by Ray Matsumoto
Prince Konoe Fumimaro was born in Tokyo on October 12th, 1891, to the ancient Fujiwara family. He lost both parents by the age of fourteen and was raised by his uncle, Prince Tokugawa Iesato. Konoe studied communism and socialism at Kyoto Imperial University, influenced strongly by Karl Marx, Leo Tolstoy, and Peter Kropotkin (Chan, 1). After graduating from university, Konoe was named a member of the House of Peers, the upper House of the Imperial Diet, and became a staff member of the Home Ministry a year later. In 1918, he published an essay titled “Reject the Anglo-American-Centered Peace”（英米本位の平和主義を排す）, where he argued that western hypocrisy undermined democracy through racially discriminatory imperialism (Chan, 3). In 1919, Konoe attended the Paris Peace Conference as Genrō Saionji Kinmochi’s secretary. Konoe was one of the Japanese diplomats who proposed the Racial Equality Proposal for the League of Nations. However, it was overturned by U.S. President Woodrow Wilson.
In September 1922, Konoe joined the Kenkyūkai, the most powerful faction of the House of Peers led by former Prime Minister Yamagata Aritomo (Berger, 459). During this period, Konoe helped establish universal male suffrage, which was proposed by the Prime Minister at the time, Katō Takaaki. Japanese politics rapidly evolved during the Taishō period, one of which saw the House of Peers distance itself from party influence. Konoe left the Kenkyūkai in November 1927 (Berger, 464). In the same year, Konoe was assigned chief commissioner to Emperor Hirohito’s coronation. In 1931, Konoe became the Vice President of the House of Peers and the Privy Council, an advisory council to the emperor. Two years later, Konoe was promoted to the President of the House of Peers (Chan, 4). At the start of his career, Konoe demonstrated that he was a competent and strong politician. He had the knowledge, understanding, and strong sense of mission to be a good leader. However, his shortcomings as a Prime Minister would permanently alter his reputation.
On June 4th, 1937, Konoe became the Prime Minister. A month later, a skirmish occurred between Japanese and Chinese troops in Beijing, known as the Marco Polo Bridge Incident. By July 20th, the incident sparked a full-scale war between Japan and China, known as the Second-Sino Japanese War. Although Konoe initially opposed war with China, he took a firm stance toward Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist Government and offered them harsh terms for peace: China must formally recognize Manchukuo, cooperate with Japan in fighting communism, permit the indefinite stationing of Japanese troops, and pay war reparations to Japan (Bix, 344). In January 1938, When Chiang failed to respond to Japanese offers, Konoe issued the statement that Japan no longer recognized the Nationalist Government. Later that year, Konoe issued the “New Order in East Asia” declaration stating that Japan would reform China under a new government (Bix, 347).
Unable to end the war in China, Konoe resigned in January 1939 but was appointed again as Prime Minister in July 1940. During his second term, the government finalized plans to invade French Indochina and the Dutch East Indies and signed the Tripartite Pact and the Soviet-Japanese Neutrality Pact. However, Konoe only played a passive role in these decisions. In August 1940, when the Army was urging strong measures against the Dutch East Indies, Konoe used ill health as an excuse and did not recover until an official policy was established (Chan, 9). Konoe was also against the Tripartite Pact but was pressured by Army Minister Tōjō Hideki and Foreign Minister Matsuoka Yosuke. Matsuoka also took the initiative in forming the Soviet-Japanese Neutrality Pact, meeting with Joseph Stalin himself in Moscow. Two months later, Hitler broke the German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact by invading the Soviet Union.
Matsuoka advocated for an invasion of the Soviet Union and caused tension in U.S.-Japan relations with his stubborn attitude toward negotiations. The Japanese government, including Emperor Hirohito, began viewing Matsuoka as a liability. To remove Matsuoka, Konoe formed the third cabinet in July 1941. Despite Konoe’s attempts to restore U.S.-Japan relations, the U.S. froze Japanese assets and placed embargoes on several resources, including oil. In addition, Konoe failed to convince Tōjō to withdraw troops from China and Indochina to meet American demands. On October 16th, 1941, Konoe resigned, and Tōjō succeeded him as Prime Minister. Two months later, Japan launched an attack on Pearl Harbor and declared war on the U.S. Konoe continued to voice his objection to war after his resignation. He even advised Emperor Hirohito to begin negotiations to end the war in February 1945 (Bix, 521).
