by Maggie Murray
Saionji Kimnochi, the last Genro with an everlasting impact on Imperial Japan, was born in Kyoto in 1849. Biologically the son of Tokudajiji Kinzumi, Prince Saionji was adopted into the Saionji family, a relative and childless kuge(公家) family of similar status. A kuge was a Japanese aristocratic class that dominated the Japanese Imperial Court in Kyoto. As a young child, Saionji was appointed Chamberlain and became a Minor General of the Right Imperial Guard. While his official duties were minimal, it was through this position Saionji became acquainted with and the playmate of the future Meiji Emperor, Mutsuhito. 
At 19, Saionji commanded a Choshu and Satsuma Samurai band during the Boshin Civil War.  Through his successful efforts to pacify Echigo, Saionji was made governor of that same province; however, deeply unsatisfied with an administrative position, Saionji received permission to leave his post and study abroad in France.
During his time in Paris, Saionji attended Emile Acollas’s school for international students and later graduated from Sorbornne with a law degree. Saionji’s close relationship with Acollas and extended European stay shaped his appreciation for Western culture and political thought. With ambitions to return to Japan and become a successful political figure, Saionji cultivated his image for Japan's future. Saionji believed Japan needed to become a constitutional monarchy and undergo a significant cultural shift to modernize. That is, Japan must develop a positive relationship with Western nations and directly adopt Western thought and institutions.  Despite leaving France in 1880, Saionji remained consistent in his core political beliefs for the rest of his career.
Upon his return to Japan, Saionji lectured at Meiji Law School and was involved with the Popular Rights Movement. With similarly politically aligned friends, Saionji created Toyo Jiyu Shimbun, a newspaper that promoted a constitutional monarchy for Japan.  Ultimately, Saionji’s involvement in the newspaper became problematic for government officials who repeatedly requested his resignation. Despite his insistent refusal, an Imperial Order forced Saionji’s resignation. 
Saionji’s forced resignation marked the beginning of his prosperous political career. He formed a close political relationship with Ito Hirobumi which was crucial to his early career. Saionji served in both the second and third Ito cabinets and was the first member to join Ito’s new political party, the seiyukai.  Saionji briefly acted as prime minister during Ito’s illness and would serve a second time after Ito’s resignation
In 1912, the Meiji Emperor died and was succeeded by his heir, the Taisho Emperor. That same year, Saionji was appointed Genro by the Taisho emperor. The Genro consisted of a group of Choshu and Satsuma elders who had been leaders during the Meiji restoration. As Genro, Saionji served as the Emperor’s key advisor and was essential to the selection of the Prime Minister. Despite having been appointed Genro, Saionji did not desire to bring the institution into Japan’s future . For this reason, no additional member was ever appointed to the group - officially making Saionji Japan’s last Genro.
Saionji’s political prominence continued to grow, and in 1919, he was Japan’s delegate for the Paris Peace Conference. While Saionji endorsed Japan joining the League of Nations, he faced strong opposition from delegate Konoe Funimaro who utilized the Japanese press to push against involvement in the League. As a compromise, the Japanese had two conditions for joining the League and signing the peace agreement: passing the racial equality clause and maintaining control of the Shandong peninsula. While the racial equality clause was not approved - through a series of negotiations spearheaded by Saionji - Japan would retain its economic privileges in Shandong but withdraw from the territory.  Following this agreement, Japan signed the peace treaty and officially joined the League of Nations.
As the Taisho Emperor’s health declined, Saionji assumed partial responsibility for the Crown Prince’s education and was assigned his primary advisor. Saionji’s influence had a significant impact on the soon-to-be Hirohito Emperor. In 1921, the Crown Prince embarked on a tour of Europe. Although this trip faced strong opposition in Japan, Saionji and the other Genro thought this experience would align Hirohito's politics with liberal and Genro ideology.  In 1926, Hirohito ascended the throne; throughout his reign, Emperor Hirohito would actively seek out Saionji’s counsel on the numerous crises that would plague Japan in the coming years.
However, Saionji’s political influence would not last forever. In the 1930s, the right wing gained significant political power that threatened Saionji’s constitutional ideology and diminished Genro's authority. On February 26th, 1936, a series of assassinations were carried out against numerous senior liberal statesmen. While Saionji was an initial target in the assassination attempts, the insurgent officer in charge could not follow through with his orders due to his qualms about killing the last Genro. 
Despite Saionji’s diminished political power, he continued to voice his opinions on the most pressing issues of the time. He expressed concerns about the rise of the right-wing party and the military’s grasp on the direction of politics. At the end of his life, he denounced Japan’s growing relationship with Axis powers and remained loyal to his desire for an Anglo alliance. In 1937, Saionji said the following:
“What can Japan do in League with Italy and Germany? I have great doubts about that. I do not think it makes any sense. There is a great deal of sense if Japan should think of [the] United States to the East and Great Britain to the West. Just what sense is there in getting together with the first two countries?” 
In November of 1940, Saionji Kimnochi died after a long and influential political career. As the last Genro, his legacy would continue to influence Japanese politics long after his death. Although Saionji would never see Japan’s entrance into World War II, his grim predictions for Japan’s future would serve as testimony to his renowned wisdom and foresight.
Bailey, Jackson. “Prince Saionji and the Popular Rights Movement.” The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 21, No. 1, 1961, pp. 49-63.
Conners, Lesley. The Emperor's Adviser Saionji Kinmochi and pre-war Japanese politics. London: Routledge, 2010.
Clements, Jonathan. Prince Saionji: Japan (Makers of the Modern World). London: Haus Publishing, 2008.
Harada, Kamao. “Stress and Strain in the Cabinet.” in Saionji-Harada Memoirs. (Miwako Yanamoto, Trans.). 1937.
Toland, John. The Rising Sun (The Decline and Fall of the Japanese Empire, 1936-1945). New York: The Random House Publishing Group, 1970.
 Jonathan Clements, “Confused Loyalties,” in Prince Saionji: Japan (Makers of the Modern World) (Haus Publishing, 2008), pp. 23.
 Jonathan Clements, “The Meiji Restoration,” in Prince Saionji: Japan (Makers of the Modern World) (Haus Publishing, 2008), pp. 34.
 Jackson Bailey, “Prince Saionji and the Popular Rights Movement,” The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 21, No. 1 (November 1961): pp. 54.
 Jackson Bailey, “Prince Saionji and the Popular Rights Movement,” The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 21, No. 1 (November 1961): pp. 55.
 Jackson Bailey, “Prince Saionji and the Popular Rights Movement,” The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 21, No. 1 (November 1961): pp. 62.
 Lesley Conners, “Saionji’s Emergence as Genro,” in The Emperor’s Adviser Saionji Kinmochi and pre-war Japanese Politics, (Routledge 2010), pp. 8-11.
 Lesley Conners, “The Genro,” in The Emperor’s Adviser Saionji Kinmochi and pre-war Japanese Politics, (Routledge 2010), pp. 43.
 ] Jonathan Clements, “The Shandong Question,” in Prince Saionji: Japan (Makers of the Modern World) (Haus Publishing, 2008), pp. 143-144.
 Lesley Conners, “The turning point: Saionji’s domination of the Genro,” in The Emperor’s Adviser Saionji Kinmochi and pre-war Japanese Politics, (Routledge 2010), 85-88.
 John Toland, “Gekokujo” in The Rising Sun (Random House Publish Group 1970) pp. 19.
 Kamao Harada, “Stress and Strain in the Cabinet,” in Saionji-Harada Memoirs, (1937), pp. 1929.