Konoe allows the military to dominate
The Showa War mainly refers to wars Japan fought against two major powers: China and the United States. The war against the United States obviously evolved with the change in the national character of Japan that progressed along with the war against China. This change meant a challenge to the international order at that time and meant the collapse of the constitutional system by which the government had pursued so-called responsible politics. Furthermore, a policymaking process led by military bureaucrats and an intensive national mobilization system were established in this process of change.
Fumimaro Konoe was a key politician who was deeply involved in these developments. Konoe’s political ideology can be seen in his paper titled “Eibei-Hon’i no Heiwa-shugi o Haisu” (Rejecting the Anglo-American-Centered Quest of Peace) written in 1918. He described peace for colonialist powers such as Britain and the United States as being the “maintenance of the status quo convenient for them.” His treatise also said, “It is justifiable for latecomers such as Japan to break the current situation, in which there can be no room otherwise for expansion and development.”
Konoe actively supported the military in the 1931 Manchurian Incident. He advocated a hard-line view that European countries and the United States were not entitled to denounce Japan based on the covenant of the League of Nations and the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928 providing for the renunciation of war as an instrument of national policy. Konoe’s view spurred the military and he was very popular among the public. Helped by such support, Konoe became Prime Minister in June 1937.
Faced with the Marco Polo Bridge Incident a month after the launch of the first Konoe Cabinet, he approved the Army’s request for troops to be dispatched to China although he only made up his mind at the last minute. Konoe terminated the so-called Trautman Operation—efforts to seek peace with China through German Ambassador to China Oskar Trautman as a mediator. A government statement issued in January 1938 declared, “We don’t deal with the Nationalist Party government.” At that time, military bureaucrats largely kept Konoe under their thumbs. He even told the Emperor in a self-deprecating manner, “I am a mannequin and am not informed of anything.”
In addition to being unable to control the military, Konoe also gave legal grounds for creating a national system for all-out battles envisioned by the military—the National Mobilization Law promulgated in April 1938. The law gave unlimited authority to the government to control the Japanese people in emergencies such as in “wartime” or “quasi-war contingencies.” In January 1939, the Konoe Cabinet had no option but to resign en masse, after failing to handle both domestic and diplomatic affairs. Veteran politician Kinmochi Saionji, Konoe’s mentor and two-time Prime Minister in 1906–08 and in 1911–12, said: “What did Konoe do after becoming Prime Minister? I don’t understand it at all.”
Konoe became Prime Minister again in July 1940 and formed his second Cabinet. He formed his third Cabinet in July 1941 but gave up his post again in October 1941. His second Cabinet’s main mission, carried over from the previous one, was to resolve problems stemming from the war against China. Konoe picked Yosuke Matsuoka as Foreign Minister to have him work to bring the United States to the negotiation table by establishing a four-way entente with Germany, Italy and the Soviet Union. Konoe sought to create the entente by expanding the Tripartite Alliance with Germany and Italy. But this idea was doomed when Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941.
Konoe also did not expect the United States would impose an oil embargo in response to the Japanese military’s advance into southern French Indochina in July 1941. Konoe later sought to avoid war against the United States through direct negotiations with U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt after dropping Matsuoka. But he could not settle the row with War Minister Hideki Tojo, who bristled at the U.S. demand that Japan withdraw its troops from China as one condition for avoiding war. Konoe stepped down in October 1941 without achieving his objective.
Lord Keeper of the Privy Seal Koichi Kido had previously criticized Konoe, saying: “You led the decision [to wage war against the United States] at the September 6 gozenkaigi meeting in the presence of the Emperor. It will be quite irresponsible if you resign and leave the decision intact.”
But Konoe quit the government, despite Kido’s admonition. At one time, Konoe sought to unite political forces that could counter and control the military and the bureaucracy. He planned to launch a new political party under the concept of “one party for one nation,” modeled after Germany’s Nazi Party. His idea took shape with the establishment of the Taisei Yokusan-kai (Imperial Rule Assistance Association) in October 1940. However, Konoe became reluctant to pursue this plan after the establishment of the association was criticized as a move to revive a “shogunate” feudal government to take over the role of the Emperor. Rumors of attempts to assassinate him also emerged.
In this way, Konoe’s efforts collapsed one after another. With each failure, Japan took another step toward war with the United States.