Konoe returned to the Japanese government during the American occupation. Konoe served in the first post-war cabinet under Prime Minister Prince Higashikuni Naruhiko. In October, days before the resignation of the Higashikuni cabinet, Konoe was tasked with assisting the rewriting of the Japanese constitution. Konoe preferred a gradual approach to constitutional reform (Jansen, 670). By late November, Konoe had formed an “outline” listing twenty-two problems and concerns in the Meiji Constitution (Dower, 350). The main focus was on clarifying the emperor’s authority. Konoe believed that the emperor should remain the superintendent of sovereignty, only that it must depend on the support of the people. Put differently, the emperor’s authority will remain similar to that of the Meiji Constitution; only the new constitution would prevent abuses of power (Dower, 350). His outline also included abolishing the Privy Council, adding basic rights of freedom to citizens, and granting greater power to the National Diet (Dower, 350).
Konoe was also a supporter of Emperor Hirohito’s abdication. He was outspoken about his opinion that the emperor bore responsibility for failing to prevent war with the U.S. (Dower, 321). However, Douglas MacArthur ensured Hirohito’s safety. MacArthur believed retaining the emperor as a political tool was advantageous for the U.S. Led by U.S. Army officer Bonner Fellers, “Operation Blacklist” successfully exonerated Hirohito and the rest of the imperial family of war crimes (Chan, 23).
However, Konoe did not see his constitutional project come to fruition. By late November, information surrounding his role in the Second-Sino Japanese War came to light. On December 6th, 1945, Konoe was informed of his indictment as a Class A war criminal (Dower, 351). Ten days later, at the age of 54, Konoe committed suicide by potassium cyanide to avoid trial. He left a suicide note for his younger brother, which stated the following:
“I have made many political mistakes since the China Incident. I feel deeply responsible, but I cannot bear to be tried as a so-called war criminal. I made it my greatest mission to resolve the war in China because I felt responsible for it. I came to the conclusion that the only way to resolve this was to reach an understanding with the U.S., and I made every effort to negotiate with them. It is unfortunate that I am now charged, by the U.S., as a criminal. However, those who knew my intentions understand. I am sure that there are even some Americans who understand. The excitement and passion of the war, the excessive growth of the winners, the excessive subservience of the losers, the deliberate defamation, and the rumored words and misunderstandings that are based on misunderstandings, someday regain their composure and return to normal. Only then will a judgment of justice be made in God’s court.”(Asagei plus)
Matsumoto Jōji, a former cabinet minister, took over the role of drafting a new Japanese Constitution. Matsumoto held a similar sentiment to Konoe that the constitution did not require much change concerning the emperor’s authority and only minor changes concerning human rights (Dower, 353). However, the Americans rejected Matsumoto’s draft for being too conservative.
The Americans instead placed constitutional reform into their own hands. MacArthur formed a team led by senior army officers with law degrees, Milo Rowell and Courtney Whitney, to draft the constitution (Dower, 364). MacArthur’s demands were much more radical than Konoe and Matsumoto’s ideas. Although the emperor was allowed to retain his throne, his authority over the people was fundamentally different. Unlike Konoe’s outline, the emperor would lose his authority and become subordinate to the constitution and the Japanese people (Constitution of Japan, Article 1). It also included an article to renounce war forever and prohibit land, sea, or air forces (Article 9). The new Japanese constitution, written by the Americans, came into effect on May 3rd, 1947 (Dower, 401).
Konoe’s political life is an embodiment of the flaws of the Meiji Constitution. The military had overwhelming control of the government, and the civilian government had little control over Japan’s path to war. However, this does not mean Konoe had no responsibility. Despite initially being against a war with China, his failure to negotiate peace led to a prolonged war. His incompetence as a leader also led to failed negotiations with the U.S., which led to the war that Konoe was so opposed to. Many historians today consider Konoe an incompetent leader responsible for war and atrocities. Even in Japan, Prince Konoe is viewed as an irresponsible and infamous figure responsible for Japan’s downfall.
Asagei plus. “歴代総理の胆力「近衛文麿」（2）「近衛は弱いね」と昭和天皇.” 週刊アサヒ芸能, 26 Sept. 2019, www.excite.co.jp/news/article/Asagei_133475.
Bix, Herbert. Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan. Harper Perennial, 2016.
Berger, Gordon M. “Japan’s Young Prince. Konoe Fumimaro’s Early Political Career, 1916-1931.” Monumenta Nipponica, vol. 29, no. 4, 1974, pp. 451–75. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/2383896. Accessed 6 Jul. 2022.
Chan, Jenny, and Barbara Halperin, editors. Memoir by Prince Konoe: The Secret Negotiations Between Japan and the U.S. Before Pearl Harbor. San Francisco, CA, Pacific Atrocities Education, 2020.
The Constitution of Japan. The Prime Minister of Japan and His Cabinet, Cabinet Public Affairs Office, https://japan.kantei.go.jp/constitution_and_government_of_japan/constitution_e.html.
Dower, John. Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II. W. W. Norton and Co., 1999.
Jansen, Marius. The Making of Modern Japan. Belknap Press: An Imprint of Harvard University Press, 2002.