Saionji Kimmochi (1849-1940) was the 12th and 14th prime minister of Japan (and actually served a third time provisionally) and was the last of the Meiji oligarchs who created the modern Japanese state and directed its policies for over six decades before finally dying off, or growing too old to enforce their will, in the case of Saionji.
Born into an ancient noble family in Kyoto in 1840, Saionji was a childhood playmate of the future emperor Meiji and the two remained close friends for the rest of their lives. As a young man, Saionji was part of a proactive Imperial faction which urged the Emperor to play an active role in the Meiji Restoration and ensuing Boshin War.
After the establishment of the new Imperial state, Saionji rose quickly in politics, largely as a result of his closeness to the Emperor. He was assigned to a series of regional governorships, and was later sent on a mission to France, where he remained for 10 years, absorbing liberal values. In Paris, he met up with one of the senior oligarchs, Ito Hirobumi, who was there to study European constitutions, and the two became fast friends. Thenceforth Saionji became Ito's protégé, and in return Ito used his influence to advance Saionji's career.
In 1900, Ito formed Japan's first successful political party, the Seiyukai, which Saionji naturally joined and promoted. The next decade witnessed a battle between Ito's faction, which sought to advance party government at the expense of the bureaucracy and the army, and the faction of Ito's great rival Yamagata Aritomo, which sought to diminish party power and buttress oligarchic rule. While Ito and Yamagata plotted behind the scenes, the struggle was waged via proxy as Ito's protégé Saionji and Yamagata's protégé Katsura Taro traded the prime ministership back and forth six times between them between 1901 and 1912.
However, with Ito's assassination at the hands of a Korean nationalist in 1909, the Yamagata faction gained supremacy, and Saionji was more or less forced out of politics in 1912. Saionji spent the next decade in a retirement of sorts, although he was called upon to lead the Japanese delegation to the Versailles Peace Conference in 1919.
Finally, Yamagata passed away in 1922 and Saionji was thrust back into power as the last living oligarch. In his role as the sole surviving member of the genro - the informal council of "elder statesmen" who "advised" the emperor - no one could be made prime minister without Saionji's tacit approval. However, as a longtime friend of the parties, Saionji ruled with a gentle hand, presiding over the most liberal age Japan had ever known - a flowering of popular government known as "Taisho Democracy" - and only rarely stepping in to thwart the parties when he felt they overstepped their bounds.
Meanwhile, Saionji did everything in his ability to limit the growing power of the military, but his efforts increasingly went for naught. As the last of the oligarchs he was isolated, his special access to the Emperor was rendered less useful because the Taisho emperor was an imbecile, and furthermore Saionji lacked the allies in the bureaucracy and military that Yamagata had so carefully cultivated.
In the early 1930s several attempts were made on Saionji's life by right-wing ultra-nationalists who resented his obstruction of military power, and meanwhile the military inexorably strengthened its influence on government policy. Finally, in 1932 Saionji was unable to single-handedly hold back the tide any longer, and reluctantly signed off on the prime ministership of Navy Admiral Saito Makoto, bringing the era of popularly elected party government to a close and inaugurating 15 years of increasingly disastrous military rule. Saionji retired to his modest cottage in Okitsu, passing away on the eve of war with the West in 1940.
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