The Ambassador in Japan (Grew) to the Secretary of State

No. 4917

Sir: I have the honor to report on an innovation of fundamental importance which has recently taken place in the political machinery whereby the prime ministers of Japan are chosen. The innovation, in short, consists of the substitution of a new advisory body in place of the old institution known as the Genro.

This report is partly in the nature of a digest of an able article entitled “Japan’s New Genro” by Dr. C. H. Spinks which appeared in the July issue of Contemporary Japan.

Prince Saionji is the only surviving member of a group of imperial counselors which appeared shortly after the Japanese Constitution was promulgated in 1889. This group, known as the Genro or elder statesmen, was composed of leaders of the post-restoration period who had been recognized by the Emperor as having rendered exceptional services to the state. Without constitutional status, the Genro formed a body which was called upon by the Emperor to choose the head of each new government. Through the exercise of this function, the [Page 970] Genro was able to exert a strong influence over the policies and affairs of each ministry.

In the early years of constitutional government the influence of the Genro was strongly conservative, but with the death of the military and more reactionary members of the group the liberal influence, typified by Prince Saionji, became paramount. Prince Saionji was a firm believer in party government, and during the decade before 1932 it was his practice to choose as premier the president of the majority party or, in case of the latter’s resignation, the president of the largest minority party in the Diet. Until the revolutionary events of 1932 it was generally believed that this system had become so well entrenched that after Prince Saionji’s death the machinery would function entirely upon a party basis without the intervention of extra-constitutional advisers.

Four factors, partially interrelated, may be regarded as having prevented the system sponsored by Prince Saionji from taking permanent root. The first was the ineptitude and corruptness of party politics; the second was the economic depression which settled upon Japan after the bank crisis of 1927; the third was the outbreak of a series of political assassinations culminating in the affair of May 15, 1932;27 and the fourth was the “Manchurian incident” which may be regarded as an expression of military dissatisfaction with the foreign and domestic policies of the civil administration. These factors led to the downfall of liberalism in Japan and ushered in the present era of reaction.

The assassination of Premier Inukai in the May 15th affair may be regarded as a turning point in the Japanese system of government. Since that occasion it has been necessary in the selection of prime ministers to give consideration to the new forces of reaction against parliamentary institutions and party government, and it has been Prince Saionji’s increasingly difficult task to select men who could placate the reactionary elements but who at the same time could hold those elements in check. The result has been a complete abandonment of the system of party government. With the appointment of Admiral Saito in 1932 until the present, the prime ministers have without exception been non-party bureaucrats, for the most part military or naval men.

With the change in the type of governments has come an equally significant change in the procedure whereby the prime ministers are chosen. The abandonment of the system of party governments was, of course, a blow to the prestige as well as the hopes of Prince Saionji, who was the principal sponsor of that system. Since the assassination of Premier Inukai in the May 15th affair, Prince Saionji has not [Page 971] attempted to choose a new prime minister without consultation with other leaders. On the occasion of the selection of Admiral Saito in 1932, Prince Saionji came to Tokyo from his home in Okitsu to hold conferences with all the former prime ministers, the president of the Privy Council, the Lord Privy Seal, and the War and Navy ministers, before reporting to the Throne. When the Saito cabinet fell in 1934, conferences were again held with the retiring premier, the Lord Privy Seal, the president of the Privy Council, and the former prime ministers. Significantly enough, in this case no conferences were held with the War and Navy ministers. It is generally believed that Prince Saionji sought to establish a precedent by these meetings, aiming at the creation of an official body which might take over the Genro’s important function of choosing premiers.

The next step in the changing process of selection of prime ministers took place in 1937 after the outbreak of the China incident. The Hiranuma, Abe, and Yonai cabinets all came into being after political conferences in Tokyo, while Prince Saionji remained at his Okitsu villa and was kept informed of the proceedings by his private secretary. In this manner, partly because of Prince Saionji’s advancing age and feebleness, and partly because of political tension which has continually accompanied the bureaucratic cabinet regime since 1932 and especially since the war with China, there has developed what virtually amounts to a new Genro, or group of advisers, for the selection of prime ministers. This new body is gradually taking over the functions which, until 1932, had been regarded as Saionji’s exclusive prerogative.

