Fumimaro Konoe, 3rd Prince Konoe (Kyūjitai: 近衞 文麿, Shinjitai: 近衛 文麿, Konoe Fumimaro) (sometimes Konoye, October 12 1891–December 16 1945) was a Japanese politician and the 34th (June 4 1937–January 5 1939), 38th (July 22 1940–July 18 1941) and 39th (July 18 1941–October 18 1941) Prime Minister of Japan.
Prince Fumimaro Konoe was born into the ancient Fujiwara clan, and was the heir of the princely Konoe family in Tokyo. This was a highly prestigious Japanese family, so lofty that the older and more powerful noble, Saionji Kinmochi, addressed the young student as "your excellency" when he first met him. The Prince received a broad education, acquiring both German and English. He was particularly drawn to Socialist writings, and at age 23 translated and published Oscar Wilde’s The Soul of Man Under Socialism.
Konoe’s father, Atsumaro, had been politically active, having organized the Anti-Russia Society in 1903. Atsumaro had been considered a potential candidate for Prime Minister, but unfortunately died in 1904. That left Konoe with the title of Prince, plenty of social standing but not much money, and plenty of room for a mentor/father-figure. That mentor was Saionji. Even so, Konoe never fully embraced his mentor’s pro-Western attitudes.
Prince Konoe convinced Saionji to include him in the Japanese delegation to the Paris Peace Conference, 1919. Konoe made a considerable public splash in 1918 when he published—in advance of Versailles—an essay titled Reject the Anglo-American-Centered Peace. He wrote approvingly of the ideals of democracy and humanitarianism, and his expectation that these values would come to permeate Japanese society. However, he castigated Japanese leaders who seemed enthralled by the British and the Americans and who spoke in favor of Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points and the League of Nations. The Japanese should realize that these countries used idealism as "a mask for their own self-interest."
Konoe asserted that the proposed League of Nations was designed to cement the hegemony of the victorious nations. This could mean that the late-comers, like Japan, would be frozen out of economic and political opportunities. The upcoming peace conference should break the hold of economic imperialism, or else the League and its enforced arms reductions would relegate Japan to permanent inferiority.
Apparently, Saionji had not seen the article, or had not taken it seriously. However, when the press picked up on it, he reprimanded Konoe. Saionji felt very strongly that Japan’s foreign policy depended upon good relations with Britain, France, and the US. He did not want that relationship threatened by a young hothead.
Once the conference was concluded, Konoe left the delegation and visited France and Germany, then England and the United States. He wrote an essay on the conference, concluding that the powerful had won out. He noted the refusal to adopt the racial equality clause, proposed by a weak country, but the conference’s adoption of a US-demanded clause that enshrined the Monroe Doctrine. Even so, he gave credit to Wilson for trying to forge something new and progressive, and observed that time would tell whether the ideals of the League would make a difference.
Konoe as a traveler was very taken with Western society. He liked the informality of manners, the food, even the fact that one didn’t have to wear a kimono for a formal dinner and could leave shoes on all day. He thought the manners of the British aristocracy were very democratic in comparison to the Japanese nobility, where "…everything is bound by tradition, imperfection, and artificiality. I think they [the nobility] need reform from top to bottom."
He gained favorable public attention by supporting a universal manhood suffrage bill in 1925, despite the reservations of his fellow nobles. Even though Saionji considered him brash and "ill-informed," Konoe was considered his protégée by all parties, including Saionji himself. Despite his outspokenness, Prince Konoe was destined to achieve the very heights of political life in Japan. His title gave him a seat in the upper chamber of the Diet, and in 1933, he was elected President of the House of Peers.
Prince Konoe went on to serve three times as Japan’s Prime Minister.
In June 1937, Prince Konoe Fumimaro became Prime Minister of Japan. Saionji had recommended Konoe to emperor Showa despite his hesitations, because he felt that the Prince might be able to keep the Army in check and protect the position of the Emperor. One month after he came into office, Japanese troops clashed with Chinese troops near Peking Marco Polo Bridge Incident. The Kwantung Army and its homeland allies saw this as an opportunity to seize northern China. Konoe yielded to pressure and dispatched three divisions of troops. He admonished the military to be sure not to escalate the conflict. The Army had no such intention, and within three weeks it launched a general assault.
