Born on October 12th, 1891, Prince Konoe Fumimaro was the 24th head of one of the most ancient and noble Japanese families, the Fujiwara. Dating back to 646, the House of Fujiwara has been one of five Japanese families "Gosekke," meaning five regent families from which Japanese emperors often were chosen. In the 11th century, they ruled over Japan and, in 1202, they took the name of Konoe.
Although Prince Konoe was born into a noble family, he became an orphan at a young age. His mother passed away when he was eight years old, and his father died when Konoe was fourteen. He was then brought up by his uncle, Prince Tokugawa Iesato. As creditors and debtors frequented his house, his friendships diminished. In college, he began reading "extremist literature from Western Europe" and, influenced by Professor Kawakami, a leading Marxian Japanese economist, Konoe became an ardent student of Karl Marx, Tolstoi, and Kropotkin. It was at Kyoto Imperial University where he met Prince Saionji Kinmochi, who became his political mentor.
It was very obvious that Prince Saionji, who was accused by the Nationalists of Japan as being a globalist, took a liking to Prince Konoe and wanted to groom him to be a statesman. In 1919, Prince Saionji convinced Konoe to attend the Paris Peace Conference as his secretary. The conference turned out to be hugely disappointing. During the conference, he was one of the Japanese diplomats who proposed the Racial Equality Proposal for the League of Nations. It received the support of Japan, France, Serbia, Greece, Italy, Brazil, Czechoslovakia, and China. However, it was overturned by U.S. President Woodrow Wilson.
In 1931, he became Vice President of both the House of Peers and the Privy Council. The Privy Council was an advisory council to the Emperor. Their main functions were to advise on proposed amendments to Japan's Constitution, proposed amendments to the 1889 Imperial Household Law, matters of constitutional interpretation, proposed laws and ordinances, proclamations of martial law or declaration of war, treaties and other international agreements, matters concerning the succession to the throne, declarations of a regency under the Imperial Household Law, and all matters submitted by the emperor generally by the advice of the cabinet. In 1933, Konoe became the President of the House of Peers, a position once held by his father, Konoe Atsumaro.
During this time period, Japan was beginning to occupy Manchuria, forming Manchukuo in China. Following the Manchuria Incident, when Japan began its occupation in China, the amicable Japanese-American relationship became impaired. Konoe was then sent to the United States for a good-will tour where he met with many American leaders, including the President and Colonel House.
On February 26th, 1936, a group of young Imperial Japanese Army officers attempted a coup d'etat of the Empire of Japan, also known as the Ni-Ni Roku Jiken. Their goal was to purge the government and military leadership of their factional rivals and ideological opponents. The rebels successfully murdered a couple of leading officials and occupied the center of Tokyo. However, they failed to assassinate Prime Minister Keisuke Okada or secure control of the Imperial Palace.
On June 2nd, 1937, Emperor Hirohito asked Prince Konoe to head a cabinet to succeed the Government of General Hayashi Senjuro; two days later, the first Konoe cabinet was formed. His political doctrine was described as "not doctrines, but common sense." His intention was to promote the "reconciliation of the rival factions." As he put it, his job was to "heal strife and eliminate friction." This was not an easy task as he had to reconcile the army, reconcile the disgruntled civilian parties, and win the electorate's sympathy.
One month after his new cabinet took office, the "China Incident" happened on July 7th, 1937. Prince Konoe used ill-health as an excuse. In this case, he had a "cold" just before the China-Incident. Prince Konoe was known to be responsible for the "peace program" in China, which represented the basis of Japan's policy in China. On August 28th, 1937, Konoe stated that "Japan's one course is to beat China to her knees, so that she may no longer have the spirit to fight." On September 12th, he declared, "We shall thoroughly chastise the anti-Japanese elements in China, not only for our own safety but for the welfare of the Far East. Our mission is to deprive the enemy of fighting strength, set an objective lesson for all China, and give new life to wholesome elements in China with whom we hope to join hands in the truest spirit of friendship and cooperation." However, some in Japan doubted his statements. Some said that Konoe was willing to condone an unnecessary war with China to prevent murder and revolt at home, and thus accepted the generals' assurances that the war would be won in six months. In the same year, Italy joined Germany and Japan and signed the Anti-Comintern Pact directed against Communist Internationals, specifically against the Soviet Union.
On July 22nd, 1940, Konoe formed his second cabinet and immediately issued directives to strengthen national defense, change foreign policy, organize a war economy, and institute educational reform. In August 1940, General Koiso Kuniaki was urging strong measures against the Dutch East Indies, which would have meant immediate war with the United States. Again, Prince Konoe used ill-health as an excuse and did not recover until a decision was already made. On September 27th, 1940, the cabinet concluded the Tripartite Pact with Germany and Italy. According to Ambassador Grew, Konoe was completely against the pact but was overridden by War Minister Tojo Hideki and Foreign Minister Matsuoka. In October 1940, Konoe made a statement during a press interview, "If the United States refuses to understand the real intentions of Japan, Germany, and Italy, and persists in challenging those powers, there will be no other course open to them but to go to war." The following November, the Sino-Japanese Treaty was signed with Wang Ching-Wei.
During the summer of 1941, Konoe made several attempts through Ambassador Grew to improve relations with the United States. On August 18th, Foreign Minister Toyoda secretly submitted a proposal to Ambassador Grew, suggesting that Prince Konoe and President Roosevelt meet. Konoe offered to go to Honolulu, an unprecedented step in Japanese history. Mr. Grew wrote that the first suggestion for such a meeting was breached in April. According to Ambassador Grew, Konoe was fully aware of the objections to this move in certain parts of his country. Knowledge, though not content, of the proposal, leaked out and revealed to the pro-Axis and extremist elements in Japan that Prince Konoe had taken the initiative in what was obviously a conciliatory move, at a time when indignation against America was high. Consequently, there were fears of an attempt on Konoe's life. In spite of these risks, the Prince kept pressing Grew for a meeting with President Roosevelt. However, this meeting never took place because the Japanese military began to add stipulations, and President Roosevelt's advisers allegedly became suspicious of the whole proposed meeting.
Learn more about how Prince Konoe could've prevented the attack of Pearl Harbor and the war altogether in his memoir.