Kinmochi was born in Kyoto as the son of Udaijin Tokudaiji Kin'ito (1821–1883), head of a kuge family of court nobility. He was adopted by another kuge family, the Saionji, in 1851. However, he grew up near his biological parents, since both the Tokudaiji and Saionji lived very near the Kyoto Imperial Palace. The young Saionji Kinmochi was frequently ordered to visit the palace as a playmate of the young prince who later became Emperor Meiji. Over time they became close friends. Kinmochi's biological brother Tokudaiji Sanetsune later became the Grand Chamberlain of Japan. Another younger brother was adopted into the very wealthy Sumitomo family and as Sumitomo Kichizaemon became the head of the Sumitomo zaibatsu. Sumitomo money largely financed Saionji's political career. His close relationship to the Imperial Court opened all doors to him. In his later political life, he was an influence on both the Taishō and Shōwa emperors.
As the heir of a noble family, Saionji participated in politics from an early age and was known for his brilliant talent. He took part in the climactic event of his time, the Boshin War, the revolution in Japan of 1867 and 1868, which overthrew the Tokugawa shogunate and installed the young Emperor Meiji as the (nominal) head of the government. Some noblemen at the Imperial Court considered the war to be a private dispute of the samurai of Satsuma and Chōshū against those of the Tokugawa. Saionji held the strong opinion that the nobles of the Imperial Court should seize the initiative and take part in the war. He participated in various battles as an imperial representative.
One of his first encounters involved taking Kameoka Castle without a fight. The next encounter was at Sasayama Castle. Several hundred Samurai from both sides met on the road nearby, but the defenders immediately surrendered. Then Fukuchiyama surrendered without a fight. By this time he had acquired an Imperial banner made by Iwakura Tomomi, featuring a sun and moon on a red field. Other Samurai did not want to attack the army with the imperial banner, and readily deserted the Shogun. After two weeks Saionji reached Kitsuki, and following another bloodless encounter, Saionji returned to by ship to Osaka. Matters did eventually come to an end at Nagaoka Castle. However, Saionji was relieved from command in the actual battle and appointed governor of Echigo.
After the Meiji Restoration, Saionji resigned. With the support of Ōmura Masujirō he studied French in Tokyo. He left Japan on the SS Costa Rica with a group of thirty other Japanese students sailing to San Francisco. He traveled on to Washington, D.C. where he met Ulysses Grant, President of the United States of America. He then crossed the Atlantic, spent 13 days in London sightseeing, before finally arriving in Paris on May 27, 1871. Paris was in the turmoil of the Commune, and Paris was not safe for Saionji - indeed his tutor was shot when they stumbled upon a street battle. Saionji went to Switzerland and Nice, before settling in Marseilles where he learned French with the accent of that city. He made his way to Paris following the suppression of the Commune. He studied law at the University of Paris and became involved with Émile Acollas, who had set up the Acollas Law School for foreign students studying law in Paris. These were the early years of the Third Republic, a time of high idealism in France. Saionji arrived in France with highly reactionary views but he was influenced by Acollas (a former member of the League of Peace and Freedom) and became the most liberal of Japanese major political figures of his generation. When the Iwakura Mission visited Paris in 1872, Iwakura was quite worried about the radicalism of Saionji and other Japanese students. He made many acquaintances in France, including Franz Liszt, the Goncourt brothers, and fellow Sorbonne student Georges Clemenceau.
On his return to Japan, he founded the Ritsumeikan University in 1869 and Meiji Law School, which later evolved into Meiji University in 1880.
In 1882, Itō Hirobumi visited Europe in order to research the constitutional systems of each major European country, and he asked Saionji to accompany him, as they knew each other very well. After the trip, he was appointed ambassador to Austria-Hungary, and later to Germany and Belgium.
Returning to Japan, Saionji joined the Privy Council, and served as president of the House of Peers. He also served as Minister of Education in the 2nd and 3rd Itō administrations (1892–1893, 1898) and 2nd Matsukata administration. During his tenure, he strove to improve the quality of the educational curriculum towards an international (i.e. western) standard.
In 1900, Itō founded the Rikken Seiyūkai political party, and Saionji joined as one of the first members. Due to his experiences in Europe, Saionji had a liberal political point of view and supported parliamentary government. He was one of the few early politicians who claimed that the majority party in parliament had to be the basis for forming a cabinet.
Saionji became president of the Privy Council in August 1900, and president of the Rikken Seiyūkai in 1903.
From January 7, 1906, to July 14, 1908, and again from August 30, 1911, to December 21, 1912, Saionji served as Prime Minister of Japan.
Both his ministries were marked by continuing tension between Saionji and the powerful arch-conservative genrō, Field Marshal Yamagata Aritomo. Saionji and Itō saw political parties as a useful part of the machinery of government; Yamagata looked on political parties and all democratic institutions as quarrelsome, corrupt, and irrational.