Prime Minister Konoe began to realize that he was in a very difficult predicament. Much as he wished to contain the conflict, even considering personal diplomacy with Chiang, he and his cabinet feared that Japanese troops would not respect any peace agreement. He was also unsure that Chiang could control his own forces. In August, Chinese soldiers murdered two Japanese marines in Shanghai. Konoe agreed with the Army Minister to send two divisions to defend Japanese honor. His cabinet then issued a declaration, accusing both nationalist and communist Chinese of "increasingly provocative and insulting" behavior toward Japan. The declaration ended:
In this matter, the Chinese have contemptuously inflicted every sort of awful outrage upon Imperial Japan…. Imperial Japan has at long last exhausted its patience and is now compelled to take resolute action to punish the atrocious Chinese army and to bring the Nanking government to its senses.
These incidents became the basis for a full-scale war against China. Fellow Cabinet members describe Konoe as remarkably passive during their discussions of how to respond to the Chinese. Konoe's biographer suggests that his subject was shocked by how little control he had over the military, and at how factional the military itself was. One member confided to his diary, quoting Konoe, "Right now the civilian government is too weak to do anything. Worse, the military is so divided that we do not know who to deal with…."
To assure central control of the military, Hirohito created in October 1937 the Imperial General Headquarters, a structure completely autonomous from the government. Thus, even the supreme Army command had the right to take actions and inform the Prime Minister afterward.
In December, Imperial General Headquarters ordered the Army to drive toward Nanking, the Nationalist's capital. This was accomplished within a few weeks during which the Army committed the infamous Nanking massacre. Such aggressive moves were received exuberantly by an elated public and press, inspired in part by the National Spiritual Mobilization Movement, as the Imperial army seemed invincible.
Konoe's biographer reports that the seizure of Chiang's capital left "the entire nation… lightheaded over the victory." This was the apex of Japanese military success in China, and the government's peace proposals to Chiang were suitably ambitious:
The list of demands went on, essentially asking Chiang to accept Japan's large involvement in continental Asia, and to head a puppet regime in whatever area Japan allowed him sway. Chiang refused.
Frustrated, Konoe's government announced that it would no longer deal with Chiang, but would await the development of a new regime. Meanwhile, the Army and its right-wing allies pushed a national "mobilization" bill through the Diet. This allowed the central government to control all manpower and material, and to ignore the Diet in times of war. Konoe was in despair, and asked the Emperor to allow him to resign.
Army victories continued: Hsuchow, Hankow, Canton, Wuchang, Hanyang--but still the Chinese kept on fighting. Konoe was not the only one to be frustrated, the Army wanted a settlement so that it could transfer more troops to the north in order to be prepared for combat with the Soviet Union. Attempts were made to establish a puppet Chinese government, under Nationalist defector Wang Ching-wei, but this also proved unsuccessful. Konoe, stating that he was tired of being a "robot" for the military, resigned in January 1939.
Konoe was also discouraged over his failure to negotiate an end to the conflict in China Sino-Japanese War, having broken off the Trautmann Mediation with Chiang Kai-Shek (Jiang Jieshi). This action was also of great importance for the Communist Party of China, as it has been argued that following the Rape of Nanking Chiang Kai-Shek's failure to break off the Trautmann Mediation led to the perception that the entire Kuomintang was weak. Kiichiro Hiranuma succeeded him as Prime Minister.
Against the advice of his political allies, and the misgivings of the Emperor, Konoe appointed Yosuke Matsuoka as his foreign minister. Matsuoka was on good terms with the Army—indeed, he had been recommended by the Army. He was also popular with the Japanese public, having established himself as the man who angrily led Japan out of the League in 1933. Matsuoka was described as inventive, eloquent, headstrong, and quick to anger. Konoe knew he was not acquiring a tame cabinet member, but he hoped that Matsuoka would be able to navigate the deeply complex international waters to Japan's advantage.
Konoe and Matsuoka based their foreign policy on a document that had been drawn up by the Army. Army theorists saw Japan standing on the verge of a new world. To secure its place, it must create a New Order in Greater East Asia, based on the proper alignment of Japan-Manchukuo-China. Dubbing this the "Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere," Matsuoka publicly announced that this should also include Indochina (nominally French) and the East Indies (nominally Dutch). Within the government, it was agreed that Japan would try to secure its position in China, defuse the conflict with the Soviet Union, move troops into Indochina, and prepare for a military response from Britain and possibly the United States.
