Japanese aristocrat and Meiji Prime Minister
Prince Saionji Kinmochi (西園寺 公望, 1849-1940) was a Japanese aristocrat, politician and twice Prime Minister of Japan. He was the last member of the genrō, the senior statesmen who shaped Japan during the Meiji era.
Prince Saionji was born in Kyōto as the son of Udaijin Tokudaiji Kin’ito, head of a kuge family of court nobility. He was adopted by another kuge family, the Saionji, who are part of the once-powerful Fujiwara clan (藤原氏 Fujiwara-shi), in 1851. Growing up in the vicinity of the imperial palace in Kyoto, he used to be the frequent playmate of the young prince who later became the Meiji emperor. One of Saionji’s younger brothers was adopted by the affluent Sumitomo family to became head of the Sumitomo zaibatsu which would then support and benefit from Saionji’s political career.
In 1866/67, Saionji took part in the struggle against the Tokugawa shogunate. While many representatives of the kuge regarded the war as a conflict between samurai families, Saionji took part in many battles as an imperial representative. After the war, he was appointed the governor of Echigo Province (越後国). However, he soon resigned, went to Tokyo to study French and with thirty other students embarked on a journey that would first take him to the United States where he met President Ulysses Grant, then on to Paris where he studied law.
The kuge [公家; 公卿; 上達部 【くげ(公家; 公卿); くぎょう(公卿); かんだちめ(上達部)】, lit. “public house”] was a class of Japanese nobility. Originally, it referred to the emperor and his court in Kyoto. It consisted of the dōjō (堂上, lit: “on the roof”), the noblemen who sat on the floor with the emperor and the jige (地下, lit. “on the ground”), other aristocrats who could not. The highest positions at court (kugyō 公卿) were only open to the dōjō kuge. With the rise of the shogunate in the 12th century, the kuge lost their political power to the daimyō, but still yielded significant influence on the court and traditional culture in particular, first as patrons, but after they had lost their financial means during the Tokugawa period as teachers and masters. In 1869 during the Meiji restoration, the kuge merged with the daimyō to form a single aristocratic group, the kazoku. The highest-classed kuge belonged to the Fujiwara (藤原氏) and Minamoto (源) clans, but there were many other influential clans such as the Kiyohara (清原氏), etc.
In 1869, he returned to Japan where he founded the Ritsumeikan University and Meiji Law School, which in 1880 evolved into Meiji University. In 1882, he accompanied his mentor Itō Hirobumi on a journey to Europe to learn more about the political systems of European nations. Soon afterwards, Saionji was appointed the ambassador to Austria-Hungary and later to Germany. In 1896, he returned to Japan where he joined the Privy Council and served as Minister of Education in Itō Hirobumi’s 2nd and 3rd administration.
In contrast to Yamagata Aritomo and his protege, Katsura Taro Saionji held liberal political views and profoundly believed in democratic institutions. He served twice as Prime Minister (1906-08, 1911/12); both his administrations were marked by conflicts with Yamagata and the army who were striving for greater military power and expansion. Saionji had to resign in 1912 over the Taishō Crisis, caused by a harrowing dispute over the military budget.
In 1913, Saionji became a member of the genrō, the circle of elder statesmen who formally – and factually – nominated the Japanese Prime Ministers. In 1919, he headed the Japanese delegation at the Paris Peace Conference, and in 1920 was bestowed the title of kōshaku (公爵, prince). His role as a genrō was always constrained by the political influence of the military who detested and even planned to assassinate him in the attempted army coup of February 26, 1936. He had been in favour of friendly relations with the Western powers, but could not stem the tide of militarism. He died in 1940 at the age of 91.
- Connors, Lesley; The Emperor’s Adviser: Saionji Kinmochi and Pre-War Japanese Politics, Routledge 2010
- Jansen, Marius B.; The Emergence of Meiji Japan, Cambridge University Press 1995
- Jansen, Marius B.; The Making of Modern Japan, Cambridge 2002
- Clements, Jonathan; Prince Saionji: Japan: Makers of the Modern World, Haus Publishing 2008
Prince Saionji Kinmochi (Photo credit)
The young prince in Paris (1871-80; photo credit)
Saionji Kinmochi (right) as Japan's Ambassador Plenipotentiary at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 (Photo credit)