Konoe lacks leadership
Fumimaro Konoe first took up the premiership with strong popular support on June 4, 1937, a month before the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War. He was only 45 years old and hailed from the leading one of five Sekke families, whose members were eligible for the positions of regent (sessho) and chancellor (kanpaku) to serve the throne, a system dating back to the early part of the Kamakura Era (1192–1333). These factors generated public expectations that he might be able to break the deadlock in the political sphere caused by the military’s rising power after the Manchurian Incident. But this highly popular leader, who eventually led three Cabinets, failed to meet these public expectations.
When considering Konoe, the first thing that should be discussed is his article titled, “Eibei Honi no Heiwa-shugi wo Haisu”(Rejecting Anglo-American Centered Quest of Peace) published in 1918.
In the article, Konoe divided world powers into those led by Britain and the United States, which wanted to “maintain the status quo,” and Germany and other latecomers, which were eager to “overturn the status quo.” Konoe expressed strong sympathy for Germany, which was defeated in World War I, saying: “Peace preached by Britain and the United States is a stance taken by those who consider the status quo to be convenient. It is not something based on justice and humanity.” Konoe then pointed out that it had been argued in Britain that other nations should be prevented from acquiring colonies. If that was the case, Konoe said, Japan would “be driven to a point where it needed to break the status quo” for its survival.
Such logic and the idea of “have-nots” were seen in a number of statements issued, and views expressed, by Konoe during the period in which the Sino-Japanese War escalated.
Following the Marco Polo Bridge Incident in July 1937, the Konoe Cabinet decided to send troops to China. Konoe later recalled: “Not only the Cabinet but also the Army advocated a non-expansionist policy. But, despite this desire, the nation indeed opted for expansion.”
Konoe blamed such a shift from non-expansion on the Army’s Tosei-ha (Control Faction) group and believed that the shift was triggered by the February 26 Incident, which resulted in the removal of another Army faction called Kodo-ha (Imperial Way Faction).
Within the Foreign Ministry, meanwhile, people such as Itaro Ishii, the East Asian Affairs Bureau chief, opposed the dispatch of troops. But Foreign Minister Koki Hirota did not heed Ishii’s opinion and approved the dispatch anyway, saying, “It would be fine if the number of the troops to be sent is adequate for emergency preparations.”Konoe and Hirota were thus won over to the side of the War Ministry, which was vocal in its support for dispatching troops.
However, Konoe did not necessarily agree with the hard-line stance. He was considering holding a summit with Chiang Kai-shek. Following the advice of Kanji Ishihara, head of the First Bureau (Operations) of the Army General Staff who strived to stop the escalation of the war, Konoe planned to travel to Nanjing to hold direct talks with Chiang Kai-shek. Konoe said, “I will go [to meet Chiang Kai-shek] now, even at the risk of my life.” But he canceled the visit out of fears that he might not be able to control Army troops stationed in China.
On August 15, the Konoe Cabinet altered its non-expansion policy and issued a government statement seen as a de facto declaration of war. The tone of the statement was forceful. “We will take firm action, by punishing the atrocities of the Chinese forces, so that the Nanjing government [of the Kuomintang] would feel regret.” Fighting had by this time spread to Shanghai.
War Minister Hajime Sugiyama brought up the draft of the statement in a Cabinet meeting. Railway Minister Chikuhei Nakajima took a hard-line stance, saying, “We’d better completely beat them down.” CommunicationsMinister Ryutaro Nagai concurred. According to a memoir of Chief Cabinet Secretary Akira Kazami, Konoe “remained silent as usual, even at this time, and listened to them in a patient manner.”
After the statement was issued, the phrase of “boshi yocho (punishing vicious China)” became commonly used as if it were a slogan.
In January 1938, the Prime Minister made what was called the first Konoe statement, which said that the nation would not regard the Kuomintang government as a negotiating partner. With this statement, Konoe single-handedly ceased contacts with China. But he soon realized that the statement was a mistake and tried to find ways of holding talks with the Kuomintang government “under the belief that the mistakes in the statement must be corrected.”
In November, Konoe issued a second statement on “building a new order in East Asia.”
The second statement for the first time defined the purpose of the Sino-Japanese War as “to build a new order to ensure perpetual stability in East Asia.” A “new order” meant a challenge to the old one created by the Washington Naval Treaty and the Nine-Power Treaty of 1922. By calling for cooperation among Japan, Manchuria and China, Konoe intended to correct the first statement. The concept of a new order in East Asia thus became the basis for the Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere initiative.
Konoe, meanwhile, became increasingly frustrated with Sugiyama since the War Minister had neglected to inform him of the Army’s operations. Konoe was also dissatisfied with Hirota since the Foreign Minister’s handling of the military appeared to be unsatisfactory.
Konoe reshuffled his Cabinet in May 1938 in an attempt to make a political breakthrough. He appointed Seishiro Itagaki as War Minister and Kazushige Ugaki as Foreign Minister. Itagaki, along with Ishihara, was the mastermind of the Manchurian Incident. Ugaki took up the post on condition that Konoe’s first statement would not be binding. Former War Minister Sadao Araki, a leading figure of the Kodo-ha Army faction, was selected for the post of Education Minister.
Chief of Staff of the Kwantung Army Hideki Tojo, who had been a hard-liner since the beginning of the Sino-Japanese War, was appointed Vice War Minister. It was obvious that the combination of Itagaki and Tojo would not work well since Itagaki was pro-Ishihara while Tojo was anti-Ishihara. Regarding China policy, Foreign Minister Ugaki and War Minister Itagaki held opposing positions. While Ugaki intended to secure a breakthrough by treating the Kuomintang government as a negotiating partner, Itagaki sought the secession of five provinces in northern China from the Kuomintang government. Ugaki resigned in late September. According to a specialist on the diplomatic history of modern Japan, Konoe thus “became a victim of his personnel decisions, which were not insightful and rather too casual.”
Konoe began to feel increasingly helpless and started to indicate his intention to quit. In January 1939, he resigned.