From observation of the men who have shared in the responsibility for the formation of new cabinets since 1932, it is possible to determine with some accuracy the composition of this new Genro to which the name “Jushin” or “most important retainers” is becoming commonly applied. The Lord Privy Seal, at present Marquis Koichi Kido, commands foremost attention. He is an officer of ministerial rank appointed by the Emperor, and as the first man to be consulted by the Emperor in every cabinet change may be regarded as key man in this new group of advisers. After him come the president of the Privy Council, now Dr. Yoshimichi Hara, and all former prime ministers. Those living at present are Baron Wakatsuki, Admiral Okada, Mr. Hirota, General Hayashi, Prince Konoye, Baron Hiranuma, General Abe, and Admiral Yonai. These men form the body which on recent occasions has been called together by the Lord Privy Seal to deliberate on the choice of a new premier, but in view of the important position in Japan of the Army and Navy, high officers of these services, particularly the War and Navy ministers of the outgoing [Page 972] cabinet, play an important role in the new system of Genro. Although the military services are not directly represented on the “Jushin” council, their opinion and consent has been obtained in every instance since the outbreak of military violence of February 26, 1936, which made plain the importance of military cooperation with the civil government.

The gradual evolution of this new type of Genro may have far-reaching results on future Japanese political development. Unlike the old Genro, which is destined to vanish with Saionji’s death and which has even now lost its principal function, this new body, by virtue of its peculiar membership, is permanent. It had been generally assumed that with the passing of Prince Saionji the Genro as an institution would also pass. This might have been the case if the party cabinet system had not been overthrown in the stress of events following the incident of May 15, 1932, and if these events had not brought about a revulsion against liberal institutions.

It should be remembered that the party cabinet system, as it had developed and as it existed prior to 1932, was a distinctly new phenomenon in government and one which had not yet struck roots deep into the political soil of Japan. Through their long history the Japanese as a rule have displayed an Oriental partiality for paternal advisers. They are found not only in the political but also in the business world as well, and even in family affairs the ostensible head of a household is frequently dependent upon an “inkyo”, the former head, who has withdrawn into retirement. Such Genro-like advisers in government are historically compatible with Japanese political reasoning, and the Japanese mind, steeped for centuries in the adviser tradition, is decidedly reluctant to accept any political system in which such important decisions as the choosing of the head of a cabinet are left to such uncontrollable forces as political parties or public opinion. Regardless of the extent to which the May 15 incident changed the course of political development in Japan, the party cabinet system was, after all, an alien institution which had never been fully acclimated to the peculiar Japanese environment. On the other hand, the original Genro, of which Prince Saionji is the last representative, and the new Genro or “Jushin” council, which is now crystalizing as an institution, are infinitely truer to Japanese tradition.

It may be added that the appearance of this new Genro in an era of bureaucratic cabinets is a vivid reflection of the vast changes which have come over Japan’s political complexion. When party cabinets were in vogue, public opinion, working through the parties and the Diet, played a small but growing part in the choice of premiers and in the determination of policies. Today this manifestation of public [Page 973] opinion, which was generally on the side of liberalism, has been largely submerged while the reactionary elements in the nation have been accorded a stronger position. Not the least reason for this change is the fact that the new institution assuming responsibility for the selection of prime ministers is composed to a considerable extent of men who hold views in sympathy with the reactionary, anti-liberal forces in the country. While the new Genro is by no means the tool of the reactionaries and although it contains elements which may at least be termed independent, yet its views are very different from those prevailing during the liberal and democratic decade of Prince Saionji’s preeminence as the Emperor’s adviser.

Respectfully yours,

Joseph C. Grew