With the fall of the French government, and the creation of the Vichy regime, French Indochina was left completely vulnerable. In September, 1940, Japan pushed the local authorities to allow it to station troops in their territory. Meanwhile, Hitler had decided that a more firm alliance with Japan would secure a potential ally against the Soviets. He also hoped that this would increase US anxiety over its Pacific flank, and disrupt the growing Anglo-American alliance, which was predominantly focused on Europe. This fit nicely with Matsuoka's plans, and on September 27, 1940, the Tripartite Pact was signed. Japan, Germany, and Italy were now allied. Each pledged to recognize the other's sphere of influence. Each pledged to come to each other's aid if a new party (presumably the US) entered the fray. Each agreed that the pact did not change current relations with the Soviet Union. In fact, Germany assured Japan that it would help broker a neutrality agreement with the Russians—something that Matsuoka dearly sought.
The Germans followed through on their promise. In October, Ribbentrop proposed to Stalin the idea of a conference to reach a complete understanding about spheres of influence. The German Foreign Minister suggested that Foreign Minister Molotov come to Berlin to begin negotiations. Molotov duly arrived in November. George Kennan says that the Russians overplayed their hand. Believing that Hitler needed Russian neutrality in order to defeat Britain, Stalin prepared a strong set of initial demands, which Hitler had no intention of accepting. Hitler decided not to respond, and instead instructed his military to begin planning for an attack on the Soviet Union.
Matsuoka attempted to secure Japan's position with a further agreement. On his journey back through Russia, he stopped in Moscow and negotiated a Neutrality agreement with Molotov and Stalin. Japan agreed to relinquish mineral extraction rights in the Northern half of Sakhalin, but otherwise made no concessions. For Japan, the pact made it less likely that the US and Russia would team up against them. Stalin, feeling that he had reduced the prospect of a combined Axis attack, was so pleased that he personally came to the station to see Matsuoka off. In one of the great ironies of the war, this neutrality agreement was honored by both sides—for different reasons—until 1945.
There was only one problem with the document. Each side believed that it represented the starting position of the other side, but in reality, it had been drawn up by two American Maryknoll priests and two mid-level Japanese officials. The Japanese Ambassador to the US Nomura Kichisaburo knew this, but managed to give each government the idea that the other had already agreed to the draft as the basis for negotiation. Konoe was elated by this development, and began to line up support for the idea of a summit conference in Hawaii. But Secretary of State Cordell Hull and Roosevelt had no intention of bargaining from this draft. Throughout the next six months, Konoe continued to hope that somehow he would convince Roosevelt to meet with him and settle differences—without having to give up Japanese hegemony in East Asia. He never succeeded.
Opposition to Konoe's diplomatic initiative began at home. Matsuoka was furious that Konoe had offered concessions behind his back. He bitterly opposed this line, believing that Japan must be firm with the Americans. Konoe was unable to wear him down, and was afraid of the Army's reaction if he overrode the Foreign Minister. In the end, Matsuoka gutted the draft, replacing it with a reiteration of Japan's "co-prosperity" policy. This document was conveyed to the Americans on May 12, and found to be unacceptable.
On June 22, 1941, Germany invaded the Soviet Union and once again Japan was caught completely by surprise. Hurried conferences took place at the highest levels. The question was whether this represented an opportunity for Japan? Both army and navy representatives agreed that the time was right for a military occupation of all of French Indochina. This would position them well for dominance of southern China, and of the entire region, including the oil-producing Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia). Matsuoka argued that, on the contrary, this was the perfect time to attack the Soviet Union.
In the end, the formal leadership group, called the Imperial Headquarters-Cabinet Liaison Conference, agreed on the "southern" strategy. Nevertheless, it also agreed that German progress should be closely monitored. If Hitler was successful, then Japan could strike when the Soviets were at their weakest. The Japanese would pluck the fruit "when the persimmon is ripe." Matsuoka was not reconciled to this decision, nor to Konoe's attempt to negotiate with the United States. He transmitted a provocative statement to Hull, and informed the Soviet Ambassador that the Axis agreement took precedence over the Japan-Soviet neutrality pact. Konoe resigned, only to form a new government without Matsuoka as Foreign Minister. The new Foreign Minister assured the Soviet Ambassador that Japan would honor the neutrality agreement, even though Germany was urging its Japanese ally to attack the Russians from the east.
