Shigenobu Okuma: Founder of Waseda University


Sometimes it’s the small things that define an experience. That coffee shop you studied in, that little old lady you said hi to every morning… or maybe that statue that you’ve walked by a million times. Most people who have studied at or visited Waseda University have stopped to take a picture in front of the statue of Shigenobu Okuma, the university’s founder and an important figure in Japanese history. Okuma (1838-1922) was a politician who served at various times as the Minister of Finance, Foreign Minister, and Prime Minister (twice) of Japan. Among his many accomplishments, he unified Japan’s currency and created the national mint and a separate Ministry of Industry. He was also an early advocate of Western science and culture in Japan.

I was affiliated with Waseda University last year, before I left to return to the US, and one of Waseda’s monthly newsletter had some interesting tidbits about the statue. It was built in 1932 to commemorate Waseda’s 50-year anniversary. Okuma is wearing a square academic cap, a Waseda symbol, and an academic gown. It is said that Okuma preferred a brighter orange gown over the dark red one. His gown is preserved in the Okuma Memorial Hall inside the Aizu Memorial Museum. The original Okuma statue was actually built in 1907 to celebrate Waseda’s 25th anniversary. However, some people felt that full formal dress did not suit Okuma’s image, thus plans to redesign a new statue began. The first statue is now located in the north side hallway in the Okuma Auditorium.

If you look closely, you will see that Okuma is holding a cane, as one of his legs was a prosthetic. During his term as the Foreign Minister, when he was attempting to renew an unequal treaty made during the Edo Period, he was attacked by bomb terrorists and lost his right leg, and spent the rest of his life with a prosthetic leg.

You might also noticed that the Okuma statue faces an angle and not straight ahead. The explanation behind this lies in another statue of his wife Ayako placed inside the Okuma Gardens. It is said that the two statues actually stand gazing in each other’s direction. The statue of Ayako Okuma is the only statue of a female figure, and there was some controversy at the time regarding her placement inside the campus, which is why she stands in her current location inside the Okuma Gardens.

The next time you’re in the Waseda area, why not go and see for yourself?

Here are some photos related to the above stories:

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