Saionji Kinmochi

Duke Saionji Kinmochi (西園寺 公望, 7 December 1849 – 24 November 1940) was a Japanese politician, statesman and twice Prime Minister of Japan. He was elevated from marquis to duke in 1920. As the last surviving genrō, he was Japan's most honored statesman of the 1920s and 1930s.

Saionji Kinmochi
西園寺 公望
President of the Privy Council
In office
27 August 1900  13 July 1903
Preceded byKuroda Kiyotaka
Succeeded byItō Hirobumi
Prime Minister of Japan
In office
30 August 1911  21 December 1912
Preceded byKatsura Tarō
Succeeded byKatsura Tarō
In office
7 January 1906  14 July 1908
Preceded byKatsura Tarō
Succeeded byKatsura Tarō
In office
10 May 1901  2 June 1901
Preceded byItō Hirobumi
Succeeded byKatsura Tarō
Personal details
Born(1849-10-23)23 October 1849
DiedNovember 24, 1940(1940-11-24) (aged 91)
Political partyConstitutional Association of Political Friendship
Alma materUniversity of Paris

Early life

Kinmochi was born in Kyoto as the son of Udaijin Tokudaiji Kin'ito (1821–1883), head of a kuge family of court nobility. He was adopted by another kuge family, the Saionji, in 1851. However, he grew up near his biological parents, since both the Tokudaiji and Saionji lived very near the Kyoto Imperial Palace. The young Saionji Kinmochi was frequently ordered to visit the palace as a playmate of the young prince who later became Emperor Meiji. Over time they became close friends. Kinmochi's biological brother Tokudaiji Sanetsune later became the Grand Chamberlain of Japan. Another younger brother was adopted into the very wealthy Sumitomo family and as Sumitomo Kichizaemon became the head of the Sumitomo zaibatsu. Sumitomo money largely financed Saionji's political career. His close relationship to the Imperial Court opened all doors to him. In his later political life, he was an influence on both the Taishō and Shōwa emperors.

Meiji Restoration

As the heir of a noble family, Saionji participated in politics from an early age and was known for his brilliant talent. He took part in the climactic event of his time, the Boshin War, the revolution in Japan of 1867 and 1868, which overthrew the Tokugawa shogunate and installed the young Emperor Meiji as the (nominal) head of the government. Some noblemen at the Imperial Court considered the war to be a private dispute of the samurai of Satsuma and Chōshū against those of the Tokugawa. Saionji held the strong opinion that the nobles of the Imperial Court should seize the initiative and take part in the war. He participated in various battles as an imperial representative.

One of his first encounters involved taking Kameoka Castle without a fight. The next encounter was at Sasayama Castle. Several hundred Samurai from both sides met on the road nearby, but the defenders immediately surrendered. Then Fukuchiyama surrendered without a fight. By this time he had acquired an Imperial banner made by Iwakura Tomomi, featuring a sun and moon on a red field. Other Samurai did not want to attack the army with the imperial banner, and readily deserted the shōgun. After two weeks Saionji reached Kitsuki, and following another bloodless encounter, Saionji returned to by ship to Osaka. Matters did eventually come to an end at Nagaoka Castle. However, Saionji was relieved from command in the actual battle and appointed governor of Echigo.[1]

Saionji's first sojourn overseas career

After the Meiji Restoration, Saionji resigned. With the support of Ōmura Masujirō he studied French in Tokyo. He left Japan on the SS Costa Rica with a group of thirty other Japanese students sailing to San Francisco. He traveled on to Washington, D.C. where he met Ulysses Grant, President of the United States of America. He then crossed the Atlantic, spent 13 days in London sightseeing, before finally arriving in Paris on May 27, 1871. Paris was in the turmoil of the Commune, and Paris was not safe for Saionji – indeed his tutor was shot when they stumbled upon a street battle. Saionji went to Switzerland and Nice, before settling in Marseilles where he learned French with the accent of that city. He made his way to Paris following the suppression of the Commune. He studied law at the University of Paris and became involved with Émile Acollas, who had set up the Acollas Law School for foreign students studying law in Paris. These were the early years of the Third Republic, a time of high idealism in France. Saionji arrived in France with highly reactionary views but he was influenced by Acollas (a former member of the League of Peace and Freedom) and became the most liberal of Japanese major political figures of his generation. When the Iwakura Mission visited Paris in 1872, Iwakura was quite worried about the radicalism of Saionji and other Japanese students. He made many acquaintances in France, including Franz Liszt, the Goncourt brothers, and fellow Sorbonne student Georges Clemenceau.[2]