Saionji had to struggle with the national budget with many demands and finite resources, Yamagata sought ceaselessly the greatest expansion of the army. Saionji's first cabinet was brought down in 1908 by conservatives led by Yamagata who were alarmed at the growth of socialism, who felt the government's suppression of socialists (after a parade and riots) had been insufficiently forceful.
The fall of Saionji's second cabinet was a major reverse to constitutional government. The Taishō Crisis (so named for the newly enthroned emperor) erupted in late November 1912, out of the continuing bitter dispute over the military budget. The army minister, General Uehara, unable to get the cabinet to agree on the army's demands, resigned. Saionji sought to replace Uehara.
A Japanese law (intended to give added power to the army and navy) required that the army minister must be a lieutenant general or general on active duty. All of the eligible generals, on Yamagata's instruction, refused to serve in Saionji's cabinet. The cabinet was then forced to resign. The precedent had been established that the army could force the resignation of a cabinet.
Saionji's political philosophy was heavily influenced by his background; he believed the Imperial Court should be guarded and that it should not participate directly in politics: the same strategy employed by noblemen and the Court in Kyoto for hundreds of years. This was another point in which he was opposed by nationalists in the Army, who wished for the Emperor to participate in Japanese politics directly and thus weaken both parliament and the cabinet. Nationalists also accused him of being a "globalist".
Saionji was appointed a genrō in 1913. The role of the genrō at this time was diminishing; their main function was to choose the prime ministers – formally, to nominate candidates for Prime Minister to the Emperor for approval, but no Emperor ever rejected their advice. From the death of Matsukata Masayoshi in 1924 Saionji was the sole surviving genrō. He exercised his prerogative of naming the prime ministers very nearly until his death in 1940 at the age of 91. Saionji, when he could, chose as prime minister the president of the majority party in the Diet, but his power was always constrained by the necessity of at least the tacit consent of the army and navy. He could choose political leaders only when they might be strong enough to form an effective government. He nominated military men and non-party politicians when he felt necessary.
In 1919 Saionji led the Japanese delegation at the Paris Peace Conference, though his role was largely symbolic due to ill health. Nevertheless, he courageously proposed that racial equality should have been legally enshrined as one of the basic tenets of the newly formed League of Nations, but both the USA and Great Britain opposed his proposal and prompted its rejection from the delegates, very likely because of the destabilizing effects it would have wreaked upon their respective racially segregated societies. Saionji, a never-married man of 70, was accompanied to Paris by his son, his favorite daughter, and his current mistress. In 1920 he was given the title kōshaku (公爵, Prince) as an honor for a life in public service.
He was detested by the militarists and was on the list of those to be assassinated in the attempted coup of February 26, 1936. Upon receiving news of the mutiny, Saionji fled in his car but was pursued for a great distance by a suspicious vehicle that he and his companions supposed held soldiers bent on his murder. In actuality, it held newspaper reporters.
In much of his career, Saionji tried to diminish the influence of the Imperial Japanese Army in political issues. He was one of the most liberal of Emperor Hirohito's advisors, and favored friendly relations with Great Britain and the United States. However, he was careful to pick his battles, and would concede defeat when he knew he could not win (e.g. his inability to prevent the Tripartite Pact).
From the corresponding article in the Japanese WikipediaMarquess (July 7, 1884)
Prince (September 7, 1920)
Third Class of the Order of the Rising Sun (March 11, 1882)
Grand Cordon of the Order of the Sacred Treasure (June 21, 1895)
Grand Cordon of the Order of the Rising Sun (June 5, 1896)
Grand Cordon of the Order of the Paulownia Flowers (September 14, 1907)
Grand Cordon of the Order of the Chrysanthemum (December 21, 1918)
Collar of the Order of the Chrysanthemum (November 10, 1928)
Knight Grand Cross of the Order of Pius IX (February 25, 1888)
Knight First Class of the Order of the Iron Crown (May 9, 1888)
Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Netherlands Lion (March 16, 1891)
1st Class of the Order of the Red Eagle (October 15, 1891)
First Class of the Order of the Medjidie (March 8, 1894)
Order of the White Eagle (March 17, 1896)
Grand Cross of the Order of Charles III (November 10, 1896)
Honorary Knight Grand Cross of the Order of St. Michael and St. George (GCMG) (February 20, 1906)
Grand Cross of the Legion of Honour (October 23, 1907)
Order of St. Alexander Nevsky (October 30, 1907)
Junior First Rank (November 25, 1940; posthumous)
Senior second rank (December 20, 1898)
Second rank (December 11, 1893)
Senior third rank (December 19, 1878; restored)
Senior third rank (5 of 7th month 1862; relinquished 3rd of 7th 1869)
Third rank (April 25, 1861)
Senior fourth rank, junior grade (February 5, 1856)
Fourth rank, senior grade (January 22, 1855)
Fourth rank, junior grade (January 22, 1854)
Senior fifth rank, junior grade (January 21, 1853)
Fifth rank, senior grade (December 27, 1852)
Fifth rank, junior grade (early 1852)