Trần Trọng Kim (1883 – December 2, 1953), courtesy name Lệ Thần, was a Vietnamese scholar and politician who served as the Prime Minister of the short-lived Empire of Vietnam, a state established with the support of Imperial Japan in 1945. This came after Japan had seized direct control of Vietnam from the Vichy French colonial forces during the Second World War. He was an uncle of Bui Diem.
Kim was born in Dan Pho, Hà Tĩnh Province in northern central Vietnam in 1883. At the time, French Indochina had just been formed after the colonization of Vietnam, and Hà Tĩnh was part of the central region, which had been become a French protectorate under the name of Annam. In the immediate decade afterwards, the province was the scene of a guerrilla movement led by Phan Đình Phùng that attempted to expel the French authorities. This movement was particularly popular in the Nghệ An-Hà Tĩnh region, which had boasted a long line of nationalist icons.
Nevertheless, the movement was crushed; and when Kim grew up, he initially studied in Hanoi at schools reserved for the ruling elite. He then worked in the public service of the French administration. Kim's early career was as an interpreter, serving in Ninh Bình in northern Vietnam, which was known as the protectorate of Tonkin. In 1905, Kim was sent to France as an employee of a private company. In 1908, he won a scholarship from the École Coloniale (Colonial School) to begin his training as a teacher at the École Normale of Melun (Seine-et-Marne). Kim returned to Vietnam in September 1911, commenced his career as a teacher in Annam, and slowly rose in the educational hierarchy. By 1942, he had risen to become an inspector of elementary public instruction in Tonkin. He wrote many works on pedagogy and also started a review on the topic. Kim was also a freemason.
In contrast to his low-key career as an education official, Kim was widely known as a scholar for a collection of textbooks published in Romanized Vietnamese (quốc ngữ), especially for his writings on Confucianism, Buddhism, and Vietnamese history.
His two best known works were Việt Nam sử lược (A Brief history of Vietnam), published in 1920, and Nho giáo (Confucianism), published in 1929–1933. In the first book, Kim emphasised the Chinese influence on Vietnamese society. The latter book dealt with examining Confucianism in China and its impact on Vietnam. Kim strongly praised Confucianism, and his book provoked much intellectual debate on the philosophy's place in Vietnamese society. Nho giáo was seen as a link between the generations of scholars who were brought up under the Confucian examination system of pre-French Vietnam and those who grew up under the French system. Việt Nam Sử Lược remains in print as of 2009.
Due to his reputation in literary circles, Kim was a leading figure in the Buddhist and Confucian associations, and in 1939 he was appointed to the Chamber of People's Representatives in Tonkin. He was made a chevalier of the Legion of Honour and listed in a French publication in 1943 that profiled prominent figures in French Indochina.
After the outbreak of the Second World War, Japan continued its military conquest of Asia. It invaded and annexed Indochina into its Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere in 1940-1941. As France had fallen to Nazi Germany, the colonial administration in Vietnam of Admiral Jean Decoux was loyal to the Axis collaborationist Vichy France of Marshal Philippe Pétain. As Vichy France was nominally allied to Japan, the French administration was left in charge of the day-to-day affairs of French Indochina, with the Japanese overseeing them.
In the early 20th century, Japan was also seen by many Vietnamese as a promoter of Asian nationalism, and many Vietnamese nationalists had travelled to Japan in an attempt to further the Vietnamese independence movement. During the period, Kim was approached by several Japanese experts in Vietnamese studies. These contacts, together with his ties to a progressive organisation in Hanoi, made Kim politically suspect to the Decoux administration. When Decoux implemented his second major purge of pro-Japanese Vietnamese in the autumn of 1943, Kim was reported to be on the list of the Sûreté (Criminal Investigation Department). On October 28, 1943, Japanese agents escorted Kim to the Kempeitai (military police) office in Hanoi and put him under protection. There, Kim was joined by Duong Ba Trac, a co-editor on a dictionary that was currently being written. According to Kim's account, Trac persuaded him to co-sign a letter applying for an evacuation to Singapore. At the beginning of November, the Japanese escorted them to Saigon. After briefly living at the Kempeitai office, they became the guests of Dai Nan Koosi, a Japanese business firm owned by Matsushita Mitsuhiro, which was known as a front for intelligence operations.
On January 1, 1944, Kim and Trac boarded a Japanese vessel headed for Singapore. According to Ellen Hammer, the French threat to Kim appeared "to have been a wholly illusory French menace". After spending just over a year on the island, and following Trac's death from lung cancer in December 1944, Kim was transferred to Bangkok. Three months later, on March 30, 1945, he was unexpectedly recalled to Saigon by the Japanese to be consulted on "history". This came after Captain Michio Kuga from the Japanese Army's liaison office in Saigon was flown to Bangkok for talks.
By this stage, the Liberation of Paris in August 1944 and the fall of Vichy France meant that Japan could no longer depend on the French colonial administration to cooperate. As a result, they assumed direct control of Indochina by deposing the French in a coup on March 9, and declared Vietnam to be independent under the newly created Empire of Vietnam with Bảo Đại, who was Vietnam's titular monarch, as its head of state. Japan however, maintained military control. Bảo Đại was then charged with selecting a prime minister and a cabinet. It was believed that Bảo Đại sent a message to Ngô Đình Diệm, who was then living under Japanese protection in Saigon, asking him to form a government. However, the message never arrived, and this was put down to Japanese concerns that Diệm would seek to govern independently rather than toe the Japanese line.
Arriving in Saigon, he met with General Saburo Kawamura, Chief of Staff of the Japanese Indochina Garrison Army, and Lieutenant Colonel Hayashi Hidezumi, Kawamura's chief of political affairs. Kawamura told Kim that he was one of the "notables" invited by Emperor Bảo Đại to consult in Huế on the creation of the new independent government. During this time, Kim also met with Diệm for the first time, finding out that he had not been included on the Japanese shortlist.
According to his own account, Kim accepted the invitation to talk with Bảo Đại because Hoàng Xuân Hãn, a young friend, was also on the emperor's list. Kim departed Saigon on April 2, and arrived in Huế three days later. On April 7, Bảo Đại held a personal meeting with Kim, and at first Kim refused to accept the prime ministerial post. Kim said that he was too old, was an independent with no political party infrastructure, as well as his lack of prior involvement in politics. However, Kim prolonged his stay for further negotiations and finally agreed to form a new government on April 16. The following day, Kim submitted his proposed cabinet consisting of ten ministers. With the exception of one nominee who refused his cabinet post, the others arrived in the capital by late April or early May to take office).
Most of his cabinet members had been trained in French schools but were regarded as nationalists although they were not regarded as anti-French. The cabinet (vi) included Phan Anh as minister of youth. Kim's regime was quickly endorsed by the Đại Việt Quốc dân đảng and the Việt Nam Phục quốc Đồng minh Hội (vi), two nationalist political parties. The Phuc Quoc were connected to Phan Bội Châu and Cường Để, two leading anti-colonial activists from the early 20th century who championed cooperation with Japan and pan-Asianism to expel French colonialism.
Kim only had the chance to rule for five months, and most of his policies were not implemented before the Viet Minh seized power following the Japanese collapse at the end of the Second World War. After his government collapsed, Kim returned to his research and academic work.
Kim's actions have caused a debate as to whether he was a Japanese puppet. Milton Sacks and John T. McAlister regard him as such, although others, such as Trương Bửu Lâm, regard Kim and his cabinet as a group of apolitical technocrats.