On July 28, 1941, Japanese forces occupied all of French Indochina. The United States was forewarned of this move through its monitoring of Japan's cable traffic. Roosevelt immediatedly froze Japanese assets in the United States. Great Britain and the Dutch East Indies government did likewise. Roosevelt also placed an embargo on oil exports to Japan. This was not expected by Konoe and the leadership group. The military had been certain that the US would not take this drastic measure in response to its southern move.
The Japanese military machine ran on American oil. Over 80% of Japan's need was being met through US imports. On July 31, the navy informed the Emperor that Japan's oil stockpiles would be completely depleted in two years. Konoe had been counting on the Navy to restrain the Army from its aggressive designs. Now, however, the Navy Chief of Staff Nagano argued that if war with the US is inevitable, it should start right away.
Konoe made one more desperate attempt to avert war. He proposed a personal summit with Roosevelt–in the United States if necessary–to come to some understanding. Konoe secured backing from the Navy and the Emperor for this move. The Army reluctantly agreed, provided that Konoe adhere to the consensus foreign policy, and be prepared to go to war if his initiative failed. Konoe secretly confided to a friend that he intended to grant further concessions to the US, including withdrawal from China, using direct authority from the Emperor. His friend cautioned that he would be assassinated upon his return. Konoe agreed that this was likely, but felt that it was worth the personal risk.
Roosevelt and Hull played along, even though they felt that negotiations were probably a waste of time. They also doubted that Konoe could make an agreement that was both acceptable to the US and to the militarists at home. Time was what they wanted most. Time to build more airplanes and ships; time to manufacture munitions and train new soldiers; time to rush more supplies to Great Britain and the Soviet Union. Roosevelt told Ambassador Nomura that he would like to see more details of Konoe's proposal, and he suggested that Juneau, Alaska, might be a good spot for a meeting.
On 5 September, Konoe met the Emperor with chiefs of staff Hajime Sugiyama and Osami Nagano. Alarmed, Emperor Showa asked what happened to the negotiations with Roosevelt. Konoe replied that, of course, negotiations were primary, and the military option was only a fall-back position if negotiations failed. The Emperor then questioned Sugiyama about the chances of success of an open war with the Occident. After Sugiyama answered positively, Hirohito scolded him, remembering that the Army had predicted that the invasion of China would be completed in only three months.
The next day the policy about the preparation for war against "United States, England and Holland" was formally proposed at the Imperial Conference. Hara Yoshimichi, the Privy Council President, observed that the plan seemed to put military action ahead of diplomacy. Standing in for the Emperor, he asked if that was the case. The Navy Minister made a reply along the lines that Konoe had stated in his private conference. Then there was silence. No other figure, including Konoe, attempted to answer the question.
The Emperor then stunned the gathering by speaking out. He stated that Hara's question was an important one, and that it was "regrettable" that none of the senior leaders had addressed it. He then read a verse that had been composed by the Emperor Meiji:
He stated that he had often reflected on this verse, which represented the Emperor Meiji's desire for peace, a desire that he shared. Stung by this unexpected rebuke, Navy Chief of Staff Nagano rose to defend the policy, assuring the Emperor that this consensus document was not a decision to go to war and that priority will be given to negotiations.
The Imperial Conference adopted the policy that would result in the attack on Pearl Harbor. The policy established a set of minimum demands that must be met through negotiations. If Konoe's negotiations did not bear fruit by mid-October, Japan would commence hostilities against the United States, the Netherlands, and the UK. The minimum demands included a halt to the economic and oil embargoes, withdrawal of political and economic support for the Chinese Nationalist government, agreement to keep Western military forces in the Pacific at their current level, and non-interference in Japan's attempts to bring "peace" to China. In other words, to accept Japanese hegemony over China, Manchuria, and French Indo-China, and Japanese military primacy in an even broader swath of the East.
While the Emperor received detailed reports from Sugiyama and Nagano about the operations in Southeast Asia and the attack of Pearl Harbor , Prime Minister Konoe made one last desperate attempt to avoid war. That very evening, he arranged a secret dinner conference with US Ambassador Joseph Grew. He told Grew that he was prepared to travel to meet Roosevelt on a moment's notice. The ship had already been prepared. He was convinced that the United States and Japan could reach a true agreement, and when that happened, he would radio back to the palace, and the Emperor would issue a rescript ordering a complete halt to all aggressive activities.
