In September 1940, Japan’s prime minister, Konoe Fumimaro, concluded the Tripartite Pact with Germany and Italy, committing the three countries to support each other against the United States in the event of American entry into World War II. By July 1941, Japan had occupied Indochina, and there were plans to press the advance into Hawaii if negotiations with the Americans failed. Though Konoe was not in office on December 7, 1941, he and his cabinets set the stage for the attack on Pearl Harbor and the beginning of the Pacific War.
While Prime Minister Konoe presided over Japan’s descent into war, his son—Prince Konoe “Butch” Fumitaka ‘38—led an unassuming life as a Princeton undergraduate. I became intrigued by Prince Konoe’s life when he was mentioned in passing during Professor Garon’s course on 20th Century Japan. Innumerable stories can be told of Princeton in the Nation’s Service during World War II, of graduates in high command and at Omaha Beach, and of all the Princeton alums who helped forge the post-war order. A story told less often is that of Konoe, who played a small, ultimately tragic part in grand affairs of state. That Princeton should play any great role in the lead-up to World War II is unsurprising; that one of those roles should involve Meiji-era oligarchs, our golf team, and the Lawrenceville School is just one of the odd quirks of history.
Prince Konoe was not the only Asian student on campus when he matriculated in 1934, but the occurrence was certainly rare. Yeiichi “Kelly” Kuwayama ’40, an Asian-American student who later served in the U.S. military and was credited with saving future Senator Daniel Inouye’s life in Italy, was one of two others. All three students were of Japanese descent. In fact, the first Asian students, admitted in the 1880s, were the children of Meiji genro (oligarchs), the Western-oriented ruling class that helped overthrow the Tokugawa Shogunate in 1868. Shortly after what is called the Meiji Restoration, a group of oligarchs and students took a diplomatic mission of the Western world, touring cities and universities, and taking note of the success of Western constitutions. They returned to Japan convinced of the need to modernize to compete with the West. The decision to ship the children of the genro off to Princeton is evidence of their zealousness.
When Konoe Fumimaro decided to send his own son to America—first to the Lawrenceville School, eight miles down Route 206 from Nassau Hall—he used the same rationale. At the time, Konoe was President of the Japanese House of Peers and rapidly ascending the Japanese political ladder. He wanted to assure his son’s success at an elite university and prepare him for a career in politics. Even a trip to Lawrenceville for Prince Konoe’s graduation served a double purpose for the elder Konoe. In addition to stopping by Lawrenceville, he also made numerous speeches seeking U.S. sympathy in the wake of the 1932 establishment of Manchukuo, a Japanese puppet state in northeastern China.
In 1937, Konoe Fumimaro became Prime Minister. One month later, Japanese and Chinese troops clashed on the Marco Polo Bridge. Within three weeks, the second Sino-Japanese War began. It would not end until 1945 and resulted in almost three million military casualties. Back at Princeton, Prince Konoe was asked to play the diligent diplomat, advocating on Japan’s behalf and engaging fellow students in Japan’s defense. On several occasions, he was called upon to carry his father’s messages to President Roosevelt. In a 1938 interview with the Daily Princetonian, he warned that the United States should stay out of the Asian dispute. His senior thesis, entitled “A Survey of the Sino-Japanese Political Relations In Modern History,” tracks Sino-Japanese relations from the late 19th century.
But diplomacy did not form the substance of Prince Konoe’s undergraduate education at Princeton. Rather, it was on the golf course that he truly shone, earning his varsity letter, captaining the team, and winning several regional tournaments. A telling photograph shows father and son at a golf tournament, the junior Konoe clad in a black sweater with a large “P” on the front, not unlike the Hillflint sweaters popular around campus now. Prince Konoe’s golfing prowess was so strong and his legacy so well established, that his adopted son remarked years later that he assumed Princeton to be country club, not a university.
Beyond this, “Butch” — a nickname earned early in his golf career — was one of the most popular students on campus. In a speech commemorating him in 1994, his brother-in-law described Prince Konoe as:
“a big man, [standing] almost six feet, and weigh[ing] about 175 pounds […] he had an infectious laugh and a radiant good humor that drew people to him. When he joined in, groups suddenly came to life. At every occasion, with every person, he treated everyone the same way, openly and directly. He was not concerned with the other’s status, but cared only about his humanity.”
