaku” where bureaucrats such as Ito, Kaoru Inoue, Tomoatsu Godai and Eiichi Shibusawa would gather and hold discussions that led to creation of various reform proposals.

Among those, there were discussions on the monetary system and railroad construction. There were many opposing voices within the government, but Okuma and others urged their necessity and energetically worked towards realization. In order to solve problems which had arisen at the time, Ito went to the Kansai region and reported the situation in this letter. Ito reported to Okuma that the Mint Bureau was near completion and sent Kinder and Inoue’s proposal for the “design inscription” and urged an immediate decision. He also planned to locate the station near the Mint Bureau for convenient transport. It also gives us a glance at how they unreservedly tried to put to use new technology.

In this way, “Letters” contains many good references which give us an understanding of the actual situation of the modernization policies of the day.

2 Letter regarding the closure of the Tokyo Senmon Gakko Law Department
(Azusa Ono letter to Shigenobu Okuma June 5, 1885)

In other words, because it is a law department established under the aims of teaching English law, if no suitable teachers are available, we have decided that lessons will be temporarily suspended. Be sure not to teach French law part way through and gradually change the original aim of teaching English law. (“Letters” Vol.3 pp.192)

First graduation photo of Tokyo Senmon Gakko in 1884

This is a letter from Azusa Ono, one of the founders of Tokyo Senmon Gakko (now Waseda University). Founded in 1882, Tokyo Senmon Gakko began with four departments, Political Science and Economics, Law, Science, and English. However, from the outset, Tokyo Senmon Gakko faced financial difficulties and had trouble securing teachers. In 1885, the abolition of the law department was looked into due to a lack of teachers. As this letter was written during these circumstances, Ono suggested to Okuma that if the original purpose of the law department, “English law”, that is to say, if teachers who can teach English law couldn’t be appointed, then it would be inevitable to “temporarily suspend” lessons. Through this letter, we can see the sincere personality of Ono trying to accomplish the original ideals of the department, even in troubling circumstances. In this crisis, Okuma insisted on retaining the department regardless of the predicament, and continued running it.

The Tokyo Senmon Gakko law department later became the Waseda University School of Law. When looking at the growth of the School of Law today, this letter gives us a glimpse of the struggles and efforts of the predecessors at the time of the school’s establishment.

3 Letter regarding the assassination attempt on Foreign Minister Shigenobu Okuma
(Yukio Ozaki letter to Shigenobu Okuma October 30, 1889)

Dear Sir
I was extremely shocked to hear of the attempt on your life on October 18 in a telegram I received the following day. Additionally, I was even more surprised to hear that your injured leg was amputated. Although your position is one where you must be prepared to dedicate yourself to the country and the Emperor, to be attacked by a deranged man is most upsetting and nothing but a cowardly act.
But in saying so, I believe that you not falling by the poisoned hand of that deranged man are proof that Providence has not yet abandoned Japan. I hope you put your recuperation above everything else and pray for a speedy recovery. (“Letters” Vol.33 pp.146)

December 14, 1889 Shigenobu Okuma while convalescing
※All photographs courtesy of Waseda University Archives

Yukio Ozaki, also known as the god of the constitutional government, had close ties with Okuma. The above letter was written by Ozaki in sympathy with Okuma who was seriously injured in a bomb attack and gives us a glimpse of the relationship between the pair.

A revision of the unequal treaties was one of modern Japan’s longstanding desires. Okuma took over the post of Foreign Minister from Kaoru Inoue and conducted negotiations with each country, succeeding in concluding new treaties with some countries, however England proved to be as reluctant as ever. When British newspapers revealed that foreign judges were to be appointed to Japanese Supreme Court cases where a foreigner was the defendant, huge opposition erupted throughout Japan, creating a situation of divided public opinion. The assassination attempt took place amid this period of unrest, and Okuma unavoidably relinquished his post as foreign minister and negotiations on treaty revisions were cancelled.

The Peace Preservation Law was in place at this time and Ozaki was studying in England. Ozaki’s surprise and indignation at hearing of the attack on Okuma from a faraway land is well expressed in this letter. In the letter Ozaki expresses his disappointment to the government’s response to the chaos and on his return to Japan, as a Lower House member of the Constitutional Reform Party, strongly opposed the government.


I have only introduced three letters, but these fundamentally differ from works compiled and written in later generations and reveal a vivid cross-section of history. Recently, the discovery of the last letters written by Ryoma Sakamoto have made headlines, and with “Iwakura Tomomi Kankei Shiryou (Materials relating to Tomomi Iwakura” and “Okubo Toshimichi Kankei Shiryou (Materials relating to Toshimichi Okubo)” being designated as national important cultural properties, modern history works have become highly recognized.

In addition to the paper version of “Letters relating to Shigenobu Okuma”, an e-book version (online, Kinokuniya Net Library) has also been released. With this publication, we can only expect even more active research and application of “Okuma Letters” , both within and outside the university.

『Letters relating to Shigenobu Okuma』Editor