On his return to Japan, he founded the Ritsumeikan University in 1869 and Meiji Law School, which later evolved into Meiji University in 1880.

In 1882, Itō Hirobumi visited Europe in order to research the constitutional systems of each major European country, and he asked Saionji to accompany him, as they knew each other very well. After the trip, he was appointed ambassador to Austria-Hungary, and later to Germany and Belgium.

Political career

Returning to Japan, Saionji joined the Privy Council, and served as vice president of the House of Peers. He also served as Minister of Education in the 2nd and 3rd Itō administrations (1894–1896, 1898) and 2nd Matsukata administration. During his tenure, he strove to improve the quality of the educational curriculum towards an international (i.e. western) standard.

In 1900, Itō founded the Rikken Seiyūkai political party, and Saionji joined as one of the first members. Due to his experiences in Europe, Saionji had a liberal political point of view and supported parliamentary government. He was one of the few early politicians who claimed that the majority party in parliament had to be the basis for forming a cabinet.

Saionji became president of the Privy Council in August 1900, and president of the Rikken Seiyūkai in 1903.

Prime minister

From January 7, 1906, to July 14, 1908, and again from August 30, 1911, to December 21, 1912, Saionji served as Prime Minister of Japan.

Both his ministries were marked by continuing tension between Saionji and the powerful arch-conservative genrō, Field Marshal Yamagata Aritomo. Saionji and Itō saw political parties as a useful part of the machinery of government; Yamagata looked on political parties and all democratic institutions as quarrelsome, corrupt, and irrational.

Saionji had to struggle with the national budget with many demands and finite resources, Yamagata sought ceaselessly the greatest expansion of the army. Saionji's first cabinet was brought down in 1908 by conservatives led by Yamagata who were alarmed at the growth of socialism, who felt the government's suppression of socialists (after a parade and riots) had been insufficiently forceful.

The fall of Saionji's second cabinet was a major reverse to constitutional government. The Taishō Crisis (so named for the newly enthroned emperor) erupted in late November 1912, out of the continuing bitter dispute over the military budget. The army minister, General Uehara, unable to get the cabinet to agree on the army's demands, resigned. Saionji sought to replace Uehara.

A Japanese law (intended to give added power to the army and navy) required that the army minister must be a lieutenant general or general on active duty. All of the eligible generals, on Yamagata's instruction, refused to serve in Saionji's cabinet. The cabinet was then forced to resign. The precedent had been established that the army could force the resignation of a cabinet.

Saionji's political philosophy was heavily influenced by his background; he believed the Imperial Court should be guarded and that it should not participate directly in politics: the same strategy employed by noblemen and the Court in Kyoto for hundreds of years. This was another point in which he was opposed by nationalists in the Army, who wished for the Emperor to participate in Japanese politics directly and thus weaken both parliament and the cabinet. Nationalists also accused him of being a "globalist".

Elder statesman

Saionji was appointed a genrō in 1913. The role of the genrō at this time was diminishing; their main function was to choose the prime ministers – formally, to nominate candidates for Prime Minister to the Emperor for approval, but no Emperor ever rejected their advice. From the death of Matsukata Masayoshi in 1924, Saionji was the sole surviving genrō. He exercised his prerogative of naming the prime ministers very nearly until his death in 1940 at the age of 91. Saionji, when he could, chose as prime minister the president of the majority party in the Diet, but his power was always constrained by the necessity of at least the tacit consent of the army and navy. He could choose political leaders only when they might be strong enough to form an effective government. He nominated military men and non-party politicians when he felt necessary.

