Tokyo, Japan October 16, 1941

On this date in 1941 three-time Prime Minister of Japan Prince Fumimaro Konoe resigned from office. Konoe (also rendered Konoye) had lost the sup­port of cabi­net and Army minis­ter Gen. Hideki Tōjō, who called for a firmer line with the admin­is­tra­tion of Presi­dent Franklin D. Roose­velt over the U.S. ban on the export of scrap metal and the total em­bargo of oil and gaso­line exports to Japan. Over 80 per­cent of the island nation’s petro­leum needs were met through Amer­i­can im­ports, and the squeeze mea­sures reflected U.S. disgust with the aggressive expansion of Japan into China and Southeast Asia.

The month before, on September 6, the Im­perial Con­fer­ence (Gozen Kaigi), a body of civil­ian and mili­tary leaders who met with Emperor Hiro­hito (post­humously referred to as Emperor Shōwa) to obtain final approval for spe­cif­ic courses of action, had fixed an early Octo­ber dead­line for diplo­ma­tically resolving the Japa­nese-Amer­i­can crisis. If nego­ti­a­tions proved unsatis­fac­tory by mid-October, Japan would com­mence hos­til­i­ties against the United States, the Nether­lands, and Great Britain—all states with sub­stan­tial terri­torial and mineral holdings in Japan’s overseas backyard.

On October 14 the deadline came and went. Prime Minis­ter Konoe’s olive branch to Wash­ing­ton, which included with­drawing Japa­nese troops from China to im­prove rela­tions, split his cabi­net down the civil­ian-mili­tary fault line. Tōjō argued in favor of vastly expanding the grueling war with China—the Second Sino-Japa­nese War, which Japan had launched in mid-1937. He pos­tu­lated that a with­drawal from con­quered Chinese terri­tory and the Japa­nese pro­tec­tor­ate of French Indo­china, declared on July 25, 1941, to Roose­velt’s enor­mous cha­grin, would undo the gains of the past four years and endanger Japa­nese con­trol of its Man­chu­rian pup­pet state, Man­chu­kuo (seized in 1931), and its Korean pro­tec­tor­ate (declared in 1910).

The day after Konoe’s resignation, Octo­ber 17, Tōjō assumed the post of prime minis­ter at the head of a thor­oughly mili­tary-domi­nated govern­ment. Early the next month, on Novem­ber 3, U.S. Am­bas­sador to Tokyo Joseph Grew cabled Wash­ing­ton that Japan “might resort with dan­ger­ous and drama­tic sudden­ness to mea­sures that might make inevi­ta­ble war with the United States.” That same day Japan’s mili­tary com­mand, with Hiro­hito’s con­sent, approved Adm. Isoroku Yama­moto’s planned attack on the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The plan of attack and the intensive training behind it has been in the works since early 1941.

Japanese Prime Minister Fumimaro Konoe, 1891–1945

Fumimaro Konoe and cabinet ministers, July 1940 Fumimaro Konoe and Hideki Tōjō

Left: Cabinet ministers in Fumimaro Konoe’s second cabi­net (July 22, 1940, to Octo­ber 18, 1941). In this photo taken on inaugura­tion day, the charismatic and well-connected war minis­ter and future prime minis­ter Army Gen. Hideki Tōjō (1884–1948) is second from left in the second row. Konoe resigned seven weeks before the attack on Pearl Harbor when he lost the poli­tical sup­port of both the Army and Navy ser­vice branches in their head­long rush to war with the U.S., Great Britain, and the Netherlands.

Right: On July 22, 1940, Tōjō was appointed Army minis­ter in the second Konoe cabi­net and remained in that post in the third (back-to-back) Konoe cabi­net. Years earlier, between 1932 and 1934, the scrawny, owlish Tōjō had com­manded the Kwan­tung Army, the largest and most pres­tigious com­mand in the Imperial Japa­nese Army. The Kwan­tung Army was largely respon­si­ble for the crea­tion of the Japa­nese pup­pet state of Man­chu­kuo in North­east China. Poli­tically, Tōjō was a fascist, nation­alist, and mili­tarist, and was nick­named “Razor” for his rep­u­ta­tion for a sharp, legalistic mind capable of making quick decisions.

Fumimaro Konoe in postwar Higashikuni cabinet Fumimaro Konoe’s corpse, December 1945

Left: As prime minister in the lead-up to Japan entering World War II, Konoe also played a role in the lead-up to Prime Minis­ter Tōjō’s resignation in July 1944 after the Amer­i­cans cap­tured the Pacific island of Sai­pan in the Mari­anas. The next year Konoe served in the first post­war cabi­net of Prince Naruhiko Higashi­kuni (shown here in this news­paper photo­graph) from August 17 to Octo­ber 9, 1945. Konoe is the fourth person on the right in the second row.

Right: A coroner from the American occu­pa­tion force in Japan per­forms a post­mortem on Konoe on Decem­ber 17, 1945. The 54-year-old Konoe had refused to col­labo­rate with Gen. Douglas Mac­Arthur and the Amer­i­can occupa­tion force in their efforts (as part of Opera­tion Black­list) to exon­er­ate Em­peror Hiro­hito and the imperial family of crimi­nal respon­si­bility leading up to and during the Asia Pacific War. Konoe thus came under sus­pi­cion of war crimes himself. In Decem­ber 1945, during the last call by U.S. autho­ri­ties for alleged war crimi­nals to turn themselves in, he committed suicide on December 16, 1945.

Silent News Clips From 1930s and 40s of Emperor Hirohito