Mark J. Ravina, University of Texas at Austin
The man who directly proposed surrender to the emperor was Konoe Fumimaro, a former prime minister, and a man with a lofty genealogy. Konoe could trace his family lineage back 13 centuries to imperial courtiers in the 600s. Those exceptional blood lines gave Konoe a special connection to the emperor and were one reason why he was given the heavy task of suggesting surrender.
Prime Minister Konoe Fumimaro
Konoe Fumimaro was selected to be the prime minister in 1937, with the goal of national unity. He was supposed to rein in the wilder elements in the military and forge a national consensus on economic and military mobilizations.
With the defeat of the anti-communist but also somewhat anti-capitalist strike north faction, strike south was dominant, and planning a massive Pacific war. This wasn’t a secret.
The New York Times reported that Konoe was selected prime minister to win ‘the cooperation of all interests’ in a plan to ‘combine private enterprise with state controls’.
That would include the rationalization of major industries, compulsory labor service, and increased state control over banking, finance, and international trade along with the investment of more than $500 million a year to industrialize Japan, and become more economically self-sufficient.
To this end, Konoe was supposed to keep everyone on the same page so that Japan would be ready to fight a major war in China at the end of the five-year plan, in about 1942.
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Fall of Nanking
But, when Japanese and Chinese troops skirmished on the outskirts of Beijing in July 1937, Konoe sided with Japan’s most belligerent voices, who advocated a swift knock-out blow against China’s Nationalist government.
Cooler heads argued that Japan needed to contain the situation. Instead, Japanese troops swept south, and, in short order, seized most of China’s major coastal cities.
Nanking fell that December, and Tokyo did almost nothing to reign in its troops, who terrorized the civilian population, killing tens of thousands, and possibly hundreds of thousands of non-combatants.
Konoe was so convinced that he could pummel the Chinese Nationalist government into compliance that he broke off negotiations with the head of the government, Chiang Kai-shek, and set up a new government recognized only by Japan.
That was the end of any possible compromise with the United States or Britain since they no longer agreed on even the basic question of who—or what—was the government in China.
Arguing for Surrender in 1944
So, having led Japan into a massive war with China, why was Konoe arguing for surrender in 1944? Well, somewhat tragically, he realized how badly he’d blundered. The knock-out blow never was delivered.
Instead, the Chinese government retreated to the west, and slowly bled the Japanese army through guerrilla warfare.
It was already clear to some level-headed observers in 1941 that war with China was unwinnable. But key elements of the Japanese military were convinced that China was refusing to surrender only because of US and British support. Thus, it was essential to attack America.
Konoe realized that expanding the war was a terrible move.
Meeting Franklin Roosevelt
Japan could win in the Pacific only if the US prioritized the war in Europe, and only if fighting lasted less than two years. Afterwards, Japan would lose simply by running out of fuel and raw materials.
So, in the summer of 1941, Konoe tried to arrange a meeting with US President Franklin Roosevelt to de-escalate the coming conflict.
The problem was he had nothing to offer. Even if FDR agreed to recognize Japan’s coup in Manchuria, Konoe could offer no major concessions in China. So, his desperate plans came to nothing.
In October 1941, he stepped down as prime minister, and was replaced by Tōjō Hideki, who was convinced Japan could win the war China by expanding that unwinnable conflict to also oppose the world’s largest industrial power.
So, by December 1941—even before Japan attacked the United States—it was already struggling with the burdens of a huge war. And its economy was showing strains from massive deficit spending, including inflation, rationing, and shortages.
Konoe Argues for a Surrender to the United States
Even with a censored press, the public was starting to complain: weren’t we promised a decisive victory three years ago? And then two years ago? And then last year? By early 1944, Japan was running out of everything.
And so, when Konoe finally met with the emperor in February 1945, he argued that Japan had to consider surrendering to the United States because the alternative was catastrophic.
The Soviet Union, Konoe believed, would use the exhaustion and demoralization of the Japanese people to foment a communist coup. Japan would lose the war and the monarchy. Private business would disappear. Japan would become a Soviet satellite state, maybe something like Yugoslavia or Poland.
But Konoe—despite his aristocratic lineage—had lost his credibility. He had previously advised the emperor back in 1937 that Japan could defeat China with a decisive strike. So, in 1945, the emperor disregarded him, and sided with generals who insisted the war was still winnable.
Konoe was too prestigious to be arrested by the military police. He was, however, blocked from contacting the emperor again for the duration of the war.
Common Questions about Konoe Fumimaro’s Argument for Surrendering to the United States
Konoe Fumimaro was supposed to rein in the wilder elements in the military and forge a national consensus on economic and military mobilizations. He was supposed to keep everyone on the same page so that Japan would be ready to fight a major war in China at the end of the five-year plan, in about 1942.
Konoe Fumimaro was so convinced that he could pummel the Chinese Nationalist government into compliance that he broke off negotiations with the head of the government, Chiang Kai-shek, and set up a new government recognized only by Japan.
The Soviet Union, Konoe Fumimaro believed, would use the exhaustion and demoralization of the Japanese people to foment a communist coup. Japan would lose the war and the monarchy and would become a Soviet satellite state, maybe something like Yugoslavia or Poland.