In 1919, Saionji led the Japanese delegation at the Paris Peace Conference, though his role was largely symbolic due to ill health. Nevertheless, he proposed that racial equality should be legally enshrined as one of the basic tenets of the newly formed League of Nations, but both the USA and Great Britain opposed his proposal and prompted its rejection from the delegates, very likely because of the destabilizing effects it would have wreaked upon their respective racially-segregated societies. Saionji, a never-married man of 70, was accompanied to Paris by his son, his favorite daughter, and his current mistress. In 1920, he was given the title kōshaku (公爵, Prince) as an honor for a life in public service.

He was detested by the militarists and was on the list of those to be assassinated in the attempted coup of February 26, 1936. Upon receiving news of the mutiny, Saionji fled in his car but was pursued for a great distance by a suspicious vehicle that he and his companions assumed held soldiers bent on his murder. In actuality, it held newspaper reporters.

For much of his career, Saionji tried to diminish the influence of the Imperial Japanese Army in political issues. He was one of the most liberal of Emperor Hirohito's advisors, and favored friendly relations with Great Britain and the United States. However, he was careful to pick his battles, and would concede defeat when he knew he could not win (e.g. his inability to prevent the Tripartite Pact).


From the corresponding article in the Japanese Wikipedia


  • Marquess (July 7, 1884)
  • Duke (September 7, 1920)

Japanese decorations

Other decorations

Order of precedence

  • Junior First Rank (November 25, 1940; posthumous)
  • Senior second rank (December 20, 1898)
  • Second rank (December 11, 1893)
  • Senior third rank (December 19, 1878; restored)
  • Senior third rank (5 of 7th month 1862; relinquished 3rd of 7th 1869)
  • Third rank (April 25, 1861)
  • Senior fourth rank, junior grade (February 5, 1856)
  • Fourth rank, senior grade (January 22, 1855)
  • Fourth rank, junior grade (January 22, 1854)
  • Senior fifth rank, junior grade (January 21, 1853)
  • Fifth rank, senior grade (December 27, 1852)
  • Fifth rank, junior grade (early 1852)



See also


  1. Prince Saionji Kinmochi: Japan - Makers of the Modern World, by Jonathan Clements, Haus Histories, 2009
  2. MacMillan, Margaret. "Paris 1919". Random House, 2002, pp. 309–310
  3. The London Gazette, 15 May 1906
  4. "Saionji genealogy". Reichsarchiv (in Japanese). Retrieved September 11, 2017.

Further reading

  • Clements, Jonathan. Makers of the Modern World: Prince Saionji. Haus Publishing (2008). ISBN 978-1-905791-68-2
  • Conners, Leslie. The Emperor's Adviser: Saionji Kinmochi and Pre-War Japanese Politics. Routledge Kegan & Paul. ISBN 0-7099-3449-1
  • Hackett, Roger F. Yamagata Aritomo in the Rise of Modern Japan. Harvard University Press (1971).
  • Harada, Kumao. The Saionji-Harada memoirs, 1931–1940: Complete translation into English. University Publications of America (1978). ASIN: B000724T6W
  • Oka Yoshitake, et al. Five Political Leaders of Modern Japan: Ito Hirobumi, Okuma Shigenobu, Hara Takashi, Inukai Tsuyoshi, and Saionji Kimmochi. University of Tokyo Press (1984). ISBN 0-86008-379-9
Political offices
Preceded by
Mutsu Munemitsu
Minister of Foreign Affairs
Succeeded by
Ōkuma Shigenobu
Preceded by
Itō Hirobumi
Prime Minister of Japan

Succeeded by
Katsura Tarō
Preceded by
Katsura Tarō
Prime Minister of Japan
Prime Minister of Japan
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