In his various correspondences, the same character emerges. In the early years at Princeton, Konoe Fumimaro expressed concern about his son’s prodigality: rumors had emerged of partying and golf-playing, and a private secretary was sent from Tokyo to rein in young Fumitaka. In letters to his father, Prince Konoe defended himself, citing how few students actually sat around talking about politics. Instead, he argued, only by living amongst them and integrating himself within the community could serious conversation become possible. At the end of one letter, Prince Konoe begged his father to “trust me. Please believe that I am deeply aware of my responsibility and never forget it for a day.”
Of his recorded diplomatic efforts, only the thesis remains. Reading it, I found Konoe fulfilling his role admirably, albeit to an extremely small audience. Throughout, Konoe relies almost exclusively on Roy Hidemichi Akagi’s “Japan’s Foreign Relations, 1542-1936,” published a year earlier. Elsewhere, he alludes to interviews with Japanese politicians, conducted in New York City or in Princeton and undoubtedly set up by his father. In one instance, while arguing that “Japan has two objectives in China; to maintain her acquired rights in China and to safeguard herself against Communism,” Konoe even cites “the ideas [of] Prime Minister Konoe, expressed during July 15 — September 15, 1937.”
Despite the submission of his thesis, Konoe did not take his comprehensive exams and thus did not graduate from the University. In 1938, graduation and reunions looming, he was summoned back to Tokyo, where he was made private in the Japanese Army and shipped off to China. He would eventually ascend to the position of Lieutenant in the Kwantung Army. Prince Konoe survived the war against the Americans, which ended on August 14, 1945. But war against the Soviets had begun just a week earlier, and on August 19, he was captured by Soviet troops.
From here the life of Konoe Fumitaka rapidly deteriorated. In 1949, in return for his insistence on an officer’s right to refuse manual labor, he was sentenced to twenty-five years of forced labor for “aiding the international bourgeoisie.” For the next seven years he spent time in fifteen different camps across the Soviet Union. In October 1956 — mere days after Japan and the Soviet Union officially ended hostilities and normalized relations — Prince Konoe died. The official stated cause was a cerebral hemorrhage. However, documents exposed in 2000 reveal that he was likely killed for refusing to act as a Soviet spy. He died in Siberia, one of more than sixty thousand Japanese prisoners who succumbed to the horrors of the Gulag.
Looking back, the legacies of father and son could not be more different. After leaving office in 1941, the elder Konoe experienced a political change of heart and founded the Peace Party, which sought to end the war. His “Konoe Memorial” of 1945 implored the emperor to end the Pacific War, though it was flatly rejected. In December 1945, coming under increasing suspicion for war crimes, he committed suicide by potassium cyanide poisoning. Today, the Japanese view Prime Minister Konoe with deep ambivalence.
Meanwhile, Butch Konoe was remembered fondly within the Princeton community after his death. In 1980, Benjamin Coates ’39 established two semiannual scholarships in Konoe’s honor to fund Japanese high school students admitted to the University. Coates died in 2004, but the scholarships remain, albeit under a new name: “Benjamin Coates, Class of 1939, and Prince Fumitake Konoe, Class of 1938, Memorial Fund.”
It is strange, though, to compare the effect Butch evidently had on his classmates—as a loyal friend, a compassionate, uniting figure—and the fact that he fought on the opposite side from many of them during the war. Prince Konoe was one of three hundred fifty five Princetonians to die during World War II. How many of those died in the Pacific Theater, at Okinawa or in Guam? How many perished at Iwo Jima? How many studied and played alongside Butch Konoe one year and were then thrust rudely into battle against him the next?
At the dedication of World War II panels in Nassau Hall in 1949, President Harold Dodds said that “our obligation to the men we honor today, and to all their fellows who also made the same ultimate sacrifice, will not be discharged merely by wreaths of flowers…it will only be discharged as we remember them by our deeds; as we truly sustain the promise of the memorial for the fallen…we shall remember them.” On August 14, 1945, when victory over Japan was declared, the bell at Nassau Hall rang for three and a half consecutive hours. There was singing and dancing on Nassau Street, a confluence of town and gown unseen before and likely unheard of since.
And somewhere in Siberia, Konoe Fumitaka ’38 lived one of his last days of freedom before the long hell that awaited him. On that day, war against the United States was over, his father was still alive, and he was still a free man. All his meetings with President Roosevelt, all his campus advocacy, his senior thesis — their purpose was spent. Somewhere in Siberia, maybe Butch Konoe saw the end of the long road. Maybe he heard the songs, carried seven thousand miles from Nassau Hall, though he could not share in their jubilation.