by Jolin Chan
How did Prince Konoe Fumimaro, once described as morose, lazy, and someone with no ambitions, end up shaping much of twentieth-century Japan?
A year later, Konoe published “Reject the Anglo-American-Centered Peace” (英米本位の平和主義を排す), an essay that criticized the hypocrisy of Western superpowers. Western governments, like the United States, constantly preached democracy and self-determination, but Prince Konoe pointed out that their racial discrimination fueled imperialism. His call for justice and equality among nations would influence his work at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919.
Prince Kinmochi Saionji, a Japanese genrō (a retired statesman) who was once Prime Minister, took Konoe under his wing and convinced him to attend the Paris Peace Conference. He and other Japanese diplomats proposed the Racial Equality Proposal as an amendment to the Treaty of Versailles. The proposal was meant to guarantee racial equality for all nations, an important goal for Japanese officials, who felt that Japan was seen as inferior to other countries like the United States and Great Britain. It would also be critical for Japanese immigrants. America, since 1882, had implemented its Chinese Exclusion Act, and anti-Asian sentiment, in general, was continuing to grow. For example, California’s Alien Land Law of 1913 prohibited Japanese immigrants from owning land.
At the conference, Ambassador Baron Makino explained their reasoning:
“If just and equal treatment is denied to certain nationals, it would have the significance of a certain reflection on their quality and status. Their faith in the justice and righteousness which are to be the guiding spirit of the future international intercourse between the Members of the League may be shaken, and such a frame of mind, I am afraid, would be most detrimental to that harmony and cooperation, upon which foundation alone can the League now contemplated be securely built.”
For Konoe and Japan, however, the Paris Peace Conference and the proposal were unsuccessful. It only proved what Konoe had written about the year before: American imperialism was destructive and hypocritical.
In 1918, United States President Woodrow Wilson ended his speech to Congress with these few sentences:
“I have spoken thus only that the whole world may know the true spirit of America—that men everywhere may know that our passion for justice and for self-government is no mere passion of words but a passion which, once set in action, must be satisfied. The power of the United States is a menace to no nation or people. It will never be used in aggression or for the aggrandizement of any selfish interest of our own. lt springs out of freedom and is for the service of freedom.”
Based on his speech, justice and self-government were major priorities for the United States—and so was being unselfish. Yet, what happened during the Paris Peace Conference sent out a different message.
The proposal received majority approval and support from countries like France, Italy, Greece, Czechoslovakia, Brazil, and China. However, the United States and Britain were the major barriers to the proposal. Britain decided not to vote, and President Wilson chose to overturn it using the unanimity rule, even though the majority of nations approved it. Thus, Wilson’s decision reflected Japan’s original reason for introducing such a proposal.
The Treaty of Versailles was critical, ending World War I and establishing hope for peace. Yet, what is less known is what the treaty could have meant for the twentieth-century world. Furthermore, for many ordinary people around the globe not involved with the Paris Peace Conference or the creation of treaties, it was a symbolic loss. British Columbia resident Harry Hastings was outspoken regarding the rejection of the proposal and racial inequality in general. Hastings was part of a growing Asian consciousness that emerged during the period (Siemens 11). In a letter to the editor, responding to the Victoria Daily Colonist newspaper, he wrote, “Japan’s stand is a test of sincerity of the white races,” which reflected some Japanese intellectuals’ ideas of the proposal being a “litmus test of the sincerity of Wilsonian idealism.”
Prince Konoe’s role in pushing the Racial Equality Proposal was just a moment in his career that eventually reached the level of prime minister in 1940. From an early age, he had goals of bringing democracy to Japan and defending Japan’s status since he was well aware of Anglo-American imperialism maintaining the global status quo. The failure at the Paris Peace Conference did not deter him from pursuing new reforms for the representative government. However, he was generally viewed as a weak leader and resigned as Prime Minister in 1941 after being unable to negotiate a peaceful resolution.
His role in helping formulate the US-Japanese relations that would lead to World War II was critical, and it had roots in the Racial Equality Proposal. This proposal, around twenty years before World War II, not only further proved the United States’ hypocrisy but was a step toward a war that would once again entangle the globe.
1. Fumimaro Konoe, Jenny Chan, and Barbara Halperin, Prince Konoe Memoir: The Secret Negotiations Between Japan and the US Before Pearl Harbor (San Francisco, CA: Pacific Atrocities Education, 2020), 2.
2. Fumimaro Konoe, Jenny Chan, and Barbara Halperin, 3.
3. Josh Axelrod, “A Century Later: The Treaty Of Versailles And Its Rejection Of Racial Equality,” NPR, August 11, 2019.
4. Preliminary Peace Conference, Protocol No. 5, Plenary Session of April 28, 1919, ed. Joseph V. Fuller and Tyler Dennett.
5. Woodrow Wilson, “Address to Congress on International Order,” 1918, The American Presidency Project.
6. Kathryn Siemens, “Harry Hastings and the Racial Equality Proposal,” British Columbia History 49, no. 3 (2016), 1; Siemens, 12.
7. Gordon M. Berger, “Japan’s Young Prince. Konoe Fumimaro’s Early Political Career, 1916-1931,” Monumenta Nipponica 29, no. 4 (1974), 458.
8. Berger, 465.
Axelrod, Josh. “A Century Later: The Treaty Of Versailles And Its Rejection Of Racial Equality.” NPR, August 11, 2019. https://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2019/08/11/742293305/a-century-later-the-treaty-of-versailles-and-its-rejection-of-racial-equality.
Berger, Gordon M. “Japan’s Young Prince. Konoe Fumimaro’s Early Political Career, 1916-1931.” Monumenta Nipponica 29, no. 4 (1974): 451–75. https://doi.org/10.2307/2383896.
First Konoe Cabinet. Wikimedia Commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:First_Konoe_Cabinet.jpg.
Konoe, Fumimaro, Jenny Chan, and Barbara Halperin. Prince Konoe Memoir: The Secret Negotiations Between Japan and the US Before Pearl Harbor. San Francisco, CA: Pacific Atrocities Education, 2020.
Preliminary Peace Conference, Protocol No. 5, Plenary Session of April 28, 1919. Edited by Joseph V. Fuller and Tyler Dennett. https://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1919Parisv03/d7.
Siemens, Kathryn. “Harry Hastings and the Racial Equality Proposal.” British Columbia History 49, no. 3 (2016): 9–14. https://search-ebscohost-com.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=31h&AN=118071517&site=ehost-live&scope=site.
Wilson, Woodrow. “Address to Congress on International Order,” 1918, The American Presidency Project. https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/311360.
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