Prince Fumimaro Konoe

views updated May 23 2018

Prince Fumimaro Konoe

Prince Fumimaro Konoe (1891-1945) was a Japanese aristocrat and politician who served as premier in the crucial years during which war broke out with China and Japan was preparing to make war on the United States.

Fumimaro Konoe was born in Tokyo on Oct. 12, 1891, into a noble family bearing one of the proudest line-ages in Japan. Konoe was a branch of the Fujiwara family, which had held sway in Kyoto for several centuries in the early history of Japan. Prince Konoe's father, Atsumaro Konoe, was president of the House of Peers.

A strain of radicalism ran through Prince Konoe's early days. After graduating from Kyoto Imperial University in 1917, where he was a student of the Marxist Hajime Kawakami, he became a protégé of the elder statesman Kimmochi Saionji, also an aristocrat whose early career manifested a streak of radicalism. In 1919 Konoe accompanied Saionji to Paris, where the latter was Japan's chief delegate to the peace conference.

Following in his father's footsteps, Konoe entered the House of Peers in 1920 and gradually gained recognition in the political world. By 1931 he had become vice president of the House of Peers, and 2 years later, at the age of 42, he was appointed president. From this relatively aloof position Konoe was plunged, not because of an abundance of talent and certainly not by his own will, into the thick of Japanese politics in the spring of 1937. In the midst of one of the periods of greatest upheaval in Japanese history, Konoe appeared to everyone a unifying and stabilizing figure and became premier.

Service as Premier

No sooner had he formed a cabinet than he was faced with a crisis of the first magnitude. Konoe's handling of the Marco Polo Bridge incident of July 7, 1937, was less than skillful. A minor fracas between Chinese and Japanese soldiers in the vicinity of Peking, which at first appeared susceptible to local settlement, escalated into full-scale hostilities between the two countries. Konoe declared that Japan must achieve a "new order" in eastern Asia. Japan sought a fundamental adjustment of Sino-Japanese relations which would assure mutual cooperation and assistance. To make this possible, he said, Japan was "irrevocably committed to the conquest of China." In January 1939 as the war dragged on, Konoe, discouraged and depressed, resigned.

After serving as president of the Privy Council and undertaking responsibility for organizing the Imperial Rule Assistance Association, a national party that was to replace the old political parties, Konoe was given an imperial mandate to form a cabinet in July 1940. His second premiership was as ill-starred as his first. Seeking to avert a Japanese-American collision, he found himself caught between the intransigence of his own war minister, Hideki Tojo, and the U.S. secretary of state, Cordell Hull. Failing to find a way out, he resigned in October 1941.

In early 1945 he was active in trying to find a way to end the war. Serving briefly as vice-premier after the war, Konoe was soon designated as a suspected war criminal by the occupation forces and on the day he was to report to prison, Dec. 16, 1945, he took poison and was found dead.

Further Reading

Useful analyses of Konoe's critical years may be found in Robert J. C. Butow, Tojo and the Coming of the War (1961), and James B. Crowley, Japan's Quest for Autonomy (1966). □