Ambassador Grew was impressed with Konoe's sincerity. He cabled back, urging his superiors to advise Roosevelt to accept the summit proposal. The State Department continued to think that an open-ended summit was a waste of time. If Japan were serious, it would begin meaningful and detailed negotiations that would be affirmed at a summit. Konoe's last push for a diplomatic solution was taken in vain.
Throughout September the Army and Navy continued to prepare for war. Konoe had hoped that the October deadline would not be observed. The Army and Navy leaders disabused him of this notion. Japan had to act soon, because of the oil embargo. Otherwise it would be conceding defeat through delay. This came to a head at a cabinet meeting on October 14. Army Minister Tojo Hideki stated that negotiations had failed, the deadline had passed. Konoe and his allies had become convinced that if the Army would only agree, in principle, to an ultimate withdrawal from China, a negotiated settlement could be reached with the US. This was brought up at the meeting and General Tojo responded heatedly:
To yield to the American demand and withdraw their troops, he exploded, would wipe out all the fruits of the China War, endanger Manchukuo, and jeopardize the governing of Korea. To accept troop withdrawal in name only would not benefit Japan either, he said. Withdrawal would mean retreat. It would depress morale. A demoralized Army would be as worthless as no Army. Our troops in China are the "heart of the matter," he persisted. Having made one concession after another, why should Japan now yield the "heart?" "If we concede this, what is diplomacy? It is surrender … a stain on the history of our empire!"
At the close of this meeting, Konoe realized that he had lost the struggle with the military. He knew that many in the Navy were convinced that war with the United States would end in disaster. Yet he was not able to win Navy backing against the adamant Army stance. Navy Admiral Nagano summed up his service's ambivalent attitude during this period by observing "The government has decided that if there is no war, the fate of the nation is sealed. Even if there is a war, the country may be ruined. Nevertheless, a nation that does not fight in this plight has lost its spirit and is doomed."
Konoe resigned on 16 October 1941, one day after having recommended Prince Naruhiko Higashikuni to the emperor as his successor. Two days later, Hirohito chose General Hideki Tōjō as Prime Minister despite the wish of the Navy and the Army, who would have preferred Prince Higashikuni. In 1946, he explained this decision : "I actually thought Prince Higashikuni suitable as chief of staff of the Army; but I think the appointment of a member of the imperial house to a political office must be considered very carefully. Above all, in time of peace this is fine, but when there is a fear that there may even be a war, then more importantly, considering the welfare of the imperial house, I wonder about the wisdom of a member of the imperial family serving [as prime minister]." . Six weeks later, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor.
Konoe justified his demission to his secretary Kenji Tomita. "Of course his Majesty is a pacifist and he wished to avoid war. When I told him that to initiate war was a mistake, he agreed. But the next day, he would tell me : 'You were worried about it yesterday but you do not have to worry so much.' Thus, gradually he began to lead to war. And the next time I met him, he leaned even more to war. I felt the Emperor was telling me: 'My prime minister does not understand military matters. I know much more.' In short, the Emperor had absorbed the view of the army and the navy high commands."
Konoe played a role in the fall of the Tōjō government in 1944. In February 1945, during the first private audience he had been allowed in three years he advised the Emperor to begin negotiations to end World War II. According to Grand Chamberlain Hisanori Fujita, Hirohito, still looking for a tennozan (a great victory) firmly rejected Konoe's recommendation.
After the beginning of the American occupation, he served in the cabinet of Prince Naruhiko Higashikuni, the first post-war government. Having refused to collaborate with Bonner Fellers in "operation Blacklist" to exonerate Hirohito and the imperial family of criminal responsibility, he came under suspicion of war crimes, in which he faced almost certain conviction and execution by hanging. In December 1945, during the last call by the Americans for alleged war criminals to report to the Americans, he took potassium cyanide poison and committed suicide. It was 1945, exactly 1300 years after his ancestor, Fujiwara no Kamatari, led a coup d'état at court during the Soga clan. So symbolically ended the era of the Fujiwara regents.
His grandson, Morihiro Hosokawa, became prime minister fifty years later.